Lewes – A Place Apart In retrospect there was something almost magical about the months I spent there. I was not aware of this at the time, I was often unhappy, but who is sublimely happy all the time, contrast gives colour. Lewes, the Town, was the hub, but it was really the district which was wonderfully anachronistic, such a revelation to the Town boy, contrasting to all he knew yet a living encapsulation of all he had read in novels, heard on the radio and imagined – it was pure Noel Coward and Ivor Novello
Incorporated into Lewes Grammar we resumed our education,. I was billeted in a village nestling against the South Downs in the Ouse Valley with a married couple, the Baileys. At first I didn’t like the idea of cycling 3 miles each way, every day, but later I realised I had been presented with a unique experience, one I would never have had if I had been billeted in the town. The village, just a collection of houses bordering the main street, itself a cul-de-sac, culminated in a path leading up into the Downs. There was a church hall for whist drives, the annual Christmas festival, the local drama group, in time the LDV; in fact, everything a village hall is expected to sustain. Opposite was the post office cum village shop, the hub of village gossip. In warm weather the village street acted as a funnel. Sitting high up on the hill studying, I found I could hear a conversation taking place below. Understanding what was said, I looked round and the only people in sight were women, half a mile below me, talking at the gate of the post office – they were gossiping. When they stopped and left, the sound stopped.
The Charm Of The Ouse Valley. On a map of the area between Lewes and Newhaven, you will see the Ouse valley with such lovely village names as North Ease, South Ease, Rodmel, and on the other side, Glynde with Glyndebourne. In 1939-40 it was an area given over to agriculture. There was a poet called Pound, who lived in Rodmel. Not Ezra Pound, but a local focus of interest. He had named all his children with Christian names beginning with ‘P’, so everyone opened the mail. This was typical of eccentricities I found in the Ouse Valley. There were marked social differences in the Valley. There were the farm labourers, maids and their families. Then there were the traders, the post mistress and shopkeepers in Lewes and also some of the farmers. Then there were the professional classes, the Baileys fell into this category, maybe the vicar, next came the gentlemen farmers, the inherited wealth and finally the dignitaries such as the MP and the squire. By association I was part of the professional group, but though I was never truly comfortable, I learned much through socialising. The general air of the whole area was ‘County’ with a capital ‘C’. In our own village was the local Squire. Whether he really was, I never knew, but with the name of Sir Amhurst Selby-Bigge he had every right to be. He and his wife would give out prizes at do’s and in the summer he generously threw his personal tennis court open to the village and we had tournaments there with breaks for Robinson’s Barley Water. There were wealthy farmers who were sociable and as we went to school with their children we had an ‘in’ to the higher echelons of farm life. We went to market with them, helped with the harvest and generally mucked in, but these were not the farmers we had helped prior to coming to Lewes, these were ‘gentlemen farmers’.
The winter of ’39-’40 was particularly severe, to the extent that when cycling to school the only way of turning the corner at the bottom of a particularly steep hill was to ride straight into a six foot high drift, extract oneself and then head off on the next leg. Later there was a sudden thaw followed by an equally quick freeze which left the roads coated in about an inch of ice. We evacuees made slides and the locals had ice skates and were to be seen pirouetting and twirling past us. We slowly integrated.
Even though the war had gone badly and there was the threat of invasion hanging over us, one cannot live in a state of frightened paralysis. Slowly our lives became normal as we entered into a routine and with the routine, helped by the friendship of the people of the Valley, came a wonderful period of my life which was totally foreign to what I had known before. While I was rubbing shoulders with the English class system at its most rigid, what I found there probably knocked any snobbery I might have had out of my outlook for all time. I think I must have seen it for what it was and eschewed it because instinctively, from a social aspect, I became classless.