From 1989 to 2020 – Growing up in West Sussex
Sneaking out was our best-kept secret as kids. Back then I lived in a 300-year-old converted barn, set beside the River Rife, West Sussex, made of flint and mortar with vertical vent slots set into the stone from which, I always imagined, Archers shot their arrows at invaders. I remember the day my father took me to see our new home, before its conversion, when it housed a few hundred pigeons in its sagging roof and a century of their droppings on the ground. ‘We’re going to live here?’ Knee deep in bird mess, I was mortified. ‘Yes, Son’, he marvelled, with visionary confidence I had yet to grasp… And so we did. With it, dawned a world of adventure from the house walls and beyond.
Luckily, my new bedroom was tucked into the roof of the offset adjoining garage. A small window beneath the rafters opened above a head-height flint wall below. Out of earshot of the parents, whose bedroom was on the far side of the barn, it was the perfect escape. A few friends and I would meet at the house for a ‘sleepover’ at the weekends. We’d wait, in anticipation, all evening, for darkness to roll in and the parents to head to bed. As soon as we clocked their bedroom light go off, the count down was on. Half an hour was the minimum we’d wait, sometimes more, never less. They had to be deep asleep so that the security light that flickered on when we hot-footed across the driveway wouldn’t wake them. When it was time, we made our escape. We crew of bunny eyed kids ran into the night, giddy with the enormity of our perilous new freedom.
Which is a little hard to stomach from a parent’s standpoint, I know. But the thought is often worse than the reality.
You see, in West Sussex, you can get away with it. It is invitingly open, quiet, authentic. Wholesome for the young adventurer. In the late summer night, we would mission into the cornfields, beneath the downs, rolling the giant cylinder hay bails together and build giant forts, to the bewilderment of the next day’s farmer.
It is worn, rural, quirky. It breathes life into the imagination. If we had enough bikes we would pedal to the top of Highdown Hill and stand atop the ancient Saxon settlement, looking mightily upon the satellite villages, lit up in patches, along the dark coast, for miles.
Its diversity of terrain is endless. Chalky hills, wide meadows, grass banked rivers, stunning pebbled coastline, Oakland, wooded parks are all to be explored in wide-eyed wonder. On a stormy night, we would head to the beach to see the thunder and lightning in its panoramic glory. In ecstatic defiance, we would dare each other to stand upon the highest pillar of the wooden breakwaters, tempting that Gods fry us with a bolt of white light. We would test the sea, running as far out down the shingle as we could between crashing waves.
The architecture, old and new, is built with a level of respect. The affluent estates on the coast attract the wealthy who build big, solid mansions able to withstand centuries of battering from winter gales. The construction sites made perfect mission bases. We bellied under the fence and ran riot around the huge houses to be. Fireman poling the scaffolding and scaling ladders like James Bond, we’d recce every room. A friend once accidentally knocked a steel girder off the third floor, the bang must have woken half the county.
And how different my life would have been had we not had our greatest base of all, our treehouse. Built-in the farmers copse beside a field. For years we worked on it, extended it, improved it. In the end, we had it insulated, carpeted, waterproofed, with electricity buried right through the woods to my friend’s house. We even built a tiled fireplace, until the day we inevitably burned the whole lot down. The nights in the treehouse were the best of all.
On and on went our adventures in Sussex. Now, as an adult, I’m a little less ‘bunny eyed’ but a lot more appreciative of Sussex for its beauty, its grandeur. Even a few of its locals.
Arundel castle bears rightful claim the grandest of castles upon the hills. It stands above the Arundel plains and Arun river in profound dominance. Fantasy-like. It’s gardens, edible and not, are a cherished secret of Sussex. The interior, fully habitable and furnished as original, is a window to another life. Arundel village reflects the authenticity of the old and humble. Bakeries, pubs, butchery, antique shops, tiny steep cobbled streets, immovable medieval architecture, leaning houses and class eateries are as quality as it gets.
Pubs litter the sides of every potholed country lane. No elaboration needed, think of a hearty pub and that’s what you’ll find. Pub crawls attract any wanderer looking to lubricate the imagination and are a past-time to be sorely forgotten. They’ll accept most muddy cyclists, wet kids, dogs or well-oiled travellers.
Although why not crawl somewhere else? Take the back roads and Cafe crawl your way from village to village. Manor House and quaint village hop from Pulborough to Amberly to Houghton to Bury. If you can handle anymore history, then castle hops from Guildford to Cowdray to Amberly to Knepp. Load up with wine on the route from the stunning microclimate haven of Nutbourne vineyards and it’s over-seeing windmill.
Cycle the South Downs way, yawing up and down with ever-changing scenery and a consistently good view.
Spend the day crabbing from Littlehampton or head out to sea with the local fisherman moored beneath the promenade. Hire a yacht and sail to beloved Brighton for the day.
Dare I say it, go shopping.
To this day I explore. I love it, it’s endless. I’m a product of my environment. The open pastures, silent nights, charming seaside and wild diversity of Sussex gave me the gift of imagination and the opportunity to tell stories in fond memory. Adventure comes from ‘Aventure’ meaning, ‘that which happens by chance’. We snuck out as kids, we had our adventures and, by chance, found a passion for life.