The destination for history

The writing process of Sussex Writers in their Landscape: Self-fulfilment in the Age of the Machine


Brian Short re-accounts the early writing process with author Peter Brandon for the new book Sussex Writers in their Landscape and his important legacy.

Way back in October 1963 – 60 years ago as I write this – I saw Dr Peter Brandon for the first time. I had arrived at the North-Western Polytechnic in Kentish Town to study Geography and he was to be the tutor for a large part of our degree course. He proved to be inspirational to me and I found myself becoming a keen student, something I had never been at school where sport had been my passion! To my great surprise he wrote to me in August 1966 offering me the opportunity to become his research assistant. I leapt at the chance, and forgot my intention to become a town planner back in my native Kent.

As well as researching for his work at the Public Record Office (then in Chancery Lane) I registered for a PHD in the historical geography of farming in the High Weald of South East England 1850-1953. My academic career progressed from there, finishing with a professorial position at the University of Sussex from 1974.
Peter and I continued to maintain contact, and we co-wrote South East England from AD 1000 for a Longman series on regional history. My own interests developed into agrarian history and local history and I have now published over 80 books and articles and I retired from Sussex in 2009. Peter was known and loved around Sussex for his enthusiasm, even slight eccentricity. Many stories could be told of his energetic countryside walking.

But in 2011 I heard that Peter was unwell. He was now 83 and had kidney problems. I visited him and we discussed his latest project, what was to become Sussex Writers in Their Landscape. His hospital bed was littered with books, many from the London Library and he strove to complete the work. He did offer an incomplete version to a local Chichester publisher but died later in 2011 with the work essentially incomplete.

So, this is where I came in. working from his incomplete draft I digitised the text, edited the content, added end-notes and illustrations where I thought appropriate and wrote an introduction and a final concluding chapter. The introduction contains a short background to his life and work which will be of great interest to many. Unfortunately his original publisher, Michael Packard, died before the book could be finished and at that stage I approached The History Press, who have ever since been enthusiastic and helpful publishers.

In this book, Peter Brandon drew on his vast knowledge of the Sussex landscape to show how writers have been inspired by their surroundings, have found peace and a tranquillity which existed in few other places, and certainly not so near to London and the growing coastal towns. Between 1850 and 1939 such well-known writers as Rudyard Kipling, Virginia Woolf or Richard Jefferies came to join the likes of Hilaire Belloc or Wilfrid Blunt in their Sussex countrysides. The result was an explosion of creativity which rejected modernity and the London scene and pointed to writing imbued with a sense of nature and landscape.

The Sussex landscape is here celebrated by writers and poets, both famous and lesser-known. For the first time we trace the corpus of Sussex writing which was connected to the tumultuous wider events of the period but was equally a hymn of praise to rural Sussex, seen as nourishing, sympathetic and, for some, a retreat from the stresses of burgeoning city life or the horrors of mechanised warfare. We meet Wilfred Blunt and learn of his love for his Wealden countryside; we encounter the complex Hilaire Belloc; the acute observations of Richard Jefferies and Rudyard Kipling; and the modernity of Virginia Woolf. Lesser-known writers are included too, such as Charles Dalmon or Dr Habberton Lulham, who loved spending time with the downland shepherds or with travelling folk among the byways of the county.

I hope that the book will appeal to an educated lay readership, including the many adult students and enthusiasts for Peter Brandon’s work in Sussex; but also to a wider academic audience wishing to build on the literature/environment engagement now very current. The chapters on Kipling, Woolf or Belloc will attract attention, as would a focus on the South Downs. It should also inform policy makers such as those working in environmental and landscape protection (e.g. South Downs National Park, High Weald AONB) or civic societies or those selling places for commercial interests eg garden centres and local authorities, and organisations promoting places in Sussex).

Through his books and also through his prolific lectures and media appearances: television, radio and local newspapers, over many years, Peter had established himself as the distinguished authority on the landscape history, and protection, of rural Sussex. So these are his last words: asked on the day before he died from kidney failure ‘What present advice would you pass onto folk?’ He replied ‘We must fight to keep what countryside we have left!’

By Professor Brian Short

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