A couple of weeks ago I at last got round to listening to the first Imagined Village album – I had it at the back of my mind for years, I thought I would enjoy it, and of course I do. The Coppers, Billy Bragg, Martin Carthy, sort of down my street. Literally in fact. Until yesterday I did not know that the first track on the album is “ouses, ouses, ouses” which is a sort of extended anecdote about John Copper’s granddad and one of his favourite places in Saltdean Valley.
When I was a kid the top end of Saltdean Valley was, for us, just “The Valley”. It didn’t need another name because it was our valley. Its called “Balsdean Bottom” on the OS map, which made us giggle. Its where me and my brother used to go and play, just round the back of North Woodingdean council estate where we lived. Sort of our special place, where we’d go to get away from whatever kids need to get away from. Its now a national nature reserve called “Castle Hill”. In the near distance we could see the remains of the ruined hamlet at Balsdean, and beyond that the farm that some of the Coppers worked on (not that we would have known anything about them them of course) and beyond that the sea. A few times – not very often, we were urban people, not rural – we’d walk down to the sea at Saltdean over the top of the hill. (To get to Rottingdean – which is where the original “local shop for local people” is – we’d go down the road past Ovingdean) I remember one day when I must have been about 8 or 9 walking with my brother and our Mum and our sister who was then a baby in a pushchair and we would have passed the very boundary stone John Copper mentions:
“When I come to think about it, old Jimmy Copper, my granddad, he was a lucky man, ’cause he worked in a place he really liked to be in, up on those old chalk downs; there’s one spot, just in the valley near ’ere, Saltdean Valley, where he liked to be so much when ’e was up there workin’, and he used to sit on the boundary stone eatin’ ’is lunch, where ’e could look down through the valley to the sea. That was ’is favourite spot. Yeah, ’e liked it so much that ’e asked dad if, after ’e died, ’e’d sprinkle ’is ashes up there; and that’s what dad did. ’n I bin up there with ’im many times, to visit the place. You ’ave to ’ave a good imagination now to imagine it like it was when Jim was younger. In fact, when ’e made a recording for the BBC back in 1951, ’e put it quite graphically; ’e said, ‘I still do like to walk up on those old ’ills, where I was a shepherd boy; but they’ve changed today; they’re all different now’, ’e said…but now, you look down there ’n’ all you see is ’ouses, ’ouses, ’ouses on the land that we used to plough […] ’Ouses, ’ouses, ’ouses. That makes me prostrate with dismal’, ’e said.”
The estate we lived in, North Woodingdean, was built in the mid 50s, and we were I think the second family in there in 1958 or 59. Before then we’d been in a flat in Coldean, opposite Stanmer Park, and my Dad had lived for over twenty years in North Moulsecombe, just off Lewes Road. We had other friends and relations in Bevendean, between the racehill and Moulscoombe, in Hollingdean, and in Saltdean (a much posher place than Woodingdean or Molescoomb). All built in downland valleys between the 1930s and 1950s, mostly by Brighton Council. So we were literally, the inhabitants of those “ouses, ouses, ouses”. (Or the “straight row of houses” that got into the “Dancing at Whitsun” song, though our street wasn’t straight at all.) I mean literally-literally, when Jimmy Copper looked down from his hill he saw us.
We moved into the centre of Brighton in about 1966 or 67, which was (and is) a far better place to live than Woodingdean, though I’ve sometimes been back there – most recently last Bonfire when I walked past the place and over Kingston Hill to Lewes in the dark. When I was at secondary school we went there to watch badgers once or twice. I’ve been birdwatching and botanising there. (Classic chalk downland flora, which is why they made it a nature reserve).
So its not an “imagined village” for me really. Its the one I grew up in. Of course as Tim said on Facebook the imagined village is a re-imagined urban landscape not the old village one. But I suppose I’ve made that journey as well, living in south-east London now in one of the oldest industrial areas in Britain (Lewisham Station is more or less on the site of the old Greenwich or Deptford Armouries, where small-arms were made from the late middle ages to 1816 or so – in the 18th century the British Army made most of its muskets within two or three hundred metres of where I live now), in somewhere much more like the community Benjamin Zephaniah talks about in his Tam Lin reimagined on the album. And of course in a sense the “real” villages sung about in folk songs are to us now imagined villages as well, as they are in our inaccessible past.
Its just an extreme example of the way we make our lives in the same landscapes but move through them differently and model them differently in our minds. My childhood was spent in a suburban environment, on the outskirts of Brighton, but we were urban people, it was Brighton we identified with, and we moved into the centre of town when we could afford it. (And my parents were urban people to start with – Glasgow and Tyneside before moving to Brighton – and their families mostly worked in industrial jobs in the late 19th and early 20th century, shipbuilding, construction, on the railways). The Coppers were more rural people. Farmes and shepherds and shopkeepers and publicans. Our town occupied exactly the same geographical space as their countryside did. (China Mievilles excellent novel The City and the City works by taking a split like that to the limit)
As I said, this time last year I took the train to Brighton and the bus to Woodingdean and walked over to Lewes from Brighton past the top of the valley, close to that boundary stone, and along Juggs Lane over Kingston Ridge to Lewes. (in a straight line North Woodingdean is only about five miles from the centre of Lewes and a lot less from Kingston) I wanted to do that again this year, and maybe revisit that path to Saltdean, but the combination of rain and waiting for a plumber all Friday morning ended that idea.
So I went straight to Lewes by train, hoping to arrive before the barriers went up when I could still walk freely out of the station and have a quiet pint in town.
It seems that everyone else came to the same decision. Standing-room only from Victoria, delayed by passengers unable to get on at Haywards Heath. Took two and a half hours from Lewisham to Lewes (it ought to be about two hours and you could do it in one and a half if you made just the right connections). You could tell it was Bonfire by the clothes the passengers were wearing. I never realised how popular wellies were for 20-something women in short skirts. But I had a seat and chatted to a couple with a couple taking their little kid back to Lewes for Bonfire.
I just about got there in the light. Which is good in some ways but inconvenient in others as now that the peopel I usually stayed with no longer live in Lewes there was nothing to do for the next three ours but walk around or go to pubs. And it was raining…
So a quick pint in the Lamb for old times sake, and a chat to a dad and his two teenage sons up from Bognor, and some Waterloo who don’t seem to have any idea when they are likely to march. Then a ritual celebratory pint of Harveys in the Lewes Arms – my favourite pub for a while in the 1970s and arrguably the Best Pub In The World at that time. Might still be. but I don’t get there even once a year these days (more likely to go to Landsdowne when visiting Lewes by train – NOT a pub I’m likely to try to get in to at Bonfire). I drank the best pint I ever drank in the Lewes Arms one folk club night in the late 70s – Beards Mild and Bitter, about my third or fourth of the night. I felt more sober after it than when I started.
Wet but almost unpleasantly warm. Walked round behind the Castle and ate a cheese and onion roll in the rain under some trees in the gathering dusk, down Castle Lane to New Road to avoid the gathering crush in the High Street, past some youngish Commercial Square revellers who were kicking off a bit early and got a bollocking from an older man about not lighting fireworks near the torches – and seemed to take notice of it and apologised – and up to St Anne’s where there were already large numbers of 14-year-olds crowding into the churchyard, trying to pretend that the almost as large numbers of police beneath them in the street didn’t know that they had cans of lager amd cider hidden under their jackets.
Into the first pub I came to that had somewhere I could sit down, and as usual it was the Black Horse. Sitting by some Canadian and Greek and Chinese students over from Brighton. I suspect they have no idea what’s about to happen. There were also some more local students from Brighton deeply involved in mutual application of facepaint – these ones do seem to know where they are, and one of them it later turned out is a Charlton fan, we had a pleasant discussion on the failings of Crystal Palace. Also a very attractive Asian-looking woman telling the three blokes who seem unable to take their eyes off her that she wasn’t sure whether to do a PhD in sustainable fisheries or sewage. Outside for a smoke and see strange folk in hats with a portable barrier running into the road saying “move on, move on, nothing to see here!”. And a wind-up gramaphone with trad jazz 78s. And a woman with grass growing in her hat. And oddly fragrant roll-up cigarettes. And a bloke called Will from Hastings originally but now in London, talking about landscape and the difference between downland and other landscapes, which he also sees around Hemel and the Chilterns.
After watching a few societies march up, I got a bit physiologically challenged and as theew were so many women quieing up to get into the gents I walked off to go behind a bush behind the prison, and then down to Southover for a quiet last pint of Harveys in the Swan. Which I now know (because I measured it on a map just now)is about the same distance from North Woodingdean as the centre of Brighton is. The pint turned out to be three as I got into a long chat with the landlady about old times and things in general.
Yes again a nightmare getting back to London – about four hours – made worse by the incompetence of the crowd control around the station, diverting small numbers of people walking along almost empty streets back into the main crowd to force them to approach the station from the direction of the War Memorial – idiotic, but no point in moaning. No-One Likes Us But We Don’t Care. And there are some similarities in the attitudes of Millwall supporters and Bonfire boys, no that either is likely to admit it. Time for a South East London Bonfire Society? We need to do something to make sure that Blackheath carries on in the future, and to try to restore it to the people.
All in all a good Bonfire. I think I must have talked to between fifteen and twenty people and had proper conversations with three or four of them. A happy day, on the whole. And I hope the little girl from Forest Row gets her Mum to buy her a pink, fluffy hat.