or Steyning and Rottingdean – Sussex’s Lavenham?
I am pleased to be able to have another Named Bus piece. It’s not just Norfolk’s Coasthoppers (pronounced Cust’opper) that gives its fleet the monikers of locally significant people. And I am delighted that the No 2 of Brighton and Hove buses includes the Gideon Mantell, who inspired me as a child with his fossil finding. Is there also a Mary Mantell – wasn’t it she who picked up the Iguanodon thumb?
You may have realised that I like comparisons and in finding regional equivalents. Perhaps I seek out by criteria.
You’ll know that I’m fond of Lavenham. I’m still stating that this Suffolk Wool Town is the prettiest village in East Anglia, and I’ve not found anywhere anywhere which beats it.
I was happy to discover that Sussex has charming old villages too, and one seemed to be the south coast answer to Suffolk’s best – they even have almost the same county name.
Like Lavenham, Steyning – pronounced Stenning – was a town. Its market ceased in my lifetime, and it’s got that small town/big village border feel.
It wasn’t my only stop; I saw much else in Sussex. And I do mean, much. I can see why pensioners ride about on buses all day – if you’ve the stomach for it. But there was a rather unfavourable bus to village walking ratio. And the journey in between was somewhat…!! (I’ll find words for that in a minute).
It started well. From outside Brighton’s Victorian Sealife centre and its pier, another bus takes you along the coastal road in an easterly direction. The sea sparkled, so did the white houses of the famous crescents bookended by Eaton Place, with glimpses of the shop and cafe life of Kemp Town. Then you get to the marina, at which you try not to look. It is the worst place I’ve ever been and I shan’t again, but above it, on the cliffs, are the Downs.
In case you don’t know – these are undulating green things, which are protected natural spaces. Bear that in mind for what you’re about to read.
I finally saw a building which Anthony Seldon is rude about in his book, Brave New City, about what’s good and what isn’t in Brighton. It’s a home for blind airmen, formally known as St Dustan’s. I wondered why this 1930s block was on his offensive list – but I see his point. It’s the setting, not the buffy coloured biplane look alike building, that’s the issue. It rises out of the pastoral surroundings quite shockingly. He prefers nearby Roedean school – but I’m not sure that its greyness hasn’t got the sinisterness of another institution about it.
Not long after, you’re at Rottingdean. Not an appealing name, is it – it sounds rather grotty. But it’s a pretty village with city transport, including Night Buses. My city doesn’t know what a night bus is. Or even an evening bus. So I’m impressed that such a rural, real village gets so many buses (no trains) and it’s nice to cycle to on the flat, along the coast.
Rottingdean in leaflets looks like Finchingfield in Essex: a central pond and green and mill, nice little houses, and rural community life. And a bit posh, if I’m honest, even exclusive – if the writers’ group’s anything to go by, in honour of those well known creatives from the past. I thought that Sir William Nicholson referred to the contemporary screenwriter whose work is quoted at the start of my novel. Well, why shouldn’t he get knighted and choose a nice village for his home? Well, wrong century – and this William’s a painter. He’s joined by Rudyard Kipling, who I’ve gone off since re-reading his Rikki-Tikki-Tavi which appears to be imperialist anti Indian propaganda, and Edward Burne-Jones, who made some of his famous windows for the local church.
But the first thing I saw on arriving in Rottingdean was a Tesco! And then, a Costa. Surely such a village is no place for these chains? There was also a feeling, which I have in Brighton: a sort of presentation for London visitors which I deplore, and which was not apparent in the leaflet.
I realised that Rottingdean gave up its secrets easily. It’s mostly one street, ever rising. The pond is less focal than at Finchingfield. There’s a museum in the library, but no cafe today. The mill – up a hill – is open when certain planets converge. So I decided, after peeking at the beach, to hop back on the bus, and ride with Gideon, back through Brighton and to another village on the other side.
I had no idea how long Gideon and I would be together. The timetable says “these mins past the hour” so I didn’t see how many different hours that the journey cut through. For a non bus rider, the thought of the length of a epic movie riding on a double decker was not pleasing. But I’m glad I did.
The way back into Brighton was far longer, and there seemed to be endless ascent and turning around boring houses, with only glimpses of the famous Downs. We came into Brighton via one of the worst roads possible – another which Anthony Seldon rightly criticises in that book. But as we passed the college he was headmaster of, I noted the prohibitive signs about entering the grounds, even to staff and pupils – and then right over them, one about an open day!
But there were more flashes of the sea – thanks to North Street being dug up, so we had to divert from the most obvious bus-catching street – and along my favourite part of Hove, with smart buildings and shops. I was still quite happy in Portland road, which is parallel, and two parallel from the sea, still with some shops and a big Italianate church near Aldrington station.
Then we diverged into soul crushing areas, including streets that I wondered how residents coped having to return home to them. There was an out of town shopping centre, a hospital, and the worst tour of Shoreham.
I’m familiar with Shoreham on Sea, or New Shoreham, already – good job, as I wouldn’t have liked it from the bus route. There’s not much to Shoreham – really it’s 1930s housing and an airport, with a tiny clutch of shops around a large transitional Norman church, and a wide bridge to Yarmouth-esque housing by the beach and a ruined fort. I wondered if the bus had been rerouted as I didn’t see Old Shoreham, which I knew had another Norman church. It was only on the return that I noted the old pub and the church by it, among all the modern housing, and thought – is that all!?
The highlights of my journey were in the stretch that followed: Gothic Lancing college chapel framed by a spaghetti junction, and then, out into the greenery of the Downs National Park, a huge dead concrete plant – which was even a registered bus stop!
But then we started on the nice villages with the letter B – Bramber and Beeding – and I thought: this is more like the Sussex I’ve come for.
It was hard to tell where they finished, and Steyning began. Happily, I recognised the clock tower – which recalls Coggleshall (also Essex) – will these places be alike? I was more than glad to disembark. When I struggled into a couple of shops and finally to a cafe, staff were sympathetic. They knew about the Bus Ordeal.
I heard someone else saying “it’s like Lavenham here”. Along Church Street, there was a stronger kindredness, with its several timbered buildings. But the high street of Steyning is more Georgian; and despite both being in kingdoms of flint, there’s little of it in houses in Lavenham, but it’s often used here. Lavenham too has an undulating main street through it, but there’s a herringbone network beyond. But old Steyning seems to be two streets. The small museum in a modern building was closed that day, and other than the church, I couldn’t find anything to particularly visit.
The church doesn’t look like it’s in the Suffolk Wool Town league, and it’s not on a hill like at Lavenham, or a green as at Long Melford. It has one of those Sussex diddy towers, like a shy tortoise. But the height of the clerestory gives a clue that this is – or was – a church to compare with East Anglia’s – but it’s just not all there. Like Shoreham’s St Mary de Hausa [of the harbour] it’s been shorn of much of its length, and here, it lost the original tower too.
But inside is some great Norman work, although I felt a little strange in the church – not the easiest to linger in. Not even to read about St Cuthman wheeling his mum in a barrow.
I found that like my Essex Wool Town tour, I soon was ready to move on. Was is because of the infrequent and slow buses, when I had a deadline to return to Brighton? I left suddenly, realising one was now due, but I don’t feel I’ve missed much about Steyning – save that little museum. The TIC is a few leaflets near the post office counter (mostly on Brighton), so there’s not much to learn there.
Savvy pensioners told me that I could bus back quicker – but then realised that as an under 60, I was confined to using one bus company, which meant I had to stick with Gideon for the duration. But I slept through the ugly bits, and awoke just as the nice bit of Hove started, with sea glimpses down elegant avenues.
So, Lavenham, you still win the pretty village award – or is just because I’ve explored you at greater length and with less restriction? If I’ve missed anything about these villages, or there is more like them, do let me know.