First published in: The Times Click here to view a map for this walk in a new window
In 1913 Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant came to live at Charleston farmhouse in the shadow of the Sussex downs. This bohemian London couple (well, scarcely a couple, my dear – it’s said that he prefers men!) decorated the farmhouse walls and furniture with primitive designs. Charleston soon became a magnet for such Bloomsbury Group illuminati as Virginia Woolf, David Garnett, Maynard Keynes and E.M. Forster.
Walking over to Charleston, I was expecting a chocolate-box house in a picture-book setting. Instead there were grunting tractors, workaday sheds, and ordure-spattered dung spreaders busy in the fields around what is still a working farm. It was strange to be guided around the little rooms with their vividly daubed walls and tables, Grant’s nudes and acrobats, Bell’s drooping flowers and dotted circle motifs, and then to step out into such a practical farming landscape.
What shapes the scene is the long green arm of the downs behind, enclosing the southern skyline in a simple and perfect undulation. Two young buzzards were riding low across the slopes, to pull up and hang with cat-like cries a couple of feet above the turf as they scanned for small life cowering there.
Up on the spine of the downs a cold wind came rushing in from the north, hammering at my face and tugging my beard like an impatient child. It was quite a prospect, north for many miles over the wooded hollows of the Sussex Weald, south to the spindly arms of Newhaven Harbour embracing the sea.
I pushed on into the wind to the dimpled hummock of the long barrow on Firle Beacon, and then found a steep chalk track that descended a slope seamed with pale wrinkles of erosion lines like the forehead of an old elephant. A fine flint wall accompanied me back to Firle, one of those well-kept estate villages where all seems right with the world.
Peter Owen Jones, Vicar of Firle, writes lyrically of his downland walks. Outside St Peter’s Church I found a tree festooned in prayer ribbons; inside, a Tree of Life window by John Piper. Its vivid pinks and yellows lit the cloud-shadowed vestry more brightly than any painted room in the Bloomsbury farmhouse across the fields.
Start: Firle village car park, East Sussex, BN8 6NS approx. (OS ref TQ 469074)
Getting there: Bus service 125 (compass-travel.co.uk), Lewes-Alfriston
Road – Firle is signposted off A27 between Lewes and Eastbourne.
Walk (5 miles, moderate, OS Explorer 123. NB: online map, more walks at christophersomerville.co.uk): From car park walk through to Ram Inn. Left along street; left at post office (470071) down lane, through gate. Follow track across parkland. In 200m, right up tarmac roadway; in 50m, left at post, aiming for flint house halfway along edge of wood ahead. Cross road at cottage (478073); through iron gate opposite; follow bridleway through shank of wood (480071), on over fields to pass Charleston Farm (491069). In 200m, right (493068) along concrete track. At barns (494067), bear right, following track towards downs. In 550m, cross track (492062); on in tunnel of trees; through gate (490060, BA). Bear left up rising track to top of downs. Right (490054) along South Downs Way to trig pillar on Firle Beacon (485059). In 300m, through gate (482059); in 150m, fork right off SDW, descending path for ¾ mile to T-junction (475068); left beside wall to Firle.
Lunch/Accommodation: Ram Inn, Firle (01273-858222; raminn.co.uk)
Charleston Farmhouse: 01323-811626; charleston.org.uk; open till 1 November; book your tour!