Sunday, August 4, 2013

Exploring the Sussex Downs: Petworth and Arundel

Saturday, August 3, 2013
Sussex Downs: Petworth and Arundel
            A very comfortable night again in Battersea saw me awake at 7.00 am and getting ready immediately for our daytrip into the Sussex countryside. Roz, my friend, who owns a car (a rare thing in London) and has Saturday off, decided to take me on a jaunt. I made haste and packed my belongings and placed them in the trunk of her car as we intended to make use of it to drop me and my baggage off at Amen Court for my last week here—at the home of my friends Cynthia and Michael. Once I went through the process of packing and making sure I had everything, I showered, we sat down to brekkie (muesli and yogurt with coffee) and we were off.

Into the Sussex Countryside:
            We had intended to go to Chichester and since it is not too far away, Arundel. But, as luck would have it, on approaching the South Downs, we realized that we were not too far from Petworth—a National Trust property that both of us were keen to see. Roz is a member of the National Trust and entry as well as parking are free for her. My own membership has elapsed but I never lose the opportunity to enjoy one of the gracious properties that this institution maintains.
            It was a glorious day—indeed we were blessed with fabulous temperatures. A blistering sun has given way to a far more benign one and as we drove past the far suburbs of London and into the Surrey countryside, we kept exclaiming about the freshness of the greenery and the lovely rural air. In less than two hours, we were at Petworth.

Getting to Know Petworth House:
I have to admit that neither Roz nor I knew much about Petworth other than that it is one of those ancient country piles into which the hoi polloi are now welcomed. I paid the 12 pounds entry fee that gave access to the house and gardens, but we only had time to view the house and its contents—which, if you did it with care, would take a day all by itself.
After Roz parked, we walked on the gravel pathway past interesting Greek follies to get to the entrance of the house. A short ‘Introduction to Petworth’ talk was in progress by one of the volunteers, and although we missed the first five minutes of it, we joined it. It gave us a slight clue as to the home’s pedigree. And this is what we discovered:
The home was built on vast land that belonged to the Percy family, ancient Dukes of Northumberland (bequeath to them by royal charter on winning the favor of the King). I remembered a Henry Percy in Shakespeare’s Richard II—and yes, he belonged to this family. Somewhere in the hoary past, the Percys became bankrupt and one of the more astute members of the family joined forces with the Seymour family (if the name is familiar, it is because Jane Seymour became the third wife of Henry VIII and mother of his son, Edward VI—he unfortunately died at the age of 9 and never acceded to the throne. Jane died while giving birth to him and is supposedly the only wife that Henry really loved.). Again, as the decades went by, one of the family members married into the Wyndham family--which led to the influx of a huge dowry. In marrying his title with her money, the grand manor was created. It is built in the English Baroque style—which, like Syon House, is very plain on the outside. Thus, most of the home is an early18th century showpiece of wealth and taste but the chapel and the undercroft kitchens are original to the 13th century. The current owners of the home are known as the Earls of Egremont—they continue to inhabit a small part of the property and the house although the rest of it passed into the hands of the National Trust that has run it since 1947.
The current state of the home derives from the vision of the 3rd Earl of Egremont who was a great art lover and who opened the home to some of the leading artists of the day—Turner, Gainsborough, Joshua Reynolds, etc. are known to have frequented the home and created studios for themselves on the premises. Turner spent large portions of time there and created a great number of works—both inspired by the grounds that were landscaped by the 18th century’s great landscape designer Capability Brown and by the large number of canvasses that had resided in the home—today, these may be viewed on the walls of the ‘galleries’. They are numerous and of varying quality and some are badly in need of cleaning. But they give a succinct idea of what money could buy in a bygone era. Large rooms today function as galleries for the showcasing of a massive collection of paintings, sculpture and decorative objects (furniture, light fixtures, etc.).
Although the art work by itself is stupendous, to my mind this house was fascinating for the Carved Wood Room—the brainchild of Grinling Gibbons, the great 18th century wood artisan who decorated some of the finest homes and cathedrals in the land. His genius is plainly evident in this long gallery decorated with Tudor portraits (Hans Holbein’s famous one of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, for instance) where flowers, fruit, skeins of leaves and garlands, cherubs, even portraits of children have been ingeniously carved and then pinned to the walls in a delicate form of decoration that has to be seen to be believed. Never have I been treated to such artistic extravagance and I was enthralled.
The Grand Staircase leading to the top floor (closed to visitors) was painted from floor to the ceiling by the French artist Louis Laguerre—and, honestly, it has to be seen to be believed. It presents worthies of the family enthroned in the heavens—I mean how modest is that? An exuberant presentation of color and pattern, no amount of pictures could possibly do justice to it. This room came after we had feasted our eyes in room after room on works by Turner, Gainsborough, Reynolds, Lely, Van Dyck, Ruisdale, Hobbema, even a rare Bosch. It was truly an incredible art collection—not to mention a treasure trove of sculpture—but for that, one has to devote an entire day.
Already tired, we decided to visit the café for a spot of lunch and settled on cheese scones with butter and cheddar cheese with a pot of tea for me and a cappucinno for Roz and then we were on our way. We admired the wonderful border of Queen Anne’s Lace punctuated only with the occasional blood red poppy—never have either of us seen a border that is so simple yet so arresting. A few minutes later, we were in the car and heading into the village of Petworth to explore it.

Endearing Petworth Village:
            Petworth Village is small and charming and crammed with antiques shops. It truly is one of those little red tiled roof villages of England that time forgot. Extremely narrow cobbled lanes wound towards an ancient church whose grave stones have turned grey with time and the weather. We entered a couple of shops by way of exploration but did not linger too long as we had more to see and the day was wearing on rapidly. Still, I know that although our visit was brief, I have been left with a load of pictures that will always bring back lovely memories for me of a place I have long wanted to explore (I had passed briefly through it, four years ago, by car with my friend Stephanie at the wheel—but we had no time to stop and explore it then) and felt very pleased to have inspected it at long last.

And On to Arundel:
By this point in the day (it was almost 3. 15 pm), both Roz and I realized that getting to Chichester was pointless—and we decided to get to Arundel first with the idea of exploring its lovely castle. Since Roz had never been there (I had visited only briefly with Stephanie, four years ago), it made sense to see the town together. And what a lovely town it is! Like Petworth, Arundel is old, quaint, charming and retains an abundance of character in his crumbling Tudor gabled houses, its antiquated stone shops, its slate and red tiled roofs and its winding streets, crammed with tea rooms and antiques shops. I have a special fondness for a multi-dealer shop close to the Castle that is perched high on a hill. Inside I went and out I came with another English porcelain Hammersley cup and saucer for my collection with darling little birds painted all over them.

Skipping the Castle:
            On parking our car close to the castle, we discovered that we had only an hour to see it—and the place needs at least two if one wishes to do justice to it. So we decided to visit the castle on another day and simply proceed into the town and browse in its shops. It was a lovely afternoon for such a mission and we had a great time together.

Visiting the Churches:
            Arundel is known for its churches: there is a small Anglican one called the Church of St. Nicolas but the great attraction is the Gothic Catholic Cathedral of St. Philip Howard which is also perched high up on a hill and can be spied, like the castle, for miles before arriving in the town. We made a visit to the Cathedral and walked around its towering nave and altar. A recent wedding had led to beautiful flowers crowding the altar and the lectern—it was truly very pretty in that stark stone interior. Similarly, we paused in the Anglican Church and found that a wedding had recently taken place there too.

Time for A Cream Tea:
            And then it was time for a traditional Cream Tea and we found a charming tea room in the heart of the village that offered scones with clotted cream and strawberry jam and cakes! Roz had Carrot Cake, I had the superb Coffee Walnut Cake that I never miss in England. All was delicious and, quite replete with our meal, we strolled to the stone bridge that spans the river that runs through the town before we got back in the car and started the drive back to London.

Settling down outside St. Paul’s Cathedral:
            Having finally reached the last week of my stay here in the UK, I have moved into the Christopher Wren-built home of my friends Bishop Michael and Cynthia who are like family to it. Cynthia and I consider ourselves to be sisters and it is always a bit like coming home each time I enter their gracious residence on Ludgate Hill right outside St. Paul’s Cathedral. Roz braved London traffic (thankfully, the roads have opened up after a huge cycle race that has closed all access to their place during the day) and deposited me and my belongings safely into Amen Court where I shall stay for the next 7 days.
            Roz stayed for a glass of red wine during which she got introduced to Cynthia and Michael and then she was off. I spent a while chatting with my friends and catching up with them, skypeing with Llew and then unpacking and settling into my room on the upper floor.
            Cynthia fixed a simple dinner—pea pullao, cabbage and carrots for veg, a small salad and Waitrose Chicken Korma which was just delicious. It was time to call it a day and at 11. 00 pm, we went up to bed.
             Until tomorrow, cheerio!

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