by Julia Riding


We have all of us, I expect, pictured the places in Jeffery Farnol's books. His descriptions are vivid enough for us to "see" the wayside inn, the dusty road and by-road, the horses and coaches using it, the people living beside it. But that physical England still exists, if only in pockets and increasingly encroached upon by modern development, ever widening roads, the pressure of people and of course time itself which can never stand still. Let me take you on a personal journey through the works and world of Jeffery Farnol...

"...Being come at last to that eminence which is called Shooter's Hill, I sat me down upon a bank beside the way and turned to look back upon the wonderful city. And as I watched, the pearly east changed little by little, to a varying pink, which in turn slowly gave place to reds and yellows until up came the sun in all his majesty, gilding vane and weathercock upon a hundred spires and steeples, and making a glory of the river. Far away upon the white riband of road that led across Blackheath, a chaise was crawling, but save for that the world seemed deserted..."

This description from The Broad Highway is my starting point of change, because that view is buried now. Blackheath, Shooters Hill, Eltham and Lee, all small separate leafy suburbs in Jeffery Farnol's day, are now overlaid by London itself. If you stand upon Shooter's Hill (and I dare you to do it amongst the traffic thundering towards the Channel Ports) and look towards the City, you will see high rise buildings, Canary Wharf, the Dome, an aeroplane rising steeply out of the City Airport, helicopters buzzing overhead, and above all the steady drone of the traffic. But sunrise and sunset over the towers of London are still wonderful studies in colour.

The Weald of Kent - that part of Kent where the North Down fall into the valley before rising as the South Downs beyond - that is still there. ( Post card 6) The farms and oast houses still rise out of farmland, occasionally a hay wain drawn by a huge Shire horse will pass and all will be as it was in the books. Nowadays the towns are larger, and roads bigger, and people tear to and fro and never pause to look at it, to wonder at its man-made beauty. Because it has been farmed and lived in for hundreds of years, and the only part which reflects the mystery of its ancient times is the Ashdown Forest. (Post card 1). This view is close to that description - "...- that chain of hills which, I believe, is called the Weald, and over which the dim road dipped, and wound, with, on either hand, a rolling country, dark with wood, and coppice - full of mystery..." The Ashdown Forest is full of those unexpected coppices, of birds and insects, on a hot summer's day, still, and you might hear the thunk of axes or more usually the whine of a chain saw, as the wood cutters shape and change the landscape ( P.I-25).

Yes, "The Bull" at Sissinghurst is still there. I could wish that the rest of the village is still drowsy and half asleep, but alas the motor car uses it to dash back and forth, and it takes a major effort of will to put them out of mind ( P.II-24). I stopped in Sissinghurst and parked the car in the carpark of the "The Bull". I entered. It is low beamed, small windowed, the bar is a nice length of polished wood. I enquired of the landlord and he handed me a leaflet about the inn. The previous sign had been designed following the explicit instructions of the writer Jeffery Farnol, who had set his famous book "The Broad Highway" in Sissinghurst. Ah! I said - and where is the previous sign? The manager shrugged, and looked around the bar as if it might be there, but said he did not know. The brewery might know, he thought. The present sign, I must admit, is anaemic and quite forgettable - unlike ...a mighty sign before the door, whereon you shall behold the picture of a bull: a bull rolling of eye, astonishingly curly of horn and stiff as to tail, and with a prodigious girth of neck and shoulder; such a snorting fiery-eyed curly-horned bull as was never seen off an inn-sign...

I wish I could say I found a forge with Black George there, but I did not. There is a garage over the road, and a Kentish house of half tiled wall and warm earthern roof tiles ( P.II-25). So I took myself to Cranbrook ( Post card 3) and there at least there were good Georgian houses and white weatherboarding and a windmill. The town perches on the slopes of the valley of the river which still runs through it, and I daresay Black George's wrought iron screen still graces the town church. Blinded and deafened by modern traffic, garish displays in the windows, advertising signs spoiling the line of sight, yet old Cranbrook is still there, underneath it all, and perhaps the comparison of old and new shows it as it was when Jeffery Farnol cycled down the dusty road and discovered it and kept it in his mind's eye. ( Post card 4).

But what of Sussex, you ask? What of the downs, which so puzzled Jasper Shrig because they went "up"? What of those daring smugglers landing their contraband and bringing it inland under the noses of the Preventives? The gracious half timbered houses where a young woman labours to keep her family together? They are there.

..."Sussex?" murmured Sir John. "Seely Sussex! I was born there too, twixt the sheltering arms of Firle and Windover...The gentle South Downs...I loved every velvet slope of them! I mind the sweet, warm scent of the wild thyme, and the dance of the scabious flowers in the wind...'tis years since I saw them last."...

I declare an interest here, because my father's family came from Eastbourne and its environs. Every year in my childhood we came home from Khartoum where we lived as ex-patriates, and spent our summers in Eastbourne. How long did each leave last? How can a child tell you that, accurately? There were days and days of picnics in Friston Forest, swimming at Birling Gap, windy days flying kites over Firle and the downs. There were winding lanes, and high hedges, and huge trees, and then it was over for another year.

Majestic Firle Beacon, 713 feet high, on the east side of the Cuckmere valley. The view from Firle is still as Sir John saw it. (P.I- 18/19/20)

...Beneath him the majestic Beacon swept down to the wide vale below in great, billowing, green curves of sweet springy turf where a myriad flowers bloomed; away to the south rose the mighty shape of Windover, and between a far-stretching vale where homestead and hamlet nestled amid trees that bosomed time-worn tower and ancient spire, backed by shady copse, denser wood and the dark, far-flung forest of Battle; a fair and wide prospect...a vast expanse where the unwearied gaze might rove from distant Lewes away to Pevensey Level and a haze that was the sea..."

Sitting on top of Firle in the ever-present wind is to escape the drone of the world below. Yes, the traffic comes up ever so faintly, but above you the lark ascends, and you squint up against the sky so often clouded, and there it is, a faint speck, and the sound is falling out of the heavens around you, to mingle with the hush of the wind in the grass tops, the harsher clack of the jackdaws in the gorse where the seed pods go pop-pop in the heat of summer. The sheep graze up here, no plough goes over the very top where a walking track stretches the length of the South Downs. Turn from the prospect of Firle village and the seemingly limitless vale and you can see the sea sparkling, and the ferries going out of Newhaven, and the dip and sweep of the Ouse valley going up to Lewes. Up here is the land of quiet which we need to find, to muse on the emptiness which is filled with busy nature, shaping and reshaping the Beacon. Come up here on a dull and misty day and the view closes down and suddenly you can see no further than the bottom of the Beacon. Come up here when it is raining, and feel the elements our forefathers battled against. Firle Beacon on a wet and windy day is to touch the ancient Britons struggling out of their clay pits to join us and the gods of hill and sea and sky.

Firle village lies below us. Firle Place ( Post card 7) a gracious house below the downs - was this what Jeffery Farnol had in mind for Dering Manor? High Dering - Firle village is a quiet closed in place. A couple of horses were tethered outside the inn when I walked around the front, a couple of people were drinking. Small twisty roads, a tucked away place. They have considerately built a car park behind the cricket field and there is a wall and roofs - how many and many a glimpse of such a thing in a Jeffery Farnol book, more particularly perhaps The Glad Summer ( P.I-21). Then on to Alfriston. (P.II-11/12/13 P.II-14) )

The Alfriston I knew as a child is still there, under the huge car parks, the double yellow lines, the constant crawl of traffic. Victim of its own success, yet it is a living breathing community, not a fossilised thing of memory.

...Since that dim, far-distant day when pious hands first raised Alfriston Cross, it has endured much by stress of weather and the passing of so very many years...Here it has stood through the centuries, lashed by rain and wind, or drowsing in the sun..." ( Post card 9)

Jeffery Farnol, so it is said, lived at the Market Cross Inn for a while and wrote Sir John Dering there, taking his characters from the people who lived there. The Muddle family is still there. The Dumbrells lie in Wilmington churchyard ( P.I-16). The Market Cross Inn is still there, and no doubt the many doored room too. There is a small museum of Alfriston's past, and a great many old photographs of the Inns, notably the Star Inn with its figureheads from long ago sailing vessels, and small shops and houses which line its winding street. The church ( P.II-8) is called the Cathedral of the Downs, and sits above the flood plain of the Cuckmere. The river is tidal up to Alfriston, and on cold misty days the church rises out of the mist like an island, and it is not hard to see George Potter in his frieze coat slipping along the narrow twitten called The Tye, down to the river and over and across to Wilmington at night, or following the packhorses down the river to Exceat and across to France (P.II- 3/4). The road to Alfriston from the coast at Exceat comes in through High and Over. No one quite knows the origin of this place name, nor of the white horse carved in its flank, but from the top of High and Over you look down onto the very embodiment of Jeffery Farnol's Sussex, the winding Cuckmere, the hamlets of West Dean and Litlington lifting out of the trees, the dark bulk of Friston Forest hiding Eastbourne from you. There are memorial benches now at the top of High and Over where you can sit and muse on the people who loved this view. (P.II- 15/18/19) Beyond you lies Windover, across the valley.

To Wilmington, then, to Windover, a gentler slope than Firle, with a scooped out coombe where ancient man mined, and the dimples and notches where he certainly dug for flint for weapons and tools.

...She brought him at last to a narrow grassy path bound on the one hand by a welling, green upland and on the other by precipitous green slops whereon, deep cut into the soft turf was the colossal figure of a man who stood, mighty arms outstretched, grasping a staff or spear in either vasty fist...

Keith Dallas Chisholm stood on top of Windover and saw the Giant for the first time. He looked down over the valley and no doubt he also saw the Giant from below. The winding road through Wilmington village leads to the church and churchyard ( 17) with the oldest yew tree in the county, propped up now in extreme old age, its trunk hollowed and gnarled. The church is kept open. Step down a couple of worn stone steps, twist the massive metal handle and push open the heavy oak door. Quiet, cool, with sunbeams falling through the windows, a downland church secret and dreaming its own dreams, yet again, a part of a vital living community which stretches back beyond the Giant to the stone age miners and their antler picks up there on the hills. Pick a spot to look at the Giant. Pick a spot where Jeffery Farnol paused to look at the Giant, and sit down on his seat. ( P.I-12 ). Lift up your eyes to the hills, King David said, and we will do just that, and there he stands, the Long Man of Wilmington. (P.I- 13/14). This is the exact view when sitting on the seat, and I have known this view for all my life, seemingly, because we always visited the seat, and I have toiled up that path to see him close to, and look back over Milton Street and Wilmington. At the back of the seat is the wall of Wilmington Priory, long ruined now, a private house with that wonderful rearing ruined wall and window. I stepped into the churchyard and took a photo of the Long Man between the ruin and the converted barn ( P.I-15).

All around us in this part of the south downs are the places Jeffery Farnol knew.

East Dean village, and the Tiger Inn ( P.I-11), a very popular spot for quenching a thirst, with the village green in front of it. Birling Gap, between the Seven Sisters and Beachy Head, probably eroded at least ten feet further inland than when I sat on its flint pebbles rounded by the constant action of the sea, or chased shrimps and crabs in the chalky chines beneath the black and green seaweed. At Birling Gap you can stand on the beach and look towards Exceat and see the Seven Sisters swoop and dive along, and note the fresh chalk falls at their base.(P.I- 5- 6 and 9) There is a solitary fishing boat which goes out from the Gap, and is hauled up the cliff face (P.I- 8 and 10) to the cottages which are slowly and inexorably being eroded by the sea, together with the Second World War gun emplacements and the gardens of the Birling Gap hotel. The council have built a massive concrete and metal staircase, but at the edges of its platform - the rain is slowly taking the soil down the cliff face on the softest part of the Gap as it retreats inland.

Splendidly preserved is the Clergy House on the Tye at Alfriston.( Post card 8). It suffered greatly before the National Trust took it over, and would also have doubled for any of the half ruined cottages in Jeffery Farnol's books at the time he knew it, and I always thought it would double for Willowmead in Heritage Perilous, if you put more of a garden and orchard around it, because it is an isolated building just now. But then again, turn a corner of a village and you might see another farm house that could be Willowmead, or Abbeymead, or indeed any of the houses.

And the downland villages that nestle - they are still there - you can walk along the top of the downs and see them, come down a twisting lane and find them (P.1- 3/4). The larger towns are still there, much larger now. Lewes, (Post card 10). with its castle and fine buildings, and unexpected rooflines reflecting the ancient town. (P.II- 1- 2) Eastbourne of course, still expanding over the Pevensey Levels that in my father's day, and Jeffery Farnol's, were a maze of ditches and drains and small fields and hedgerows and wreathed in mists during the autumn and winter; the Crumbles where the shingle beaches were pounded by the sea, and fishing smacks went out on the tide and men fished off the beach or groynes, where the wild yellow horned poppy and blue sea holly flowered in hollows below the wind which blew constantly across. They have built houses on the shingle. I spoke to people about that, and elderly people shook their heads and tutted and said the sea would want the land back, you mark their words, one day it would come and take it all back.

So I ended my journey in Eastbourne, coming back to the town I consider my second home, and you will say - Jeffery Farnol lived in Eastbourne. What did you find of him, of the man himself?

I was sent a picture of Sunnyside outside Brighton where he lived in the 30's. ( copy) I knew of Alfriston where he stayed at the Market Cross Inn, and I found a house in the village called The Farthings which he might have lived in (P.II- 9). And I found the house in Eastbourne where he died. He wrote his books and they are written from "Sunnyside Eastbourne" - but the house was called and still is called, Little Dene. (P.I- 22/23/24) I knocked on the door and the lady who owned the house said, yes, Jeffery Farnol used to live here, we bought the house when his wife died. It is one of the splendid Edwardian houses below the downs in Eastbourne. I went to the library, and I found out about his funeral. I found St John's Church Hall (P.II-21/22) where the memorial service was held, before the cremation and scattering of ashes on the Long Man. (The church of St John was flattened by a bomb in 1942 during World War II and only the tower remained, until 1957, when the modern church was built). I wrote to the local papers enquiring about him, and I have had wonderful letters from people who met him or knew of him, could tell me of his little kindnesses to people less fortunate, who had fallen on hard times, of the gentleness of his manner and the flamboyance of his speech which reflected his books. What more do I know now, that I did not know before I spent time on this journey? I know a little of the man and his life, but perhaps the seat says it all - "the truth of life is good works, which abide everlastingly".


July 2000



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