Histories and hauntings of the English South
When I think of the South Downs, I see a watercolour of Beachy Head by Eric Ravilious. A chalky white cliff illuminated by a lighthouse with an ominous raincloud hovering above it. I remember climbing to the top of the Devil’s Dyke to look at the pastoral Constable view, or strolling out on to the Black Down on the northern edge of the national park. The South Downs is a peculiarly shaped area, with Winchester perched on the westerly edge and Eastbourne on the south-east corner. Petersfield sits in the middle of the park, while Godalming is nestled in the north. It’s a sprawling claw of green on a map, skirting just above the south coast of England until it opens out to the sea down at Newhaven. The South Downs Way is a popular walkers’ trail, known for its easy access from London and the spectacular views of the south coast. Although these paths may be well-trodden, if you stroll off the beaten track the 1600km squared area has many stones left unturned.
I lived in Hove, just south of the South Downs park, for nine months after finishing university, unable to find a job in London and forced to set up camp at my mother’s house to save money. It was a strange time in which I spent most days applying for jobs and wandering aimlessly down to the beach to watch the waves and panic about the future. For me, there is something magnetic about the sea, a force that I have always attributed to the fact I was born in a seaside town on the north-east coast. I took my first steps on the beach at Morar in Scotland. But throughout my adult life I’ve been firmly situated in the south, exploring the coastal areas of Sussex, Dorset, and Cornwall. Moments of coastal reflection occur throughout my life; the sea draws me towards it, encouraging contemplation, pulling me back to my roots. Wandering along the seafront in Sussex, I notice a bench which commemorates a relative who ‘loved this view’. Loved ones may come and go, but the waves continue to lap against the shore, caressing the gradually eroding coast.
The Sussex coast has a similarly magnetic pull in Justin Hopper’s poetic essay The Old Weird Albion, published by Penned in the Margins. The book narrates a series of encounters with the South Downs told through personal memories, social history and ancient myths of the landscape. Hopper grew up in America, but visited his paternal grandparents in Steyning, West Sussex throughout his childhood. He recalls the bracing walks he took with his family on the Downs and his affinity with the landscape. He returned to the area years later, drawn by a family myth about his grandfather’s first wife, Doris, who is said to have jumped off Beachy Head in the 1930s. This story is one of those whispers, a myth that haunts the living, when those who know the story have left this earth: ‘No one I could speak to knew her name’. As Hopper walks the South Downs Way in search of Doris, he does so in fragments; not walking the straight line from Winchester to Beachy Head in one trip, but instead piecing it together over several years. The result is a collage of encounters, impressions, and discoveries; a patchwork quilt of places and people, living and dead.
Hopper’s collage begins right in the middle of the South Downs Way at Amberley in West Sussex, on an ancient crossroads, the interchange of a network of paths that has existed for thousands of years. These paths (and the South Downs Way itself) are etched into the landscape, determined not only by human passage but, more fundamentally, by the layout of the landscape; the geological grooves that divide the land. Hopper is obsessed with the relationship between the past and present, investigating the overlapping layers that define place and the people that lie beneath them. As such, The Old Weird Albion isn’t just an exploration of the rural English landscape, but also the settlements that emerge within it. We stumble from Amberley to the twentieth-century suburban development of Peacehaven, where Hopper’s father moved after the war. Personal, social, and fictional histories begin to coalesce. We’re told that Peacehaven is where Eastenders character Tiffany Mitchell met her untimely end, and the place where Pinkie from Graham Greene’s cult novel Brighton Rock retreats to ‘out in the country’ to work out his problems. As it turns out, Peacehaven is not the rural sanctuary Pinkie was hoping for, but a settlement of ‘little tarred bungalows with tin roofs’ set against the south coast.
People come and go throughout Hopper’s journey, but Doris remains. She lingers just behind him, or perhaps above his head…
Hopper’s fragments introduce the interesting people he has met while exploring the South Downs, many of them encountered in pubs. Simon, a local area expert whom Hopper met in a bar in Brighton, takes him to climb the Druid’s Stone and meet a mystical man known as Mick, who shows them a magical place known as Happy Valley. Jess, an ecotherapist, believes in the healing power of the landscape and works outside with people suffering from mental health conditions. Hopper goes in search of crop circles and gets chatting to an actor in a pub in Droxford who despite knowing that people make crop circles, can’t shake the uncanny sense that there’s something else going on ‘behind the scenes’. All these people are bewitched by the power of the landscape and it’s not hard to see why; it gives humans an external focus, the sense that there’s something bigger than us. The layers lie beneath our feet. From Worthing Railway Station to Chanctonbury Ring, and Cheesefoot Head to Balsdean, humans leave their imprint on the landscape in many different ways.
People come and go throughout Hopper’s journey, but Doris remains. She lingers just behind him, or perhaps above his head, a ghostly presence, a shadow from the past. It turns out that Doris didn’t die from the fall at Beachy Head in 1932, but in a hospital in Southend in 1933. Her son John Hopper, Justin’s uncle, had died aged two in February 1931. Doris had survived the fall but suffered serious head injuries and passed away the following year – her final years seeped in sadness after the death of her son and her suicide attempt. Discovering these details is not the comforting conclusion Hopper had hoped for – and how could it be? Her story is heartbreaking, and, eighty years on, all but forgotten. Hopper decides to make a pilgrimage in her memory, tracing the journey Doris would have taken from her home in Croydon to the cliff edge at Beachy Head. Once there, he says her name out loud, chant-like into the air, in order that she may be remembered, her presence preserved in the layers of the landscape, and the rush of the wind.
Justin Hopper’s The Old Weird Albion is published by Penned in the Margins.
Image credit: Wendy Pye, From the series Beachy Head: Liminal-4, 51 x 51cm C-type print.