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The book review for "The Rising Down" by Alexandra Harris explores the delights of Sussex.
Culture

The book review for “The Rising Down” by Alexandra Harris explores the delights of Sussex.

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Sussex is not typically known for its cultural significance compared to other English counties. It lacks noteworthy figures like the Brontës or Thomas Hardy. Wordsworth did not take the time to explore the South Downs while traveling through the northern Lakelands. While Shelley was born in Horsham on his family’s land, he left as soon as he could and never returned. Painters also did not find the area appealing. For example, in 1774, William Gilpin, who pioneered the idea of the picturesque, toured the southern coastal counties and concluded that Sussex had little to offer in terms of beauty due to its chalky soil creating a “blank glaring surface.”

However, there was one individual who, though not originally from Sussex, truly understood the essence of the region. In 1802, William Blake was residing near Bognor and while walking along the beach, he was inspired to write about seeing the world in a single grain of sand. Drawing from this concept of keen observation, Alexandra Harris returns to her place of birth to conduct her own thorough exploration and uncover the many layers within it. Her approach is specifically focused on the immediate area – not just Sussex or West Sussex, but the small radius around West Chiltington, the village where she spent her childhood in the 1980s. Her scope of what TS Eliot referred to as “significant soil” includes the foothills of the Weald, the coastline, and the towns of Chichester, Arundel, Petworth, and Pulborough.

This particular location may not be extensive, but it makes up for it in its extensive coverage. Harris delves deep into the earth, uncovering tales from various periods such as the Second World War (involving Canadian soldiers and Polish resistance workers), the French Revolution (including bedraggled refugees landing on the beach), and even as far back as the medieval times of iron-working in the Weald and beyond. He goes back even further to the prehistoric era when Sussex was submerged under a shallow sea, slowly forming itself from chalk and fish remains. Rather than mundane familiarity, Harris realizes that “everything was more peculiar and vibrant than I could have ever imagined”.

She has a strong understanding of the late 17th century and the turmoil caused by the civil war. Despite the assumption that an agricultural county would lean towards conservative and royal beliefs, Harris discovers many farmers who are eager for change. Richard Haines, a farmer and brewer from Sullington, is one of these individuals. He spends his days envisioning new scientific methods to improve crop yields in the challenging chalky soil. He is also independent in matters of religion, choosing to ride 12 miles to attend a Baptist chapel and listen to the fiery sermons of Matthew Caffyn, who was recently expelled from All Souls College, Oxford.

Harris discovers many opposing perspectives in Chichester, the main city of the county. In the narrow streets around the cathedral, she meets Joseph Seagrave, a progressive printer, and his partner, Mary Shepherd. They choose not to get married due to their lack of belief in the institution and are prepared to face any negativity that may come with it. Seagrave’s printing press in East Street produces a variety of significant publications such as handbills, ads, and a fresh newspaper, the Sussex Chronicle. One regular guest is Blake, who travels from Bognor to Chichester. He sees potential in the city, adorned with Roman walls and a history of paganism, as a model for the Holy City he envisions in his epic poem, Jerusalem.

In this fantastic book, Harris proves that being local does not mean being insignificant or limited. In 1829, a well-off family named Henty from West Tarring pooled their resources and bought 80,000 acres in Australia. They departed from Littlehampton with a large group of prized merino sheep. Fast forward to the 1930s, when a medieval sandstone bowl is unearthed in an Australian garden and is being used as a planter. It turns out to be the old church font from Tarring, most likely brought by the Hentys for sentimental reasons. According to Harris, this emotional connection between a village in Sussex and a suburb on the opposite side of the globe is a noteworthy illustration of the common and complex human tendency to create places from other places, blurring the lines between original and new identities.

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Source: theguardian.com