Just before I left to spend several months in Montreal, I travelled to Chichester to see an exhibition called Sussex Landscape: Chalk, Wood and Water, a list that struck me as including everything required to make Sussex wine, except grapes. The trip was part of a little round of leave-taking, filling my senses with England while I could. And I was curious to know what Sussex artists like Eric Ravilious or Vanessa Bell might have to show me about the connections between land and liquid, between what I see and what I drink.
My associations with Sussex are all good. I lived in Brighton for a few years, and if I enjoyed the glorious, undulating landscape, I appreciated the friendliness even more, along with the contrariness of a place where hills go up but are called Downs and local winemakers all insist that they are emulating the Romans, when nobody has a clue whether wine was made in England back then or not.
Urban wine lovers inhabit a strange, liminal space, drinking the fruits of the earth at such a busy remove
Urban wine lovers inhabit a strange, liminal space, drinking the fruits of the earth at such a busy remove, even if wine itself hovers on the border between agriculture and technology, a product of both vineyard and winery. At its best, wine like art can transport us to a place, real or imagined, that we long for: Turnor’s idea in liquid form. Back in London, I dismissed thoughts of rural idylls and prepared to enjoy my city to the utmost while I could. In Smithfield, I ate a superb, many-course meal at new restaurant St Bart’s, matched by talented young sommelière Emma Denney to a dizzying selection of treats.
There was chalk as well as wood and water here, too: Hundred Hills, a sparkling rosé from vines grown on limestone in Oxfordshire, paired with Sussex Wagyu beef (with homemade Tabasco and wild garlic our server had picked himself) that will have fed on the lush grass of the Downs. Nonetheless, eating duck stuffed with hay and served with duck-fat granola in a coolly modern space run by hipster chefs, with a biodynamic Alsatian Pinot Noir made by the 13th generation at Domaine Valentin Zusslin, I congratulated myself that this was about as London as an experience could get. Then I looked out of the window.
St Bartholomew the Great, London’s oldest surviving church, looked back at me. She turns 900 this year and has lost none of her beauty, from the startling monochrome pattern of dark flint and pale stone on the walls to the tiers of arches rising within. Sitting noticeably lower than her surroundings, she offers a visual reminder that the city has been accruing layers, like soil, for the past millennium and more. The original priory was closed by Henry VIII during his dissolution of the monasteries, but he was persuaded to leave the attached hospital by a plea to remember ‘the myserable people lyeng in the streete, offendyng every clene person passyng by the way with theyre fylthye and nastye savors’ – the dark side of city life, contrasting and frequently ignored, although it is part of the pattern.
Flint, incidentally, is found in chalk bedrock: tough black silica amid the porous white sediment built up, layer on layer, by the deposits of single-celled algae, nearly 100 million years ago. I learned long ago – somewhat to my surprise, since it was one of my worst subjects at school – that a fascination with geology comes with a passion for wine. A wine lover, even one as footloose as I am, cannot fail to be absorbed by the drama of the soil: what disappears and what is left behind. This is history in its most elemental form. Or do I mean memory?
On my last night in the country, I took refuge in another church, far younger and more successfully decommissioned: a Baptist chapel on Southampton Row that has been transformed into , a fanciful and enjoyably plush boutique hotel. There were peacocks on the library walls, glowing golden birds perched on the light fittings and a mirrored ceiling in the restaurant. L’Oscar is now the property of luxury entrepreneur Michel Reybier, who is something of a connoisseur of eccentric establishments: the Château of his Bordeaux Second Growth, Cos d’Estournel, is topped with Chinese pagodas and entered via a vast wooden door once owned by the Sultan of Zanzibar.
This hotel was fun, which is what a leave-taking requires. We ate suitably rich and sophisticated food, including a risotto alla Milanese topped with a square of gold leaf that matched both the radiant bar and the sommelier’s glittering jacket, and paired it with a rustic Burgundy Santenay Les Gravières Premier Cru by the Borgeot brothers, that tasted deliciously earthy, because while glitter is great, it is in the elemental substances that we embed our loves and affections. Memories, like vines, flourish best in green and pleasant land.
The exhibition has images, from William Blake’s woodcuts (a pastoral series made while living in Sussex, when he also started writing the book of poems that would include Jerusalem) to Ivon Hitchens’ Curved Barn, that confirm Reginald Turnor’s canny observation, in a 1940s guidebook, that ‘Sussex, more than most English counties, is an idea… [and] ideas and their association count for more than facts in all our loves and affections’. Which was partly why I was there.
So many of these artists lived through war; for them, Sussex represented both the England they fought for (or suffered for: Hitchens moved down here when his flat and studio were hit during the Blitz) and the haven they would come back to. I was taking a peacetime trip of my own volition, but still, these images tugged at my heart: the white tracks Ravilious’s Chalk Paths cut through the khaki terrain, the dreamy, windswept wood engravings of Gwenda Morgan, Edward Wadsworth’s Landscape, its lovely geometric rigour recalling, for me at least, the patterns that rows of vines etch on our eyes.