Tag Archives: Newhaven

The move to the country

Torendo, 11 Station Road, captured by local artist George Sims, showing a deceptively vehicle-free street, as it no doubt was in July 1968.

When my family moved from urban terraced Croydon to a sunny detached house in Newhaven, in Sussex, in 1965, the great vistas of the South Downs, Sussex Weald and English Channel were laid out before us, and we leapt at them with extensive family rambles most Saturdays and Sundays from March to October. Before we owned a car those family trips took the form of picnic hikes over the Downs  — quite literally just out the door and up the hill. Or we’d take short journeys by bus and train to Friston Forest near Eastbourne, Mount Caburn on the outskirts of Lewes, or particularly the famous Victorian naturalists’ destination, the Abbot’s Wood complex at Polegate. But for my 6-year-old mind, just stepping into the garden was an adventure.

Our Croydon house (15 Suffolk Road, South Norwood) was a corner end-of-terrace. It had three floors and four bedrooms, but it only had a tiny courtyard garden. Mum could water the whole thing by angling a short 1-metre stretch of thick hosepipe out of the window, from the kitchen tap, and using her thumb over the end to squirt the tiny rug of lawn and the narrow surrounding flower bed. My tricycle took three pushes on the pedals to get from one corner of the side passage, where the old washing machine was gradually filling with rain water, to the door of the coal shed, or whatever the dim airless former outside toilet was now used to store.

But I thought Torendo was a palace. It had a broad staircase with elegant dark-wood acorn-topped newel posts and a polished curving banister rail, and at the half-landing there was a bloody great stained glass window. I’d only ever seen things like this in a church or a manor house. I was agog. Nobody really knew where it had come from, or why it was there. My Dad had got the notion that it showed three of Apollo’s muses, but he’d never showed a great knowledge of classical literature or art on which to base this. Who knows? The story had also gone that the original builder had scavenged different sized doors and windows to fit the place out, and so the leaded glass had probably come from some sort of scrap yard — architectural salvage it’d be called nowadays.

It was quite a few years before I realized that stained glass windows like this don’t often feature in standard family homes.

The house was one of the oldest buildings on Mount Pleasant, the hill above Denton Corner, and on old Ordnance Survey maps it could be seen, a lone square grey spot, just up the hill from the Ouse flood plane and the sweep of the A259 Eastbourne-to-Brighton coast road, passing below. It occupied a large plot over which its white cube form presided regally. At least it did until we bought it. Just before us, the house and grounds had been bought by a developer, a Mr Fish, who lived further up Station Road. He’d then severed off two plots of land down the hill of Station Road and two plots along Beresford Road, on which four new houses would be built, leaving the Torendo we bought now in a much reduced square of land in the corner.

An aerial photo of the house in its original large corner plot. This can only have been taken a year or two before we moved in.

When we moved, the only signs of these future houses were some meagre wire fences and the trenches now filled with concrete foundations. Needless to say I went exploring, fascinated by the offcuts of reinforcing steel, rubble remains of some demolished outbuilding, and the large buddleja bushes abuzz with bees and hoverflies and the occasional red admiral butterfly. Building site security is a bit more stringent nowadays.

Torendo was named, apparently, for a previous owner’s three children, taking the first few letters of their names — Tom, Renie and Donald. In its heyday it had been a bed-and-breakfast guest house. The original painted metal sign, long mouldering in the loft, now hangs in my living room and still proudly announces its credentials. The TORENDO typeface, with its mid-line swash detailing is similar to that used on BONANZA and RAWHIDE, the famous western TV series of the 1950s and 60s, and was presumably meant to give the place an exotic air. When the new houses were built in Torendo’s former garden, number 3 of the 4 of them was called Tol Pereth, perhaps having a West Country sound to it, but it was actually an anagram of ‘plot three’.

A very 1930s colour scheme.

When we first arrived I also remember a series of large wood and hard-board signs in the shed; they were battleship grey, painted with white block letters proclaiming, vertically: ICES, TEAS and OPEN. I guess they were propped up against trees or road signs down on the main road, to entice passing traffic to stop over for light luncheon refreshments.

At first, the garden was like a jungle. The house had been unoccupied for many months and even when we bought it we didn’t move in for some time until Dad’s office finally relocated from London to Lewes; this was the motivation for our move to Newhaven in the first place. A massive privet bush, 3 or 4 metres high, in the middle of the garden, made a fine den for my brother and me to play in and an old apple tree outside the kitchen door afforded good views past the house to the grazing meadows that stretched away off towards the sea. The garden was dominated by red valerian, growing out of the broken concrete paths and thin soil just a few centimetres deep over the solid chalk rock. Of a summer evening it smelled strongly, and attracted hummingbird hawks and other moths, and above the roof any outfliers were picked off by the clouds of bats that thronged around the lamppost on the pavement nearby. I was in awe of these animals’ aerial prowess as they flapped about madly like deranged black handkerchiefs, scattering flurries of disembodied insect wing fragments.

Mr Sims’s rear view of the house, showing the stained-glass window, but also the disreputable shed and some attractive drain pipes.

The garden clearance started piecemeal each weekend as Mum and Dad found the time. The privet thicket was felled and a couple of old china butler sinks were set in as ponds — soon colonized by frogs, dragonflies, damsels and water boatmen. Digging the thin earth became an adventure too, as the ground everywhere was littered with large spent rifle shells and the occasional impressive live bullet. Prior to the D-Day landings just over two decades earlier, the house had been a billet for Canadian infantry and they must have been target-practising regularly. Every so often Dad and I would take the live rounds and hand them over the counter at the police station in Newhaven. Here it was, on the community noticeboard, I first saw the ‘wanted’ posters for Colorado beetle, the potential potato pest insect that had recently become unassailably established in Europe, and about which British farmers were rightly concerned. The cartoon style watercolour showed the shining striped and domed adult beetle, and its blobby plasticine-like larvae busy demolishing a ragged-looking potato crop. It seemed a peculiar juxtaposition to be handing over murderous ammunition under its gaze. Not that I really knew much about police work — my information came from Dixon of Dock Green and the occasional gossip from my police inspector uncle about vandalism on North Kent farms or a bungled robbery in a village post office.

That year we arrived, 1965, had seen one of the hardest winters in living memory. Unoccupied because we were not moving down until Dad’s office relocation was complete, one of the water pipes in the bathroom had frozen and with the thaw it burst and leaked, bringing down the kitchen ceiling. It also damaged the cheap veneer parquet-style flooring that covered the floorboards downstairs. All that had to come up and the ceiling had to be replastered before the house was habitable. My Dad being a hoarder, salvageable bits of the parquet were knocking about in the shed for years afterwards. They were all pretty bashed up, not just with water-staining, but from the dimple puncture marks of countless stiletto heals — the results of wild dance parties organized by those Canadian soldiers, we were informed.

With the repairs done we finally moved in May. I have no memory of the removals lorry, partly because I was not there when they packed up. But I do clearly remember my arrival in our new home. On the day before the move, Dad and I came down by train and we camped in the empty house overnight. The tiny box room, my sister’s bedroom for all the time I lived there, had a built-in wooden cot-type bed, with cupboards and drawers underneath it. This was where Dad slept. I was on the camp bed next to him. Goodness knows how anybody ever went camping in those days. This ostensibly moveable bit of furniture was actually a heavy and unwieldy contraption of thick articulated wooden struts and a sagging slung hammock of stiff hessian cloth and webbing. Maybe you were supposed to have a sherpa or a bearer to carry it about for you? Two perhaps. Anyway, fish and chips from the local shop for dinner and an off-the-cuff bedtime story about Willie Stag Beetle and his family, and I was nearly out. But I’d forgotten my cuddly toys. Never mind, hero Dad to the rescue as he brought them out of his rucksack — the unimaginatively named Dog and my broken-nosed threadbare teddy Patch. Calm resumed.

We soon settled into a routine of household life. Every morning my mum would come down to the kitchen and rake out some of the slag from the square, grey, coke-burning stove that heated our water. I never quite understood why it ran on a different fuel from the coal of the open fires elsewhere in the house; we had to have two concrete storage bunkers outside to separate them. Strange that I should recall a dirty, antiquated and slightly dilapidated boiler, except that I remember it was made by the Glow-worm brand. On the front it had a metal serial-number plate adorned with a logo which I immediately knew was a very anatomically incorrect caterpillar/ worm type thing with happy bulbous eyes and a shining light-bulb tail. Ever seen an indignant know-it-all 6-year-old? That was me.

Because we never really knew the house with its former grounds still intact, I never felt hard done by or resentful that we only had limited space to play. Anyway, we had the South Downs at our back and the ditch-lined meadows below. Within minutes we could be collecting sheep snails from the chalk hillsides, chasing clouded yellow butterflies across the clifftops, or picking out crabs and sea slaters from under the muddy rocks that edged the creek down at Tide Mills. So many worlds were our oysters, and there were pearls aplenty.

The curious incident of the dung beetle in the night-time

My father made eye contact and said something along the lines: “Can you hear that?” To start I wasn’t sure whether he meant Radio 4 droning away in the corner of the room, my brother careening down the stairs, or the kettle whistling on the gas in the kitchen. No, he was referring to an almost inaudible tick, tick, tick, coming from the window. He had the knowing look of someone who is about to show off something new.

As a 10-year-old, it was not unusual for me to be sitting in the lounge, as we called my father’s book-lined sitting room. Whilst he sat in the centre of the room behind the large polished wooden desk strewn with pens, papers and books, perhaps a microscope and a drawer of insects, I’d be perched at the smaller bureau-style table against the wall. Maybe I’d be doing homework. Actually, I’m not sure 10-year-olds had homework then. More likely I’d be writing up my own nature diary from whatever family trek we’d been out on that day. I might even have been pinning my own insect specimens, or doodling a sketch of a plant, or a map.

The tapping was definitely coming from outside the window. We drew back the curtains, but the brightly lit aura of the room barely penetrated the dark outside. There was nothing I could see. My Dad knew better. Slipping on shoes we tripped round to the front of the house to see what was going on.

The noise had stopped when we got to the window, but Dad pointed to the windowsill, probably just at or above the level of my eyeline. There, crawling across the yellow paintwork was a beetle.

Medium-sized (12 mm), elongate, parallel-sided, subcylindrical, dark brown nearly black, it had shortish stout legs and strongly clubbed antennae. Aphodius rufipes was my first dung beetle. It had flown in from the flood-plain grazing meadows that flanked the River Ouse hereabouts. Many hundreds of metres probably. Quite an achievement for a half-inch insect.

Aphodius Reitter 3 copy

Some handsome dung beetles. Aphodius rufipes is top right.

I strain now, but I can’t quite remember whether I thought this an odd thing for a beetle. Maybe the notion of dung recycling had already crossed my radar. I certainly understood about stag beetle larvae living in rotten wood. I probably knew about drone flies breeding in flooded tree holes. It’s all decaying organic matter.

It wouldn’t be long before Dad would also show me the huge dumbledors, Geotrupes spinipes, or maybe it was stercorarius, heaving its juggernaut way through the fingers of my clasped hand, then flying off, like a miniature helicopter. The power of the toothed legs amazed me, and the feeling of that downdraft as it buzzed away stays with me still.

Dissecting a cow pat came naturally to me. Other dung beetles followed. The great glossy Aphodius fossor, slightly shorter, but thicker and heavier than rufipes, was a favourite, so too was the small mottled and rather rare Aphodius paykulli. The chunky earthmover shape of Onthophagus coenobita appeared when I graduated to dog dung, and the mythically horned Minotaur beetle, Typhoeus typhaeus was eventually dug up from under rabbit crottels in Ashdown Forest.

I still find Aphodius rufipes occasionally. In cow or horse droppings. Never at my lighted window though. But whenever I hold its  smooth elegant shape in my fingers, I still think back to the warm summer Newhaven evenings, and the delicate head banging on the lounge glass.

I just can’t remember a time before insects

I inherited my interest in natural history from my father. When asked, he would claim to be ‘just a botanist’, but he always carried an insect net, and during his lifetime he amassed a large collection of insects across all orders. He also knew a thing or two about snails.

Even before we moved to Newhaven (in May 1965), I remember being out with Dad, or with the family, walking in the Surrey woods or along the North Downs. My first taste of fizzy orange juice was at the cafe near Box Hill railway station, surrounded by crowds of mods and rockers. I didn’t like the bubbles on my tongue, ‘hot’ I thought. The motorcycle policeman suggested we get on the train with the mods, rather than the more unstable and possibly more violent rockers.

I don’t quite remember this though.

Selsey v.60028

Two-year-old me.

It seems the indoctrination had started early. This was from our holiday to Selsey Bill, in May 1960. Even before this I was apparently dragged about the countryside, literally, in a large-wheeled push-chair, adapted for rough terrain by the addition of a stout pulling chain to the front axle, when extra power was needed to get along muddy bridleways.

My earliest insect collection (mostly butterflies, dragonflies and bumblebees, if I remember right) no longer exists, but a few surviving specimens linger  in the drawers today. According to my old catalogue, specimen 1a was the giant weevil Liparus coronatus from 1967 . Some of the memories are there though. Around the time of our first arrival in Newhaven I chased clouded yellows across the cliff-tops at Telscombe. A short walk over the downs to Bishopstone and it took several bites from saucer bugs (Ilyocoris cimicoides) and water boatmen (Notonecta species), before I worked out that I had to be carefully picking things out of the pond-dipping net.

I grew up thinking it was perfectly normal to spend every sun-lit weekend hour squelching across the marshy meadows of the Sussex river valleys, scrambling up the stepped sheep-rutted scarps of the chalk beacon hills, and pushing through the dense woods and copses of the Weald; then to sit down at a desk in the evening to pin insects onto setting boards, or fair-copy write-up my nature notes.

This picture is from much later, July 1983, when I was visiting my parents, but similar images from the previous 25 years would have shown the same thing — a shared interest in natural history. Thanks Dad.

July 1983015

Father and son.

A woodlouse as big as a hen’s egg it seemed

There are some events significant well beyond the moment of the actual encounter. They become seminal memories, key turning points in a life, or major influences on future choices. For me, many of these moments appear to involve finding a particular insect. Or in this case a crustacean.

Aged 11, I started at Newhaven Tideway Comprehensive School. It was right on the other side of the town, a good 2 miles walk away;  there were various possible routes, but to start with I took the Drove Road into town, then along the West Quay Road, and finally up Gibbon Road to the school. Things have changed a lot since — at that time there was a bustling harbour with a good dozen or so large wooden jetties along this side of the River Ouse, each with several fishing trawlers moored. There was also a large quay area with scoop-cranes to unload gravel and sand from cargo ships. It wasn’t the most direct way to school, and usually took me nearly an hour, but it was the most interesting.

When the tide was out, the muddy and rocky river bank was exposed, and dawdling home I would often go right down to the water’s edge to skim stones or turn over rocks looking for small shore crabs. It was on one such slippery exploration that I hauled over a slimy algae-covered boulder to reveal a biological marvel — the biggest woodlouse I had ever seen. It seemed as big as an egg when it first scuttled off. It was certainly very large, probably the maximum 30 mm that this fantastic creature can reach.

It could have been the Kraken.

It could have been the Kraken.

I had never seen anything like it, and knew I had to show it to someone, or they would never believe me. Armed only with a battered briefcase full of exercise books I had nothing to contain my treasure. I was not to be daunted. I walked the rest of the way home with the beast trapped in my cupped hands.

I was slightly deflated to learn that the sea slater, Ligia oceanica, was a widespread and common sea critter, but nothing could take away from me that initial sense of wonder. I still get a thrill when I find one now, under a stone by a rock pool or on the saltmarshes of the Thames Estuary. I was most pleased to find them crawling up the rotten wooden fenders deep in Deptford Creek (where this photo was taken in May 1998) and at the outfall of the River Wandle at Wandsworth, I think the UK’s most inland record.

But despite my childish over-exageration, in the intervening 40 odd years, I still don’t think I’ve ever seen one quite as big as that first.

Top snail

On 17 September 1967 the Jones family set off on a walk over the South Downs between Denton and South Heighton, in East Sussex. We’d moved to Newhaven a couple of years before, and such was the novelty of countryside (we’d lived in South Norwood, near Croydon previously) that we would still all go on family outings together — nature-watching, picnicking and mud-gathering. Even though I was only 9 I remember it vividly. My father was showing me some of the ‘sheep’ snails in the  grass growing at the side of the footpath.

These are small snail species, prettily marked with bands of black or brown, varying from stout globes to tight spires. Sheep snails are so named because, as the tale goes, they are so numerous in the downland turf that sheep can’t help but eat them inadvertently, and this gives a special flavour to Sussex mutton. It’s a nice tale, but who knows?

My mum bent down and picked up one from a grass stem and my dad’s face rose with astonishment. She had found the top snail, Helicella elegans, one of Britain’s rarest molluscs.

Helicella elegans, aptly named for its elegant conical form.

Helicella elegans, aptly named for its elegant conical form and delicately precise markings.

A cursory search showed that there were thousands of them along the bank of the deeply cut, and obviously ancient, trackway across the downs. And as the day progressed, it soon transpired that this was going to be the largest colony of the snail anywhere in Britain (actually there are only two other UK sites known). There were loads of them, extending for several hundreds of metres along the banks of the various byways hereabouts.

Over the next few months, whenever walks took us this way, we’d always stop and have a look for them, and over time we found the snail along several kilometres of pathway, the banks of which were remnant rough flowery grassland remaining where much of the gentler slopes of the downs had been ploughed for arable crops.

I can’t remember the last time I picked one up there, probably in the early 1980s when this photo was taken.

So what a delight to be walking out across these same tracks yesterday, now with my family in tow, and ‘Grandad’ as he is now telling the same sheep snail anecdotes. “What’s this one” says Lillian, plucking a small snail off a grass stem.

It can only be one thing.

Still as dainty as ever, but now Trochoidea elegans.

Still as dainty as ever, but now Trochoidea elegans.