Journalism // Turning the Page (SUITCASE Magazine Vol. 32)

  • Olivia Squire
  • Liz Seabrook

I wrote a 10-page feature for the UK-focused "Homegrown" issue of SUITCASE Magazine about the particular stretch of East Sussex between Firle and Hastings that has become something of a second home to me in recent years. As well as being the place where my parents now live, this part of the county has long been a retreat and refuge for writers and artists including Virginia Woolf, Vanessa Bell and the rest of the "Bloomsberries". I set out to retread their footsteps as well as interview some of the modern creatives who are putting down roots here. I organised an itinerary for myself and photographer Liz Seabrook that involved staying in the former country residence of the economist J M Keynes, interviewing set designer Tess Newell in the surrounds of the Bloomsbury Group's Charleston Farmhouse, getting a glimpse of the art vault at Eastbourne's Towner Gallery, hiking along Cuckmere Haven and swimming in the sea by Beachy Head, and meeting a cohort of contemporary artists in their studios and favourite spots in Hastings. I also created a mini-guide to the best places to stay, eat and shop in Hastings.

Our lives of late have been circumscribed. Unlike Woolf and her social milieu, the infamous Bloomsbury Group of writers, artists and intellectuals who Dorothy Parker memorably quipped “lived in squares, painted in circles and loved in triangles”, these bubbles are not of our own choosing; they represent not freedom, but its opposite.

When lockdown struck in the spring, I elected to stay in London rather than fleeing to the coastal sanctuary of my parents in east Sussex. While I don’t regret a summer spent rediscovering the small bounds of my existence, my imagination was habitually haunted by the humpbacked outline of the South Downs, the shadows of clouds gliding like spectres over their flanks, chalky outcrops gleaming in the slices of intervening sunlight.

Just an hour and a half by train from London, it’s a corner of the countryside that has lured countless writers and artists in search of retreat, repair and revitalisation. For Virginia Woolf and her husband Leonard, living part-time at Monk’s House in Rodmell from 1919 onwards, it provided balm and recharge from the “violent jolt of the capital”. For her sister Vanessa Bell, Bell’s lover Duncan Grant and a rotating cast of “Bloomsberries”, nearby Charleston Farmhouse offered the opportunity to forge experimental ideas and relationships, unseen and ungoverned by convention.

Thirty years later, Farleys House became the family home of the photojournalist Lee Miller and her husband, the surrealist painter Roland Penrose, in the aftermath of the horrors of the Second World War; and more recently the author Olivia Laing wrote about walking in Woolf’s footsteps along the banks of the River Ouse, following the breakdown of her own relationship.

Today, a new generation of artists, winemakers, chefs, writers, gallerists and entrepreneurs have similarly abandoned the thrall of the cities to embark upon an alternative lifestyle in its bucolic villages and once-faded seaside towns. As we cross the threshold between an old and a new world order, it feels appropriate to seek solace and recovery from the same landscape that inspired these artists of the past, as well as delving into the modern scene of the creatives who now call it home.
In our case, the need for isolation means that we get this jewel of a house entirely to ourselves, allowing me to pretend it’s my very own creative idyll. I wander down the covered walkway through a fig tree-shaded courtyard and past a fountain with tiles hand-painted by Duncan Grant to Maynard’s library extension, an Italianate terrace nook with huge arched windows overlooking the Downs, where I curl into the sofa and read how he insisted that “There’s no better air for work than here”.

In the mornings I watch the mist twist and burn off the hills from the shelter of the dappled greenhouse as apples drop from the trees, before chasing an obstinate rooster out of the kitchen. I tramp the two-hour circular track past fields of sunflowers from Tilton to the church in the village of Berwick, inside which Duncan Grant, Vanessa Bell and Quentin Bell painted decorative murals, and ascend the flaxen Firle Beacon on my return, an ancient beacon point that overlooks the patchwork land below. ''Too much for one pair of eyes,'' Virginia Woolf wrote of the Downs in 1937, ''enough to float a whole population in happiness, if only they would look.''

Although Sussex may lack the gnarled drama of the Scottish Highlands or the epic proportions of the Lake District, the landscape here carries you. You don’t need special kit, expertise or even a map to follow the curves of the Downs or the well-worn footways through fields and villages. This gentle mode of exploration unlocks a meditative state of mind in which to untangle your trauma, unspool your thoughts and imagine new ways of being – I’ve walked here following break-ups, breakdowns and moments of pause, so in the aftermath of both a personal career crisis and the shared, strange dissolution of our everyday, it’s perhaps unsurprising that I’m compelled to revisit this terrain.
Incidentally, it’s also one of my favourite places in the world, and somewhere I’ve returned year after year to fill up on the sheer creativity and soul that beats from its walls before returning to work in the city. Aside from the intellectual experiments that took place here, perhaps the most ambitious that Bell and Grant undertook was the total decoration of its interiors, from the murals and patterns that swirl across every surface to the quirky colander lampshades, criss-crossed furnishings and boldly painted fireplaces that adorn each room. It’s an outpouring of their unique artistic expression and a monument to their unconventional, complicated love for each other – as well as an ongoing inspiration for a contemporary cohort of artists, including local set designer Tess Newall, who I’ve arranged to meet in the paint-splashed surrounds of the studio.

Another former Londoner who recently moved to nearby Alciston, much of Tess’s work is irrevocably linked to Charleston – she previously collaborated with the furniture retailer Ceraudo on a set of hand-painted dining chairs inspired by the house, gives lampshade-painting workshops here and was the on-set art director for the 2018 film Vita & Virginia. As we both nerd out on the privilege of having this remarkable slice of history to ourselves, gawping and pointing out our favourite flourishes, I ask why she thinks the house remains so relevant. “I think there has been a marked shift in the value society places on how things are made and how long they should last,” Tess replies. “The Bloomsbury Group were often repurposing objects they already had. Surrounding yourself with things that have been made personal through an artistic flourish makes you cherish them – and in the past six months, people are wanting to make their homes the most joy-bringing they can be.”
When considering the future of art and creativity in this part of Sussex, it’s impossible to disregard Hastings and neighbouring St Leonards-on-Sea. Edgier than Eastbourne, Hastings has that weird glamour that seaside towns possess – clapboard fish-and-chip shops, a bleeping arcade, a ferris wheel and crazy golf course – and despite the inequality and poverty that proliferate here, it’s a place that knows how to have a good time. However, what it perhaps offers above all is space in which to pursue your vision – something that painter Annie Mackin and her partner Fraser Carr Miles epitomise from their ramshackle unit in the creative nexus of the Britannia Enterprise Centre.

Having moved from London four years ago, the couple now run an independent book bindery, darkroom and artist’s studio, as well as hosting workshops in paper marbling and participating in community projects, such as a recent free protest poster movement and the annual Coastal Currents festival in which the public are welcomed into their yard. “It’s so hard to get ahead in London,” Annie tells me. “Here there’s a lot of possibility and lots of hidden things, as well as a big range of people who are just starting out.”

With several of my friends either talking about or already in the process of leaving the capital in the wake of corona-induced epiphanies, I can understand the seductive thrall of this sense of possibility. Aside from the inspiration that comes from working in close proximity to a fertile music scene and pagan rituals – “Hastings definitely doesn’t need an excuse to dress up and drink,” Fraser laughs – it’s the low rent and supportive landlords that have provided the space for their business to experiment and evolve.