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Monday, 12 April 2010

Brighstone Revisited


The adults who initially raised me had little interest in foreign travel. The only time they had ever been abroad was either as the result of military service during World War II or else visiting Commonwealth war graves after it. As a result we spent our holidays at English seaside resorts. When I was about six we stayed in a caravan, which was more like an upmarket tent than the mini-Versailles some caravans appear to be today. To my indignation, I wandered back to the caravan one day to find the rest of the family grouped around the table, reading aloud from my personal diary.

As I grew older I started to spend more of my summer holidays with my mother, who took me to stay in a hotel in Eastbourne. Part of the journey was on an old-fashioned train, the kind without corridors so once you were in the carriage you were forced to remain there until the train stopped at a station. I am sure we must have visited the cliff tops at Beachey Head as my mother often mentioned them. Over the centuries, these magnificent white chalk cliffs, soaring to well over 500 feet in height, have tempted countless suicides to fling themselves off them. The same day my mother died I had a dream in which she and my father were young parents again and I a small child running towards their outstretched arms as they picnicked in the grass atop Beachey Head. It was a dream fashioned purely from my imagination as my father was long dead by the time I was even a toddler. Nevertheless, it was a kind of solace to think of my mother again as a vibrant young woman rather than my final image of her: ravaged by illness and on her deathbed in her early 50s. My mother took me to Spain from whence I proudly returned with a very tall doll, dressed in a flamenco outfit, which could “walk” if you held her hand and guided her body. We also went to Italy. Whilst there we went to Monaco and visited the casino. In retrospect, I imagine we were probably not allowed much further in than the foyer. We also stopped at Grasse known for centuries for its perfumes. I vividly remember the fields of flowers nearby, although it seems the number of flower growers in the district have fallen dramatically over the intervening decades. On one of these two trips we were photographed as we stepped off the plane. The picture shows me clutching a huge packet of cigarette. Before we had passed through passport control I remember congratulating my mother n a very loud voice that they had not stopped me and confiscated HER cigarettes.

As a schoolgirl, I spent two holidays with a friend’s family in a hotel converted from 14th century fishermen’s cottages in St Ives in Cornwall. When we went along to a local dance I wore a black maxi skirt and halter neck top, with a pink fabric rose tucked beguilingly behind my ear. I felt very sophisticated until we did the conga and one of my breasts came adrift from its hitherto safe anchorage in my top.
Other than the occasional day-trip to Brighton, the only English coastal resort I have holidayed in as an adult has been the Isle of Wight. I have usually joined a small house party at the same delightful holiday cottage in the rural village of Brighstone, located on the Western side of the island, where the pace of life is much more in tune with that of my childhood. Compton Bay beach nearby is owned by the National Trust who have not allowed unsightly developments to spoil the view. The only concession to 21st century fast-food is the ice cream van, which operates from the car-park and always warrants a detour from me, sometimes both to and from the beach. The waters are very shallow in Compton Bay, which means I often have to walk quite some distance out before I can begin to tread water. There is a rusting wreck of a small boat, which I was told was German in origin and dated to the First World War. However last time I swam around it, I overhead two men claim it dated from the 1950s. I try not to swim too close lest I injure myself on the rotting iron work. I always find shipwrecks unsettling, even when so small in scale and close enough to the shore to hope that the occupants made it to safety.
When I bathe in the sea, I like to swim non-stop for several hours at a go. Consequently, I prefer to swim only once a day. Whilst the others go off to the beach a second time, I tend to stroll around Brighstone village itself. Due to its size there is not much to see other than the thatched cottages housing the National Trust museum and shop and the ancient church of St Mary’s dating back to the 1190, which makes it something of a Johnny-come-lately compared to my own parish church of St Mary’s, which has a Norman arch dating from 1121. Next to St Mary’s is the original vicarage. “A Topographical Dictionary of England” published in 1848 describes the rectory house as being “very pleasant.” Unfortunately it does not give any further indication as to its date. It looks to be at least 18th century. From this same work, that I gleaned that Brighstone used to be called Brixton. Amusingly, Brighstone/Brixton’s inner city namesake: Brixton in South London, was described in 1848 as “one of the most agreeable suburbs of the metropolis….On both sides are elegant villas and handsome cottages, the country residences of respectable families, commanding a fine view of the metropolis, and rich prospects over the adjacent country.” The writer would still recognise much of Brighstone/Brixton today. The same cannot be said of Brixton in London, whose elegant villas and country houses belonging to respectable families have long vanished.
When the sea is too choppy to swim in, we often go for bracing walks along the Downs. If the weather is too inclement, we stay in the cottage playing card games. On fine days, we eat in the seclusion of the well maintained and well stocked garden of the cottage. The Cottage made of stone and chalk is over 200 years old. What were originally stalls for animals is now a low beamed sitting room. The bedroom above was once a hay loft. The staircase has a very low ceiling and I always have to take care not to bump my head on it. I was told that the garage used to house a two-seater earth closet well into the 20th century. The last time I stayed in The Cottage a bat swooped over our heads as we supped, which I captured on film.

Whilst on the Isle of Wight, I have visited Henry VIII’s fortifications at Yarmouth as well as Queen Victoria’s favourite family home: Osborne House, all of which I shall describe anon. 

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