The name ‘Sussex’ derives from the Kingdom of Sussex, according to legend it was founded by Ælle of Sussex in 477 AD, then in 825 it was absorbed into the kingdom of Wessex and the later kingdom of England. The region’s roots go back further to the location of some of Europe’s earliest hominid finds at Boxgrove. Sussex has been a key location for England’s major invasions, including the Roman invasion of Britain and the Battle of Hastings. Wikipedia
This journey has been about walking and research but the truth of the matter is I only really visited Sussex to learn more about my ancestors rather than believing that striding out along South Downs Way would be all that great. I now know why Virginia Woolf though it such a deeply inspiring landscape.
I had thought, after the pleasures of the Lake District and Mann, that I would not really find this trail comparatively that wonderful. Happily, I was wrong and wish I had time to walk the entire 100 miles, from Winchester, Alfred’s ancient capital, to Eastbourne.
What you need to understand is that ‘the downs’ are really up high. The South Downs are a range of very chalky hills bounded by a deep escarpment. The views are superb and one has an airy, very free feeling while bounding along with such an outlook. It is almost as good as high fell-walking.
I explored the paths around Washington, Steyning and most memorably, Alfriston, located in the Cuckmere Valley, in the district of Wealden. These are absolutely glorious sections of the route. One afternoon, I descended from the Downs along what one local person told me was ‘the old coach road‘ to loop back to Alfriston. As it turns out, the road must have been a path well before it was used by coaches and I enjoyed skirting farms and walking through woods. The countryside was alive with pheasants, squirrels, rabbits and many small birds I could not identify. It was a lovely afternoon and I walked alone until meeting Nick on the path and chatting for some time.
Researching and “Guessgate”
Mostly I was in Sussex to spend time visiting old farmhouses, record offices and museums. Chris, the curator at Steyning Museum, was really helpful and I will need to keep working with West Sussex Record Office now that I have some more leads. The archives in this record office were the reason I needed to visit Sussex as it held an absolute treasure trove of hand-drawn family trees, wills and other financial records. I located these last year and have been emailing with the archivists and other local people since then to learn from them.
The Goring family have deep roots in Sussex. They donated what is now known as the Wiston archives and these records are important documents for historians. I read up on the parish of Wiston last year and found it had a deeply interesting history.
Rick Goring was kind enough to show me around his family estate. He took me to Guessgate, where I believe Jane Guillod may have lived after the death of her father in 1815, Thomas. Jane’s mother was a Chambers and one imagines that Ann, now a widow, returned to her family for support. Charles, one of Rick’s ancestors purchased Guessgate, probably from the from the Chambers family, in the mid-19th century.
It really helped me to understand the place where ancestors lived as we drove and walked around the estate. Rick was also kind enough to take me to the spectacular Wiston House. I have been reading up about the period (1800-30) and have a much better idea of the rural nature of the life being lived in this area.
Besides walking and research, I took a day to travel around by bus. Generally, I like trains but this gave me an opportunity to jump off and explore villages and towns, many of them listed on baptism, birth, marriage and death certificates of ancestors. I chatted with many people, mostly older folks and some of the conversations were keep playing in my mind.
On one bus a lady, noting my accent, talked about her father who was a British sailor seconded to the Australian navy during World War II. She knew a great deal about his visits to the Blue Mountains, when he was in Sydney. Having once lived in the mountains we spoke about that for quite a while and then I asked her what year he was born. She couldn’t remember and became a little distressed that she could not. We worked it out together as she could remember when he passed away. I started to realise just how old this lady was when she stood up to get off the bus. She must have been over 90. When we were talking she told about how she was very old when first moving to the nursing home outside of Worthing and had not visited any of the places I mentioned from my travels in the last few days. It was quite incredible, considering her frailty, that she could do the bus trip from her nursing home into town.
I wished I’d asked her name.
Another elderly woman, Grace, was most amusing and quite conspiratorial as the conversation continued on what was quite a lengthy bust trip to Brighton. She had been a nurse and certainly knew what was what about human nature. I am reluctant to post some of the things she said here as they were so outrageous but what has really stuck in my mind was her memory of Alfriston. She had been there just once in her long life living in Sussex. Her late husband had taken her for their first date in the village in the late1960s. Shortly after that, she met what seemed like her boyfriend at a bus stop and he hopped on. She spent some time at this stage comparing the excellent adventurous nature of her dead husband to his tame conventionality. I felt a little sorry for John but he seemed to have heard it all before.
It was quite a show.
The Long Man
Even though travelling solo has many pleasures, it is good to have a companion. Tim and I have travelled together, on and off, for 21 years. We have had Big Trips to Egypt, India and more recently, Spain! The South Downs is a little closer to home.
We explored some more of the chalky paths and found, after following some false trails, the Long Man of Wilmington. The weather continued to shine and it was a great day of yarning about politics, books and Jeremy Corbyn followed by a good late lunch before catching the train.
Tim’s a Londoner and his home in North London is always a great base for me to explore the city and visit Stratford-upon-Avon, which I have always avoided.
It would be great to explore the West Sussex literary Trail during some future vist. Or maybe there is a West Sussex Shepherd’s Way? My beard is developing in a fashion that may make it a great walk to take.
If you see what I mean? 😉
Next stop – Londinium!
Feature image: flickr photo by Darcy Moore http://flickr.com/photos/darcymoore/21625976858 shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-SA) license