We booked a last minute trip to the South Downs in East Sussex (Rose Cottage Inn, Alciston – great self catering accommodation) for the Jubilee weekend. Although living in London, we couldn’t face the crowds in the city and there wasn’t much worth going on in the local area so we reckoned we’d get away from it all.
Easily accessible from London, and not half as busy on the roads as it is to the West Country, we drove down through a series of villages and towns, all bunting and Union Jack flag strewn in a patriotic way which cheered us greatly (again, where we live North London there wasn’t a lot of about), to arrive in the little village of Alciston.
This area is excellent. If you’re a walker, new age nut, seaside visitor, foodie, slightly mad fireworks enthusiast (more of that later), cream tea scoffer or beer obsessive, there’s something for you in this part of Southern England.
I suppose we fall into the walking, beer obsessing, foodie categories with a bit of cream tea scoffing wanted but avoided due to ingesting abnormally high levels of calories with all that food and beer …
Long Man of Wilmington
The Long Man of Wilmington is a 227ft tall human figure made by exposing the chalk on the hill it lies. It’s debatable when the figure was made – 16th century is a possibility, or something a lot older than that.
The two poles he carries are thought to be a rake and a scythe, but not according to a surveyor’s picture dating from the 18th century.
Or he may have been a shaman or druid from some neolithic religion – the jury is still out.
Whatever his origins, today he is the focus of new age celebrations and on May Day (May 1st) an annual Long Man folk dancing event occurs at the site.
He has also been the focus of more potentially destructive behaviour. In 2007 a UK TV programme (Undress the Nation) transformed the figure into a female shape with the use of female bodies, and in 2010 a giant phallus appeared.
Thankfully when we visited all was well and no such shenanigans were evident.
PS There’s also a horse in the area – the Litlington White Horse
Also in Wilmington, in the old churchyard, is a gorgeous old yew tree that is thought to have been planted around 400AD.
It’s so heavy these days (aren’t we all?) it needs to be supported by sawn telegraph poles and held together by heavy iron chains that look as if they’ve been there for some years as they’ve become a part of the tree as it’s grown.
Yew trees in the UK are usually found in churchyards, and were thought to have been held sacred by the Druids – probably because of their “longevity and regeneration qualities” According to the site in that link the oldest in Britain is in Glen Lyon, Scotland and is anywhere between 2,000 and 9,000 years old.
Here’s a Radio 4 clip about the Wilmington yew
Lewes is home to some controversial but highly interesting fireworks-related tomfoolery.
There are a grand total of seven bonfire societies in the town, and each year on 5th November (Guy Fawkes night) there is a huge event comprising of a procession of 17 burning crosses symbolising 17 Protestant martyrs burned at the stake in the 1600s, and bonfires commemorating the discovery of the Gunpowder Plot which could potentially have done quite a bit of damage to the English parliament.
The 5th of November in Lewes has gained a bit of a reputation in the press with its burning of controversial figures as effigies on this night in recent years: Osama Bin Laden, Saddam Hussein, a gypsy caravan and David Cameron and Nick Clegg have all featured. There’s a lovely eccentric take on the whole thing in Lewes Bonfire Celebrations
Lewes itself is a town of a couple of breweries and many pubs – one of which (the Snowdrop Inn) was built to commemorate the UK’s worst avalanche when eight people died in one on 27 December 1836 (the town is overlooked by a large chalk cliff).
We walked four of the seven sisters as part of a longer walk and frankly, that was enough (it was towards the end of the walk) but worth it for the view. On film this series of cliffs are apparently used as a stand-in for the white cliffs of Dover, and appeared in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves and Atonement.
Also in the Seven Sisters country park is the beautiful Meanders at Cuckmere Haven.
All in all, a wonderful weekend.East Sussex is a wonderful and quirky part of the world.