Any non-Brit reading this blog might think I’m obsessed with Sussex, as it crops up again and again to represent the UK in my travels. Well the truth is pretty simple: it’s an idyllic part of England, above all in spring and early summer, and it’s not that far from London. You could add a third, that a decade or so ago I actually lived there on an unscheduled break-out from London.
Last weekend I was back, this time to sample the Charleston Festival, a literary binge in the beautiful grounds of that 1920s-1960s hothouse of art, crafts, literature and bi-sexualism.
I still get a huge lift from the Sussex countryside, its winding lanes flanked by high hedgerows or roads meandering through soaring tunnels of trees, the startling lime-green of the landscape, wildflowers, buzzing bees, cuckoo trails, woolly sheep, stone churches, old country pubs and gently rolling Sussex Downs on the horizon. You can easily get lost in the Sussex Weald, to the north, where maps (even Google) somehow don’t match the reality of the narrow twisting roads (and no, I don’t use GPS as the most rewarding travel is often about following one’s nose without any specific destination).
But Charleston is further south, hidden down a pitted side-lane in the lee of the Downs, with the elegant town of Lewes only 15 minutes away. The golden triangle extends to Glyndebourne and its opera picnics as well as the picture-book village of Firle (where Virginia Woolf lived when she spotted the potential of Charleston for her sister, roughly 1915) and its curious self-governing parish – still going strong.
The old farmhouse (above) has been preserved in aspic ever since the last trailblazing inhabitant, Duncan Grant, died in 1978, well over a decade after his lifelong partner, Vanessa Bell (Virginia Woolf’s sister) and her husband, the art critic Clive Bell. All very incestuous of course, but that was the beauty of the talented and liberated Bloomsbury Group. Their little coterie expanded and contracted according to their loves and passions, leading to reconfigured bedrooms which at one point even accommodated Grant’s illustrious lover, the economist John Maynard Keynes. The house, which can only be visited on a guided tour as it’s so packed with fragile artworks, ceramics, textiles and hand painted furniture, is a delight, but so too is the garden.
In fact when I exited the converted farmhouse, all muted shades and patterned walls in darkened rooms (to preserve the artworks), it was if a light had been switched on. The blazing sunshine raised the garden into the stratospheres of blinding dazzle, an uncontrolled riot of vivid colour and typically Sussex. The general haze of mauves, reds and white ended at an orchard and a large pond overlooked by a Duncan Grant sculpture. Others dotted the garden, as below. Horticulturally speaking, Sissinghurst (read my blog here) it most definitely is not, but that doesn’t diminish its impact or artistry.
A genteel crowd of middle-class, middle-aged English people drifted through this arty paradise, some picnicking a la Glyndebourne (though bottles of white wine trumped champagne here), others seated in the garden, reading or chatting, and more still heading into the huge, airy marquee – or literary lair. Panama hats and long floaty dresses were de rigueur.
The roll call of the festival (in 2014 it runs May 16 – 26 – so there’s still time) is impressive. I was successively enthralled by Ian McEwan, David Hare and Alan Bennett as they read extracts, talked about new work, or simply mused on their principles and life. And, one up on the better known Hay Festival (read my blogs about it here and here), at Charleston there is zero stress, as only one talk takes place at a time and they are spaced out – so no tearing from one to the next or having to make impossible choices between favourite authors. Comfortable chairs (not always the case at book fests) greatly helped, though surpassed by a gentle breeze wafting through tent openings which brought whiffs of manure and cut grass as well as melodic birdsong. Bliss!
A minor negative is the food, however picturesque the setting in front of a huge barn, with hay-bales for seats. They need more choice – not just pizza, paella and tapas. Why not Sussex ice-cream for example? The nearby town of Lewes is a notable foodie hotspot (and of course Harvey’s real ale) and Sussex farmers deserve showcasing. But one thing is sure – in future years they’ll be serving Sussex’ own sparkling wine thanks to a genius project in neighbouring Alfriston, Rathfinny Estate, where Europe’s biggest new vineyard is under development. After meeting the owner, Mark Driver, who has poured £10 million into this venture, I’d instantly bet on its success. Roll on 2017 when the first fizz will be ready. Pop! and cheers to Charleston.