The Runaway Buffet and Snack Bar is unusual in that’s it’s the sort of cafe you tend to frequent by default. Located as it is on Platform 2 of Lewes railway station it’s a godsend when you’re passing through and have a wait for your next train. We’d just alighted from the Brighton train and had twenty minutes until our train to Glynde was due and the thought of a cuppa at the Runaway was most welcome.
The Runaway has a few quirks that stand it out from the usual bland corporate outlets that are more common on railway platforms. For a start classical music is always playing and then there’s the clock on the wall that is always five minutes fast. The unique Runaway time zone is a helpful idiosyncrasy as it means you’re unlikely to miss the train you’re passing time in the cafe waiting for.
With such a tasty menu of home made specials it’s worth taking time over your transit to have a tasty breakfast or lunch here too. Lots of jacket potatoes, panini and toasted sandwiches as well as soups and cakes. The cafe featured on Radio 4 on the late John Peel’s Home Truths show as part of a commuter’s radio diary. Famous too for the custom of the late Diana, Princess of Wales who stopped off here to order one of their legendary bacon sandwiches.
The service is always friendly and its a cafe I’ve frequented for years off and on whenever I’ve been passing through Lewes station. With an eye on that express clock, it was time to make a move and get on with catching the train and the main business of the day. Refreshed by our teas we were ready for more than a few miles rambling along the Old Coach Road from Firle to Alfriston. This ancient route runs parallel and at the foot of the South Downs and is great if you like your routes direct and straightforward and with no more unexpected detours.
The eponymous tea rooms sit in the heart of the historic downland village of Ditchling just across from the ancient church. If you’re looking for somewhere cosy and comfortable for a pot of tea then this is your place. It may be slightly worn around the edges, a bit confused in its sense of decor and with a rather lived-in feel like a comfy pair of slippers but it’s the home of the giant scone. I wonder if this USP will be enough to brave off the stiff competition for a cuppa in a world where latest styles and trends hold sway.
All within spitting distance of the tea rooms there’s the recently opened Mr Magnolia’s coffee shop right on the crossroads as well as the brand new Ditchling Art and Craft museum’s cafe by the pond. For such a tiny village it’s become a bit of a cafe hotspot all of a sudden. Is there a bun fight for the competition or will they all attract their own particular clientele?
We’d taken the train to Hassocks and walked along the small lane past the restored Oldland windmill and then the contour-following footpaths with views to the South Downs before dropping into the village. It’s a restorative 50 minutes walk and and an easy way to escape the city, breath in lungfuls of fresh country air and soak up loads of Sussex village charm.
The original beamed tea rooms have a bakery attached with many of their cakes and a wicker tray of their famous giant scones on show in the period bow window. There’s a lovely aroma from the log fire burning slowly in the grate in the back room. During the summer the walled patio garden is my favourite spot but on a cold winter’s day inside was a preferable warm and cosy choice. They’re very much traditional tea rooms and seem as if they’ve always been here. Although no longer called Dolly’s Pantry, long-standing regulars like myself occasionally slip up in its nomenclature. You can tuck into soups, toasties, jackets and specials of the day and absorb some of its old world allure while facing off the inclement weather outside and refueling for the afternoon’s return walk.
The tea rooms have braved off competition before but the two new kids in the village come with their shiny stylish interiors and the vigour of just-opened new businesses. Only time will tell if there’s room for all three cafes in Ditchling. So even if it’s not buns at dawn there’s bound to be at least a battle of the cupcakes or maybe those giant scones will flatten any challengers.
Whenever I visit Charleston I always make sure it’s a gorgeous day so that I can enjoy my tea and cake in the folly garden. The main Outer Studio cafe is indoors but there is a small walled garden through to the back where you can easily pass some time admiring the plants and flowers in this lovely secluded little spot.
After walking over the Downs for a good few miles starting from Bishopstone station and continuing along the Old Coach Road at the foot of the Downs some refreshments were in order. The cafe inside has whitewashed walls and a blackboard listing the cakes of the day which were all under wraps to ward off the wasps. Sitting on ceramic cake stands atop tables covered with colourful Bloomsbury style flower prints, the choice of cakes was just about right to easily make up your mind. A vintage record player filled the interior with smooth jazz notes while we placed our orders.
Outside water lilies float on the small pond in the centre of the gravelled walled garden with a statue of a naked figure looking as if he’s just about ready to leap in. All manner of foliage and summer flowers surround this central feature with colour and perfume. With seating of just a few tables set out here it was fortunate that the rush had just finished and we were able to choose a place in the shade. The pear and almond tart was perfect with my pot of tea and the chance to sit down and rest a while was welcome.
Later I took a walk around the larger cottage garden in full bloom and bursting with flowers and fruit. Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant, the founders of the Bloomsbury group, lived in the farmhouse from 1916. They redesigned the garden in a style with more than a nod to the Mediterranean with mosaics, box hedges, gravel paths and ponds. It’s lovely to walk around and to come across secluded areas each with their own feature. Like the corner with the female torso with bright flowers bursting forth from it.
The Bloomsbury group were all about bringing together like minded writers, painters and intellectuals of the time and were fortunate enough to have such a beautiful house and garden to welcome them to. Most years I hold a summer garden party at home as an excuse to bring all my different strands of friends together. Even though many have never met before they usually all get on surprisingly well and it’s rewarding to see new connections being made.
The last place on earth you would expect to see a cafe is right next to a nuclear power station. The background hum of the power station and its brooding mass must be the biggest elephant in the room for Dungeness tourism. I travelled to this isolated spot on the Kent coast by the Romney Hythe and Dymchurch miniature railway where as you alight at the end of the line you’re welcomed by the Light Railway Cafe.
The cafe serves all sorts of breakfast options, fish and chips and jacket potatoes and sandwiches so a good stop for the hungry. Once inside it was the wildness of the views outside through the windows that drew my attention. Ready for a tea before exploring the area I preferred the outdoor seating with the majestic views of the pylons stretching out from the power station into the distance to the cacophony of the radio indoors.
To say that Dungeness is a place of contrasts is understating this vast and surreal area of shingle which encompasses weather battered homes amid a rich bio-diversity of wild flowers and is a designated National Nature Reserve. I wandered up the patch work road past washing on lines being whipped by the wind and homes assembled from wooden sheds and former railway carriages. Being in high summer the wildflowers were at their fullest bloom in hues of pink, yellow and orange.
I chatted to an artist who was welcoming passers by into his studio. His study of a former nearby shed disintegrating through exposure to the elements was the main exhibit. The isolation of his chosen home’s location seemed to accentuate his mania or maybe he was always a little like this. To choose to live in this starkly beautiful and remote landscape yet cheek by jowl with the nuclear industry isn’t your regular housing option so why would he be ‘normal’ anyway?
I wandered further along the road and came across Prospect Cottage, the former home of Derek Jarman, the acclaimed film director. The new owners have maintained the garden made famous by its eponymous book. With driftwood sculptures, masses of wild flowers and rusted metallic artworks it’s well worth the meander.
You come to realise how prosperous the modern western world has become compared with the recent past on reading a book like Jeanette Winterson’s riveting autobiography Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal. It tells of her growing up in the grim North of England in the 60’s and how it’s made her the person she is. Walking around Dungeness you can’t help but ponder on why people would choose to live here in such bleak isolation. I can only surmise that it’s to get away from some of what the modern world deems progress and find their happiness in a slower and simpler pace of life. Yet with the conundrum that one monstrous edifice of that modern world drones just yards away .
Us townies have a particular view of the countryside. The green space beyond our city boundaries we see as for leisure and recreation. For centuries the countryside was a place of heavy labour and food production, and still is, but to a much smaller proportion of the population. To stride out along time-worn pathways and through ancient tiny villages is to converse with the narrative of the landscape.
Not far from Hampden Park station we took a steep path signposted to Jevington. The climb was worth the exertion with fabulous views from the top near the old trig point overlooking Eastbourne and the coast. You could see the Brighton & Hove bus number 12 trundling along the Beachy Head road in the far distance. An easy downhill followed along the well worn track of the South Downs Way into the sleepy valley below and the village of Jevington. When I come across places like this I often wonder if I really am living in the crowded south-east so as the setting is so peaceful and deserted. A picnic stop by the centuries old church in shade of a beautiful tree in full pink blossom set us up for the next few miles of walking.
Just one more climb up out of the valley passing woodlands pungent with sweet wild garlic. Then we crossed over Lullington Heath with its golden yellow gorse bushes in full bloom, one of the last remaining heathland areas on the Downs. Downhill again towards the village of Litlington sitting in yet another tranquil valley and on spotting the church spire from the top of the hill we knew we were reaching the end of our walk.
Apart from the feel-good factor of being in the great outdoors, the other reason for all this rambling was Litlington Tea Gardens. These quaint tea gardens were established around 150 years ago and still retain much of their Victorian charm. The large gardens are surrounded by mature trees and have loads of little nooks and crannies so it’s worth having a bit of a look around before choosing your spot. As well as the tables and benches on the lawn there are plentiful summerhouses surrounding the gardens providing bountiful private seating areas.
Litlington are proud of their cream teas and home made cakes. We sampled some of their chocolate cake and apple and blackberry pie with ice cream washed down with pots of tea served at the table on huge trays. Its the perfect spot on a sunny day. Litlington also have a nursery, crystal shop and gift store all worth a browse before catching the Cuckmere Valley rambler bus back to Berwick station for the return train to Brighton.
I’ve just finished reading That Summer at Hill Farm by Miranda French which tells brilliantly through fiction the dichotomy of living in the Sussex countryside and it’s not all rosy down on the farm. The countryside will always remain for me a place for walking and cycling and not for living in as I’m a city dweller at heart. Though I love to know that the rural idyll is just on my doorstep.
The Brighton Festival is now over but one of the best exhibitions I went to was The Blue Route at Fabrica Gallery. The Finnish artist Kaarina Kaikkonen strung a load of colourful shirts along clothes lines and with sleight of hand turned them into an art form. I like to think that when I occasionally hang out my washing it looks pretty good on the line too though hardly worthy of gallery space. Washing hanging out on lines was recently one of the subjects on the Today programme on Radio 4 and how it’s become a dying habit. It seems most people now use tumble dryers or hang their wet laundry around indoors avoiding the vagaries of the British weather. The interviewee waxed lyrical on the joy of sleeping on sheets dried outdoors. I know I benefit from a good dose of fresh air and the outdoors too and also eschew the unpredictability of the climate and that’s why I took myself off to a walk around Stanmer Park the other day.
There’s a great well laid out footpath that takes you the several miles around the perimeter of the park. You get to have a satisfying tramp through the woods and when the path opens out at its highest point you get some lovely views towards the South Downs Way and beyond. Just at the point where you start to turn south towards Stanmer village there’s a bench carved from a fallen tree where you can sit and rest for a few minutes before the last stage of the walk down to the tea rooms.
Stanmer Tea Rooms have been trading in the village at the edge of the park for as long as I’ve lived in Brighton. It’s changed hands several times but always seems to keep more or less to its winning formula. This is a stop for walkers, cyclists and dog walkers to pause awhile and take in the peacefulness of the village location but which is amazingly still within the city boundary of Brighton and Hove. The fare is simple here but wholesome with the breakfasts and toasted sandwiches the favourite options. When the weather is good enough outside is the best place to be to catch a bit of sun whether in the garden area or out on the patio.
There’s a lovely old oak tree now in leaf just opposite the tea rooms and the pink blossoms are now out by the village church.
Benefiting from fresh air is enriching not just for washing but for people too and if there’s also the enticement of a country tea stop so much the better.
It’s been a funny old time for me recently. I’ve lost a daughter to university, got a new job and lost that too. While working out what to do next I find that meditation is good for keeping myself centered as well as continuing with my cycling, seeing friends and getting out into the outdoors.
Saturday was a beautiful bright day and as we walked towards the ridge of the South Downs Way we spotted the parascenders and para-gliders floating high up in the blue sky. Some days there are none at all but when the weather conditions are just right it seems they all come out to play. I counted at least thirty of them letting the thermals do all the work while they watched the world from high above.
We turned southwards again along a different track with a tea stop in mind. A few miles of hiking later our next stop was in sight. As well as cafes I do like a bit of a browse and Emmaus in Portslade Old Village offers both. Emmaus is global charity for homeless people and is sited in a former convent just up Drove Road from the village centre. All the second hand goods have been well sorted through and you can pick up just about anything you’re looking for from the huge array of stuff on offer. I headed straight for the books and picked up three paperbacks for 30p each, considerably cheaper than the usual £1.50/£2.00 in a lot of other charity shops. We also managed to find some home ware that we were looking for all in wonderful condition. There is also a retro specialist area called the Emporium, set in the former church as part of the site, where items are priced considerably cheaper than in equivalent shops in Brighton.
The cafe has been revamped recently and extended and is much the better for it. The first thing I noticed on going in was the old boy playing away on the piano, he seemed quite happy and the sound of music always raises the spirits. All the furniture and pictures are original pieces from some decades ago giving an eclectic feel. The sun was shining through the south facing windows and I found a comfortable sofa once I’d ordered my mug of tea. There’s a huge menu of cooked meals and snacks so you don’t need to go hungry after all that bargain hunting.The cafe is missing a trick though as the serving area is just a small hatch with the service rather perfunctory. There are cakes on offer but they are not on display! It’s a lovely space but with a bit more insight into how cafes work it could be really great.
So another Saturday, another walk and another tea stop. The bus stop was just a short walk away through the grounds of St Nicolas parish church one of the oldest churches in Brighton. We picked up the number one bus for the short journey back home.