I hadn’t been back to Selsey for thirty, perhaps forty years. The first garden I remember was my father’s there, just after World War II. It had all the classical requirements of a garden: unity, ecological integrity, proportion, and fitness for purpose. My father made it on half an acre right by the sea, using a single species: brambles.
Our house (its name was Twin Fires. Why?) was on the very tip of Selsey Bill, the promontory into the Channel where rumour had it that Hitler intended to set foot. Certainly, in 1940, preparations were made to receive him: vast concrete blocks and thickets of barbed wire.
The brambles were not intended for that purpose, but when we were allowed to go back in 1946 the brambles had invaded, my father was busy in London, labour was scarce, fuel unobtainable and the great prickly maze with its luscious fruit seemed as good an idea as any. Pa mowed paths through it in the pattern of the streets around his office: Queen Victoria Street, Watling Street, Bread Street and Bow Lane. They had name-plates, and we children loved racing through them. Then we moved house to Kent, and Twin Fires became a memory.
When I went back last month I didn’t recognize it. Selsey Bill is now largely covered with expensive-looking houses. One notable Arts and Crafts house, The Bill House, designed in 1907 by Hugh Baillie Scott, is now a nursing home. I walked along the pebble beach, where I once earned 2/6 for learning to swim, looking inland, trying to picture the exact shape of a remembered gable. And there it was, clustered round with new ones, still looking down its half-acre out to sea. They were selling crab sandwiches on the beach. I ate one in a deep reverie.
Memories drifted back. Would I be able to find the farmhouse my father painted, an oil that still hangs by my bed? Was it at Sidlesham, on Pagham Harbour (where a sixteenth century map tells us, ‘a barque of forty tonnes may flote’. Not any more.) The grove of elms in the painting would have died in the 1970s. I searched in vain. I tried all the roads in what I learned, for the first time, is called the Manhood Peninsula. A little chapel stands where Saint Wilfred, the first bishop of Selsey, reputedly landed to preach to the South Saxons. I remembered being told as a small boy that Selsey Cathedral was still out there somewhere, under the waves.
My madeleine moment, though, was when I went on to Itchenor to look for an uncle and aunt’s house. We used to sail with him in Chichester Harbour; more potent memories. The house has gone, but the lane beside it still leads to the cottage where my first girlfriend lived. I was about ten when I stole out on summer nights to hold her hand. As I passed the cottage door I was suddenly overcome by a positive blast of memory. There beside the door was a wizened old honeysuckle in flower, the very one that still defines a tender moment seventy years later.
Next day I went up to the Downs by Goodwood, to see Kingley Vale and its famous forest of yew. The vale is a long chalky combe rising to a vista over Chichester harbour to the Isle of Wight. Six burial mounds, perhaps of kings, command the view. The west side of the valley is entirely covered by a dense unbroken yew wood, perhaps a hundred acres of perpetual, almost impenetrable, gloom. If we let them, and leave them alone, I thought, places find their own identity, whether it’s a forest of yews, a patch of brambles or a honeysuckle.