We’re up early the next morning and on the road again, heading southeast toward Alfriston. This picture-perfect village boasts a fine green, timber-framed pubs, and a rare 14th-century thatched hall house—the first building ever acquired by Britain’s National Trust. Our destination is the celebrated bookstore Much Ado Books, where we pore at length over tomes by and about Bloomsbury writers and artists. Owners Nash Robbins and Cate Olson are happy to let us browse. “We love it when people really savor the shop,” Robbins says. “Whatever their interest or however much money they have to spend, we want everyone to enjoy themselves here—it’s about connecting people with great books.” We stagger back to the car under the weight of our purchases, and then stroll across cow-dotted fields to have lunch at Litlington’s charming outdoor Edwardian tearooms.
Glyndebourne, the world-renowned opera house, is just 14 kilometers up the road. Its season runs from May through August each year, and an evening at the opera paired with that most English of traditions—a black-tie picnic on the grounds—is not to be missed. After dropping our bags at the swanky Pelham House hotel in nearby Lewes and buying some provisions at the Flint Owl Bakery, we arrive at Glyndebourne at 3 p.m. Tottering in high heels and long dresses, Emily and I admire the newly restored gardens and the lake before setting up our picnic—a loaf of organic bread, a minty broad-bean salad, and asparagus quiche, all of which is delicious—in prime position on the lawn. The night’s entertainment is a bold new production of Richard Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier, conducted by Glyndebourne’s new music director, Robin Ticciati. “This is the best production of Der Rosenkavalier I have ever seen, and believe me, I have seen a lot of them,” a rather smart gentleman in the seat next to me confides. Given how long it takes for the applause to die down, the sentiment seems unanimous.
The next morning we head to Eastbourne. Though a little stuffy, the seaside town retains much of its early Victorian grandeur with white stucco buildings, a wrought-iron pier, and wide, unlittered roads. We pull up outside the Towner Gallery and check in for a much anticipated tour of its archive. I’m beside myself with excitement; the gallery holds the national collection of the Sussex-born war artist and Wedgwood illustrator Eric Ravillious, whose work I adore. We are ushered into a vast warehouse-like room. The door clunks shut behind us and our guide pulls out giant metal panels of work not normally on show.
Eastbourne marks the start of the South Downs Way, an ancient hilltop track that stretches 160 kilometers westward to Winchester. Kitted out in sun hats and hiking boots we climb quickly away from town and enter a wide, empty wilderness. To our left, the sheer drop over the notorious Beachy Head cliffs is not a sight for the faint-hearted. Buffeted by a brisk sea breeze, we navigate a rough coastal path that finally drops down to Cuckmere Estuary, where we gaze up in awe at the brilliant white-chalk cliffs known as the Seven Sisters. The view, much like the walk to get here, is breathtaking.
We follow the meandering path of the Cuckmere River back toward the A259, where we hop on a bus for East Dean’s Tiger Inn and a well-earned pint. Sitting on a bench outside, looking out over village green, it is, quite simply, perfection.
A two-and-a-half-hour drive from central London, Lewes is a good base for exploring the area, and boasts fantastic antiques shops and bookstores. Taking a train to Lewes from London Victoria station is even faster, and once there, you can rent a car through Avis from Brighton Car Hire (in nearby Brighton) from about US$70 a day (avis.co.uk).
Where to Stay
Lewes boasts two smart hotels, The Shelleys (44-1273/472-361; doubles from US$220) and Pelham House (44-1273/488-600; doubles from US$160). The Ram Inn (44-1273/858-222; doubles from US$153) in Firle is also well worth considering, while the simple Garden Studio at Monk’s House is a must for Virginia Woolf fans (44-344/355-1287; from US$321 for a minimum three nights’ stay).
What to See
Charleston (44-1323/811-626), the former meeting place of the Bloomsbury group, is liveliest during its springtime literary festival, though the house draws culture buffs throughout the year, as does Monk’s House in nearby Rodmell. Alfriston’s Much Ado Books ( 44-1323/ 871-222) is another must-do for literature lovers. And for opera, there’s Glyndebourne (44-1273/812-321), though the current season ends on August 24.
This article originally appeared in the August/September 2014 print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“An East Sussex Sojourn”)