Writers and the Downs
You came and looked and saw the view
Long known and loved by me
Green Sussex fading into blue
With just a touch of sea.
– Alfred Lord Tennyson
What is it about this line of chalk hills and wooded heaths that has drawn so many of England’s finest writers over the centuries and continues to inspire the writers of today and tomorrow?
Hilaire Belloc called them “the great hills of the South Country”. For Algernon Swinburne they were “green, smooth-swelling, unending”. For Rudyard Kipling, “Our blunt, bow-headed, whale-backed Downs.”
When Nobel Laureate and author of The Forsyte Saga John Galsworthy died, he had his ashes scattered across them from a plane.
Virginia Woolf lived, walked and wrote on the South Downs, living in Monk’s House in Rodmell from 1919 until her death in 1941. Monk’s House and Woolf’s sister’s house in Charleston also served as retreats for much of the Bloomsbury group and its wider circle, including the likes of EM Forster, John Maynard Keynes, TS Eliot and Lytton Strachey.
150 years earlier and 100 miles away in Hampshire, Jane Austen felt most able to write when she was at her home in Chawton, inspired by her beloved Hampshire. And for Edward Thomas, the melancholy war poet that died at Arras in 1917, walking the forested hills around the Hampshire hangars brought solace and inspiration.
A stone’s throw from Austen’s Chawton, is the village of Selborne, and the house of the pioneering 18th century naturalist Gilbert White.
White’s book ‘The Natural History of Selborne’ is a series of letters detailing the wildlife in his local area of Selborne, and also Lewes, where he would visit his aunt. Both destinations are now part of the National Park. In addition to recording how species respond to changing seasons (phenological observation), White identified new species including the harvest mouse and chiff chaff. Testament to White’s legacy, his book is the fourth most published book in the English language!
For some writers the South Downs conjured a romantic and imaginary England, as found in Kipling’s Burwash-based Puck of Pooks Hill and Charles Kingsley’s Itchen-inspired Water Babies.
For many though, this was fantasy made real, a place where a deeply held dream of the English countryside, with its cultivated fields, hedgerows and rolling hills, could still be found.
It was in the Sussex village of Felpham that William Blake wrote the lines to Jerusalem that celebrate ‘England’s pleasant pastures’ and ‘mountains green’. It is a bond that continues today.
Whether for writers such as Booker prize winner Graham Swift, who said in a recent interview that he comes here ‘half a dozen times a year, at least – in all weathers’, or amateur literary enthusiasts who make the pilgrimage to Chawton, Rodmell, and festivals at Charleston and Arundel.
Or simply the hikers choosing their route for the day by picking up a literary trail guide and following in these authors’ footsteps across our fields and hills and ways.
Now it’s your turn – come and be inspired by the South Downs.