All villages have stories to tell. Many are mere provincial tales; some might contain a passing connection to a figure of wider renown.
But there are a few villages which are blessed with unusual distinction. One of these is nestled in a dry valley running down to the Sussex coast, in the Downs to the east of Brighton.
While the buildings of its seafront are unremarkable, to walk to the centre of Rottingdean is almost like stepping into a children’s picture-book of rural England. There’s a pond, a green, an old church, a variety of characterful houses and beach-pebble walls, all overlooked by black windmill on a nearby hill.
I recently spent some time cat-sitting for a relative here, and learned a little of its history. There are a few stories of smuggling, hardly uncommon on this coastline. In 1377, the village was even attacked by French raiders.
But most surprising to learn was how, in the last two decades of the nineteenth century, a series of extraordinary cultural figures passed through this place – spanning politics, visual art, literature and music.
On the west side of the green is a house with a plaque honouring the artist Edward Burne-Jones. Today he is best known for his paintings in a Pre-Raphaelite style and the stained glass designs he made for the firm of William Morris.
In the early 1880s Burne-Jones was living in London with his family when this house became their country retreat. His wife Georgiana described encountering Rottingdean one ‘perfect autumn afternoon’:
The little place lay peacefully within its grey garden walls, the sails of the windmill were turning slowly in the sun […] The road I followed led me straight to the door of a house that stood empty on the village green and we bought it at once.
The idealised aesthetic of the Pre-Raphaelites drew on Medieval art and literature, and for an artist with these sensibilities it is easy to see how a pretty rural village would have appealed as a getaway from Victorian London.
Across the green from their house, several Burne-Jones windows can be seen in St. Margaret’s church, including a depiction of St. Margaret to mark the marriage of his daughter of the same name. Among other projects he worked on in Rottingdean was a private ‘flower book’, with roundel illustrations based on the common names of flowers.
But Rottingdean turned out not to be quite the perfect pastoral idyll. As Derek Heater has described in his village history, Burne-Jones complained about noise, and opposed the introduction of electricity. The village also became the terminus for an extraordinary seashore electric railway running from Brighton through the shallow waters, and when this enterprising leisure venture was damaged in a storm, he admitted to ‘rather spiteful rejoicing’.
Metropolitan types securing a second home in the country, only to find it doesn’t exist to serve their fantasy of rural life? Some things never change.
In 1889 the Burne-Joneses bought the neighbouring Aubrey Cottage, knocked it through into one property and renamed it North End House. It’s a rather grand sight, but further down the high street stands a building that’s become considerably more neglected.
Closed since 2013, this used to be St. Aubyn’s School. Back in the 1880s it was known as Field House, and it was here, while the Burne-Joneses were staying a minute’s walk away, that a young Ralph Vaughan Williams was educated from the age of 11 to 14.
His widow Ursula’s biography paints a picture of a happy time here, and Vaughan Williams benefitted from excellent music tuition. He learned some of Bach’s easier piano pieces, and performed the violin in school concerts. On a trip to Brighton he was wowed to hear Hans Richter conduct Wagner’s prelude from Lohengrin and The Ride Of The Valkyries.
These were formative years for his musical awakening, but Field House also gave Vaughan Williams a fondness of the Sussex landscape. ‘The great bare hills impressed me by their grandeur’, he said. ‘I have loved the Downs ever since’.
If some villages attract people of unusual distinction, in Rottingdean’s case that is partly because some families do the same. Georgiana Burne-Jones was born a MacDonald, and was one of several sisters who made remarkable marriages that would leave their mark here.
Agnes MacDonald married the architect Ambrose Poynter; their son Edward was a respected painter. Louisa MacDonald wed businessman Alfred Baldwin, and their son Stanley Baldwin would go on to be Prime Minister three times. As a young man visiting Rottingdean, Stanley met Lucy Ridsdale, whose family owned the large house The Dene, and in 1892 they were married in St. Margaret’s.
Meanwhile, Alice MacDonald had married the artist John Lockwood Kipling, and moved with him to India. Their son, Rudyard Kipling, stayed in Rottingdean as a teenager. In 1897, the now thirty-one-year-old had made a name for himself as a writer when he decided to rent a house here called The Elms, with wife Carrie and two daughters in tow.
It must have seemed auspicious that soon after their arrival in Rottingdean, their son John was born. Sadly however, Edward Burne-Jones died the following year, but there were still happy times with extended family staying around the village.
‘One could throw a cricket ball between any one house to the other’, Kipling wrote of their various dwellings, and the young Baldwin and Kipling offspring would be bundled into farm-carts and taken by horse up into the Downs for ‘jam-smeared picnics.’
Such was the magic of the place that Kipling was inspired to write the poem Sussex. It concludes:
God gives all men all earth to love,
But since man’s heart is small,
Ordains for each one spot shall prove
Beloved over all.
Each to his choice, and I rejoice
The lot has fallen to me
In a fair ground—in a fair ground—
Yea, Sussex by the sea!
But Kipling tended to spend the winters abroad, and as a writer of Empire, his works of the Rottingdean years have a considerably less cute side. For Queen Victoria’s 1897 Jubilee he composed Recessional, which seemed to foretell the British Empire’s decline. Soon after, The White Man’s Burden became one of his most controversial poems, revealing the racism that underpinned Western conquests with the lines ‘Your new-caught, sullen peoples / Half-devil and half-child’.
America was the new rising power, and Kipling sent The White Man’s Burden to Theodore Roosevelt with a message encouraging the American invasion of the Philippines. During the Boer War, he wrote The Absent Minded-Beggar to help raise funds for troops, which was set to music by Arthur Sullivan.
His imperialism put him at loggerheads with the widowed Georgiana, who was an idealistic socialist. She busied herself on Rottingdean’s parish council, trying to improve the lot of ordinary village folk, though it seems her good intentions sometimes struggled to bridge the social gap between them. After the Boer War, she hung a banner proclaiming ‘We have killed and also taken possession’, which brought about an angry crowd, requiring Kipling to play the unlikely peace-maker.
Life became immensely more difficult for the Kiplings after the tragic death of their daughter Josephine in 1899. And with Rudyard’s reputation growing quickly in this period, he resented being gawped at by day-trippers as a local celebrity. In 1902, the family left the village.
By this time, Vaughan Williams was a young man on his way to becoming a leading proponent of the English folk-song revival, both as a song collector and composer. And yet amazingly, he is not even Rottingdean’s most famous connection to this cultural movement, which gathered pace as the new century dawned.
On a row of cottages towards the north end of the village is another plaque, commemorating the former residence of the Copper family. Their connection to Rottingdean goes back to the sixteenth century, and they were known locally for their songs, sung in harmony.
And so it was that in November 1898 – the same month that Kipling was writing to Roosevelt – the musician and folk-song collector Kate Lee came down to notate songs from James ‘Brasser’ Copper and Tom Copper, a farm foreman and pub landlord respectively.
They met at the house of another local big-wig, Edward Carson QC, who had worked on the scandalous Oscar Wilde trials three years earlier. If Georgiana’s civic activism had struggled to cross Rottingdean’s class divisions, this musical meeting seems to have been more successful. As Lee later described it, ‘I shall never forget the delight of hearing the two Mr. Coppers’:
They were so proud of their Sussex songs, and sang them with an enthusiasm grand to hear […] You only had to start either of them on the subject of the song and they commenced at once. ‘Oh, Mr. Copper, can you sing me a love song, a sea song, or a plough song?’ It did not matter what it was, they looked at each other significantly, and with perfectly grave faces off they would go.
It would be her most important collection. Not long after, Lee became founding member of the Folk-Song Society, which was later merged into the English Folk Dance And Song Society. In the 1950s, the BBC re-discovered the Copper family and broadcast their songs to a wide audience. The descendants of ‘Brasser’ and Tom still sing today, and have toured internationally.
Rottingdean has had a fair few other distinguished residents – I won’t even try to provide and exhaustive list, but North End House was later the home of Reuters chairman Sir Roderick Jones and writer Enid Bagnold.
Sadly, the bizarre seashore railway only lasted a few years, but in the 1930s an ‘Undercliff Walk’ was constructed along the coast which is still in use today, and makes for a spectacular trip. During my stay, I enjoyed daily bicycle rides into Brighton along here, alternatively aided and hindered at the whim of the sea breeze.
There’s no doubt that Rottingdean is almost sickeningly pretty. Its desirability as a place to live is only increased by the kind of independent shops and cafes that could make many large towns green with envy. It even has its own museum! How lucky a village can be, through the strange alignment of geography and history.
Nonetheless, posters around the community speak of normal mundane pressures: court decisions about controversial developments, the need to reduce traffic congestion. Edward Burne-Jones surely would have balked to see the busses barely scraping along its narrow old high street.
But today, in the heart of the village, you can find one of its top attractions. The former grounds next to The Elms were bought by the Rottingdean Preservation Society, and are now open to the public as the Kipling Gardens.
Walking through its walls on a summer’s day, with its flowers in bloom and the windmill gazing down, you can see the old imperialist was right about one thing. There is something very special about this ‘lot of fair ground’ in Sussex by the sea.
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