Friday, 12 November 2004

Adventures in the English countryside.

Last Sunday I found myself in a friend's 2CV on the way to the south coast. We went down to Hastings, spend half the day there wandering around and buying second hand books (I just can't stop myself! and neither can he!) before moving to Beachy Head, a huge cliff overhanging the ocean, and finally to Brighton before heading back to the lights of civilisation. Photos available here.

I have been living in London for about four and a half years now and have had few opportunities to leave the place during that time. Not that I am complaining, mind you. I was brought in a small village of 700 odd inhabitants. If I have decided to move to a big city like London there is a good reason; trust me! I am a true city boy these days.

Driving through the woods and the fields (with the soundtrack of the Rocky Horror Picture Show competing, not always successfully, with the racket of the engine), I found myself in very well known territory. Even though my eyes had never set foot in those regions before, the north east of France is not that different to the Kent and Sussex countryside that I did not recognise in what situation I found myself.

Perhaps it is because it was November, perhaps it is the usual state of things; Hastings can hardly be described as a hub of animation and excitement. From what I was told the place is roughly divided into an old and a new town (new as in "because of WW2") and is spreading itself in the folds of a tortuous valley without ever really managing to reach the top of the hills. On the sea front you find what seem to be the staple offerings of a small English sea-side resort: a mini golf, a games arcade, a pier and a pebble beach... oh! and fish and chip shops gallore!

After having wandered about all morning, having taken a few pictures, visited a couple of antiques shops and bookshops (fondling a welcoming pussycat in one of them: that was a real treat!), we thought it was time to have something to eat. Up and down and up and down the streets we went, not able to settle on any particular place as is our wont (in London the dilemma is usually solved by a trip to Wong Key, the infamous Chinese restaurant).

We finally chose an interesting looking caf. Nothing unusual in those parts to be sure but something almost exotic in its quaintness for our London minds. It was 3pm by then and only two other customers were there having their Sunday lunch. A bit later two lads came in as well. A nice thing to have a "mate" close enough to have a relaxed Sunday breakfast (that is what they ordered) with. The striking (and possibly the only really interesting) feature of the place and of the whole town it seems, is how everything is cheap compared to London: to give but one example, a POT of tea is £1.50 over there when you can not even buy a cuppa for that price in central London.
Over our (homemade?) cheeseburgers, we decided we had exhausted the charms of the place and made up our minds to go somewhere else. My friend (dare I spill the beans and ruin his reputation?) has lived in the area at some point in his life and suggested we go to Beachy Head, which he had pointed out looming in the distance earlier and which he recommended for interesting pictures and suicide.

Off we therefore went. To get there we had to go through miles of those monotonous rows of similarly-looking houses like only British suburbia can produce. This was very depressing in the already dimming light of a grey Sunday afternoon. I started to thing about what it would be like to be living there, seemingly miles from anything of any cultural interest. I almost saw myself back in my parents' small village and breathed a sigh of relief on thinking that I would be back home in London by the end of the day. Beachy Head, in its rugged, desolate way, proved as depressing as its man made surroundings; not wonder it should be favoured by suicides... Once again the camera went into action. After walking about a bit and raising the concern of my friend who is scared of heights, it was time to make our way home. Rather than going back through Eastbourne, we decided that we would be less likely to get lost if we went via Brighton even though this meant a slightly longer journey. By then the night had fallen completely, aided by a light drizzle.

When we got on the outskirts of Brighton, we decided that since we were there, we might as well stop and perhaps grab something to eat. Brighton is the place in the UK and outside London where I have been the most. To the grand total of three times, actually! I can even find my way round the lanes, to the Royal Pavilion and the west pier now.

Once near the pier, we parked on the seafront. It was ten to six, which prompted us to wait in the car for ten minutes until parking became free. An inspired decision it was too. As we were chatting about music and stuff, a man and a woman appeared accompanied by another (good looking) man wearing a wet suit. They all stopped by the car parked in front of us, putting us in the best seats in the house to enjoy the show which then took place: The man in the wet suit proceeded to divest himself and get changed; stripping to his underpants and, wrapped in a towel, to even less... revealing an altogether rather nice, toned body. Although we were trying not to gawp too much, he must have noticed us and I must say, it took him a inordinate amount of time to get changed, going back and forth between his car and his bag left on the pavement a few feet away, wearing nothing but a pair of white shorts... Eventually, he got dressed (shorts and fleece!) and walked away with his friends. Last year already, the last time I was in Brighton on the last week-end of November, I had seen a (more than) half naked man swimming in the sea (not for very long it must be said). I have the pictures to prove it! The words "madness" and "inbreeding" come to mind...

Needless to say that it was well passed six when we finally left the car and directed our steps towards the west pier! The place was rather deserted and after walking to the very end of it and taking a few pictures, we turned towards the lanes. This is probably the most picturesque part of Brighton; a series of ancient tortuous and narrow alleyways, which have now been invaded by trendy shops. Not very busy at the time to be honest. And only a few metres away from that mad thing which is the Royal Pavilion, where I let my camera loose once more.

It was then time to try and find a place to eat. That same old problem! Few places were open and nothing that really caught our (uncooperative) fancy. We ended up miserably eating cheeseburgers again with the smallest portion of chips on a bench on the pier with the mist moving in from the sea. We were soon joined by a couple a loud roadies and beat a hasty retreat to the car. The drizzle was getting stronger and Brighton's appeal was diminishing fast. It was time to start the uneventful journey back to the capital, thus closing the loop on this rather strange day.

Aaaaaaah! Home Sweet Home!

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