One of my favourite places on this wonderful planet of ours is Charleston Farmhouse way out in the English countryside.
It sits below the Firle Beacon on the Sussex South Downs and was the country retreat of artists Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant, leading members of the famed Bloomsbury Set. It’s a beautiful setting and a lovely house to visit, beautifully cared for by the Charleston Trust. The old farm, featuring a brick house with a red tile roof, was recommended to Duncan Grant by Virginia Wolfe, who lived with her husband six miles away in the village of Rodmell. Grant was soon joined by Wolfe’s sister Vanessa Bell.
There’s so much to love in the house and gardens – not least because so much of Bell and Grant’s free-flowing and earthy decor is so well preserved, with walls and doors, wallpaper and furniture painted in their easy hand. The place is crammed with their personal items, art and sculptures and the walled garden is just a wonderful haven, beautifully kept.
No wonder the Bloomsbury luminaries such as Lytton Strachey, Roger Fry, Virginia Woolfe and Maynard Keynes were often down to visit. Vanessa wrote once that “The house seems full of young people in very high spirits, laughing a great deal at their own jokes, lying about in the garden which is simply a dithering blaze of flowers and butterflies and apples.”
But for me it’s not just a great place to visit, but part of a whole day’s walking the paths and tracks of the South Downs. Nothing beats a summer’s walk from Berwick Station (a stop along the East Coastway railway line between Brighton and Lewes) up through the fields and footpaths.
I have an old mate who reckons that the walk should end in Berwick, allowing for a swift glass or three at Cricketer’s Arms, where the Lewes-brewed Harvey’s beer comes straight out of pumps. I’m more one for facing the sun as it slowly heads west, watching swifts and swallows dive.
Of course there are much easier ways to get there than Shanks’s pony. Many Sunday drivers will tootle up the A27 looking for the sign to the house. Hop off the train at Glynde with a bicycle and you’re there in no time. But the walk on a summer’s day is very special, and it’s made especially possible by one of the finest things in British life – its footpath network.
In England the centuries-old beaten tracks are now legally protected as public rights of way, and by jingo the great British public makes very good use of them!
Woe betide the grumpy landowner who might plough over the track, or block off a fence. These tracks are well loved and well-preserved. For visitors the best way to find these paths is to get hold of an Ordinance Survey map of the area. This map system is digital too, available as an app for your smartphone – so now you have no excuse not to get thoroughly lost in the undergrowth.
A journey on foot is a wonderful way to refresh the mind and the body. The mind wanders like a Wordsworth poem and in the basic minor details of covering uneven ground there’s no space for the cares of the world. Take a walk with friends to your own special landmark, and out in the British countryside there are pleasures to be had in the most inclement of weather.
Meanwhile back at Charleston – after a good hours walk – there’s an endrearingly bonkers tour of the house, there’s a good cup of Earl Grey, and a chunk of carrot cake to look forward to, which you can savour in walled orchard of apple trees and fading summer wildflowers.
Then you can head west towards Firle Place and more glorious open fields.
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