Sunday, 2 April 2017

Eric Gill's Ditchling

It's been a really rather wonderful day. It started altogether too early with a car journey across London and down to Catford, where I met Sam, Julie, Matt and Bal for breakfast in a greasy spoon. Catford is definitely on the up. The spoon is sandwiched between a delicatessen and a hipster cafe. I have no doubt that these new, fancy places will be subconsciously doing their level best to push the rents up for the ordinary man! Greasy Spoons will soon be a thing of the past.

Sam, Matt and I jumped into the car and drove down to a little village in East Sussex called Ditchling, which, it turns out, is rather well-known as a centre for folk arts and calligraphy. The story of the village as a mecca for the arts goes back to the somewhat controversial sculptor, Eric Gill, who set up a sort of bohemian commune on a heath above the village, which attracted a set of acolyte artists, many of whom also converted to Roman Catholicism. They wore smocks and shared an interest in fonts (of the lettering variety rather than the churchy kind.) As usual, I'm brutally over-simplifying the facts. A great many people think that Gill's highly unorthodox and controversial lifestyle overshadows his genius as an artist. I personally think it's a little unfair to judge the man through a 21st Century moral lens. A great many early 20th Century bohemians were attempting to smash down the constraints of the prudish Victorians. We applaud them for breaking certain boundaries, which include experimenting with sexuality and drugs, but condemn them for other practices, which time has defined as unacceptable. The fact remains that his sculptures are remarkable.

We met Hilary, Jago, Rupert and Mez in the village, and paid a visit to the little museum which sits by a duck pond in the shadow of the flint-walled church. It's a wonderful little spot, filled with works of art by William Morris, Eric Gill and Edward Johnston, whom, I learned today, designed the iconic font used by London Underground. (I had hitherto thought that the font was the work of Gill, so I wasn't far off the mark!)

We has lunch in a pub in the middle of the village, where the food is overpriced and undersized. We were joined there by my cousin Matt and his wife Boo who live in the village. It was an absolute treat to see them both. The collision of several different worlds slightly blew my mind!

After eating, we took ourselves on a lovely walk along the valley on a path lined with stunning hawthorn blossom hedges which stretched into the distance like a snow-covered hillside and floated in the breeze like confetti.

There was a dirty cream tea at teatime in a tea shop, followed by a little walk around the artists' workshops on the northern edge of the village. I bought a pair of cufflinks to remind me of the day, and we had a lovely chat with a lonely painter whose wife, he told us, had taken her own life four years ago. The poor man hasn't really painted since her death, but says he keeps the workshop going because he loves talking to the customers.

On the way home we called in on Ellie, Allan and their two kids in their glorious new home in Hayward's Heath; a 1960s building in the Scandinavian style with an enormous window which looks out over their garden and the imposing Winnie-The-Pooh-style wood behind.

Ellie's daughters are prodigiously intelligent and wonderful company. The oldest, Rozina (10), is a voracious reader who will literally read anything to the extent that Ellie and Allan are sometimes forced to hide books. I believe she found out about the myth of Santa in some sort of book meant for adults. When asked what her favourite book is, she cited a self-help manual for the parents of 0-5 year olds before adding, "I think there's a gap in the market for a book about parenting 6-10 year-olds."

We drove back to London in a glorious sunset. I dropped the boys off and then headed to Bexleyheath for a meeting with Hannah Chissick about Em. We slowly worked our way through the second half of the show whilst eating biscuits and fancy crisps.

The journey home was a disaster. Just what you need at 11pm! The trouble with London is that if any of the tunnels which go under the Thames go down, or get blocked by accidents, the city goes into meltdown. My satnav was predicting 25-minute tailbacks, so I made an adrenaline-fuelled decision to drive West into town on the south of the river before crossing the river at Tower Bridge. An hour and a half later, I was home. And now it's time for bed!

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