Daring to cross the border

To celebrate the first anniversary of Sussex Bylines’ inaugural issue, we asked some of our key contributors to write a short piece on the subject of “What Sussex Means to Me”. From memories of being a student at the newly built Sussex University in the sixties while living in shabby digs in Brighton, to the enduring ancient magic of bonfire night in Lewes, our writers have submitted a wonderfully eclectic mix of mini personal essays…

Above: 14th century Bodiam Castle stands on the Sussex-Kent border. Photo of “Bodiam castle – 7” by tps58 is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Born and brought up in Kent

Born in Beckenham, Kent in the 1950s, before it became assimilated into the South London sprawl; subsequently moving to Tunbridge Wells — my parents’ hasty retreat to that commuter haven prompted by our unadopted streets being tarmacked, making it clear that, beyond all doubt, they now lived in London; it was always impressed upon me that I was Kentish. 

I was inordinately proud when my Dad told me that Tunbridge Wells had refused to allow itself to be moved into East Sussex as part of the 1970s boundary changes.  But we were still perilously near the border and many of my new classmates were from the “other side”, from the rural fastness that was definitely not one of the “home counties”!

Coming of age in Sussex

Sussex represented everything exotic and mysterious to a child brought up within easy reach of train stations like London’s Victoria. Being invited for a picnic on the Ashdown Forest and discovering that it was the 100 Acre Wood was thrilling; equally exciting were teenage parties in villages beyond reach of any form of public transport, or attending pop concerts in edgy, glamorous Brighton, with the inherent risk of not making it home (as there was no longer a direct rail link) adding to the exhilaration. 

Leaving for university in Exeter, followed by a job in London, then marriage and children, meant that, for many years, visits to Sussex were few and far between, as we mostly ventured no further from the capital than weekends with my parents, still in Tunbridge Wells. 

Our escape (back) to the country

But Sussex had not finished with me and, having a husband from Devon who loved the countryside and the sea, I agreed to move out of London when he retired.  Kent was too tame for him and Devon too far for me, but Sussex by the sea was the ideal compromise. 

Lewes, an ancient town nestled in the Ouse valley by the South Downs, barely seven miles from the sea, yet still with a direct rail connection to London, seemed perfect for both of us.  For my other half it was the fulfillment of a lifelong dream to escape to the country, and for me it was the relief of seeing him happier than I could remember.

Strange sea frets & starry nights

However, admitting with due humility to being the ‘down from Londoner’ that I am, there is still the same sense of otherness that I experienced when young. 

The constantly changing light and shadow on the Downs and the strange sea fret that sometimes engulfs them; the dark nights so starry that it’s like a glimpse to the furthest reaches of the galaxy; and the quiet – apart from the cries of unknown small creatures which I still cannot identify – have all disturbed and entranced me. 

Enemies of the Bonfire

Martyrs Crosses at Lewes Bonfire; Photograph © Andrew Dunn CC BY-SA 2.0

If the natural world was a contrast to London, then so were the Lewesians, Sussex born and determined not to ‘be druv’!  This finds reflection in the infamous Fifth of November bonfires, a far cry from those organized in London parks. I’ll never forget that first time when I gazed in near hysteria at marchers carrying their burning crosses, their effigies of the “enemies of the bonfire”, and pondered their nonchalance with firecrackers and guttering torches.    

But five years later, Sussex is definitely now home – a place where we have made new friends; got involved in local stuff; worked in a garden that we could only have dreamt about in London; and where we literally still cannot believe our stunning view of the South Downs.

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