Tea with the Devil: A Guide to the Landscapes and Tearooms of Sussex

I am starting, insofar as one ought to start somewhere, or so I am given to understand, presumably because not starting anywhere can be terribly confusing for the reader, in Lewes. It seems fitting, somehow, to start in the picturesque, anti-catholic and strangely devoid of decent tearooms, county town of East Sussex. It’s a funny old place, Lewes. Not least because of the annual catholic-burning carnage in the streets. If it’s societies, pressure groups, Guardian-reading yoghurt-knitters and local action groups you’re after, then Lewes is the place for you. It’s also the place for you should you harbour a liking for precipitous high streets, interesting looking bookshops, some quite excellent pubs, a castle I’ve been meaning to have a look at for at least five years and some really rather marvelous Downland scenery.

Let’s pause a moment and have a little geological history, shall we? I can tell you are itching to know what has brought Lewes to be nestled in such an enviable position. Some considerable time ago, like even before there was BBC2. I mean really. Loads of time ago. Actual millions of years ago. The whole of Sussex, the Far North (AKA Surrey), much of The West Country (Hampshire) and the Badlands of Kent formed a large, shallow bowl filled with a lagoon, initially freshwater, then brackish, which always sounds like something Alan Bennet would say about someone “Oh, he was terribly brackish today” he might say about a man standing on a small hill in Leeds.

In any case, this here lagoon was filled with tiny little fellas called coccolithophores, which is a catchy name, I’m sure you’ll agree. Coccolithophores are single-celled algae, which can produce something called coccoliths. These are single plates of calcium, which they fuse together and wrap around themselves in an exciting form of dress know as a coccolithosphere. “Phwoar, would you look at the coccolithosphere on that coccolithophore” you might hear one say to another at a coccolithophore bar. So anyway, these little calcium-covered chaps proceeded to die in their unimaginable billions and trillions and float down to the bottom of this lagoon of ours, eventually covering the clay and sand bed. Over millions of years, this covering built up to hundreds of feet thick and, under the weight of it all, became chalk.

I don’t know about you, but just writing all that made my head hurt. That’s the difficult bit done, though. It gets easier from here. I’m going to make a cup of tea to celebrate.

Now then (sips tea) the next thing we need to care about is the arrival of India. And I’m not just talking about the tea. Once upon a time the Indian subcontinent was a lonely, yet carefree subcontinent, drifting alone and wondering if it would ever find itself a nice continent to smack into with extraordinary force. As luck would have it, just such a continent was waiting for that very thing to happen to it. Not only did Eurasia feel it was lacking something in the pointy-triangular-bits-hanging-off-the-bottom stakes, it also knew it could do with some exciting new lumps and bumps to make Africa jealous. India provided both of these.

It ploughed into Eurasia with such force that it threw up the highest mountains in the world, the Himalayas, and, like a ripple running from an enormous pebble thrown into a puddle made of billions of tons of rock, a vast dome of chalk stretching from Dorset to Champagne. Our coccoliths suddenly found themselves several hundred feet higher than they had been, enjoying the fresh air and the view and just about ready for a lovely Ice Age, or Glacial Maximum, as they like to call themselves, the snobs.

At the last Glacial Maximum, the ice sheets and glaciers covered much of what was to become Britain, reaching as far south as North Finchley tube station. They would’ve come further, but they couldn’t afford a ticket to Zone 1 and glaciers don’t much like crowds of tourists anyway. Our chalk dome wasn’t covered by the ice sheet, but it was affected by vaguely filthy-sounding “peri-glacial activity”, which basically means it froze solid. Although not actually covered in ice, the ground froze in permafrost, the whole area became distinctly tundra-like, the temperatures were described as “right parky” and house-prices fell sharply, much to the dismay of the Daily Mail.

Eventually, some 10,000 years ago, before even the old Queen Mum was born, may she rest in peace, the ice melted. And it melted quickly. Great rivers of melt-water surged across the land, running down to a lower area that later became the Rhine Valley and, even later, the English Channel. Such was the force of the water running over the porous chalk, that vast areas of it were washed away. The middle of this huge dome dissolved and eroded away until all but the very edges were left, the old clay and sandstones being revealed as it departed. Those edges now face each other across the Weald and are known as the North and South Downs.

Let’s finish off this geological history with a reasonably swift canter across the landscape zones of Sussex, shall we? You will be astonished by how useful this information will be to you. Indeed, you will wonder how you ever got through life without a decent working knowledge of the landscape zones of Sussex.

Sussex can be split up into, erm… (counts on fingers) five separate zones. A low lying alluvial plain in the south west of the county made up of deep, rich silts washed down the rivers and deposited giving rise to large numbers of market gardens and providing a platform for some of Sussex’s less pleasant towns. The South Downs which I have already explained at great length and if you can’t remember it all, then I am disappointed in you. The heavy clay soils of the Low Weald and the higher, rolling, thickly-wooded sandstones of the High Weald and finally the unnatural weirdness of the Levels in the south east of the county, land reclaimed from the sea, notably around Pevensey.

It is, I am sure you are excited and even proud to learn, my intention to visit at least one tearoom or garden in each landscape zone and then write some kind of pointless diatribe about its quality and some interesting and useful facts about the landscape around it.

Sussex is by far the best county in the South East of England and anyone who tells you otherwise is a liar, particularly if they’re from Kent. Come with me now as I, starting with Lewes, take a jolly stroll across this incredibly varied, beautiful and beguiling landscape.

To be continued, when I get round to it.

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