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.
Houses aren’t just homes, they say a lot about our aspirations, our dreams and how we see ourselves. As the French leave the rural towns and villages so the incomers take their place. The Brits, the Dutch, the Canadians are all part of this influx, staking their claim in a new French way of life. They’re mainly retirees and mainly couples though sometimes there are families and singles but the one thing in common to them all is this new phase to their lives.
I’ve just returned from a few days staying with family in the Limousin region of France. My sister moved to Bellac some four years ago and along with her husband has successfully established a Chambre d’Hotes in the small town of Bellac. Maison Bellachonne is a 400 year old town house just across from Le Mairie with five gorgeous en-suite guest rooms. History oozes out of every wall with original dark wood flooring throughout. The central staircase is in dark wood too and rises up to the fourth floor. Each guest room in this small boutique hotel has been individually designed with much flair. Views from the rooms at the back are of the ancient church and the rolling countryside beyond the town while at the front towards a fountain by the town hall. It’s a lovely place to stay.
When the UK house prices are so exorbitant the chance to buy property at just a few thousand euros is a huge draw. My sister showed me around some properties in Bellac that were bought by some of the early retirement diaspora from the UK and beyond that were now back on the market. Circumstances change and maybe the reality of that particular dream no longer held sway. Being already at least partly refurbished these properties are a bargain compared to the UK. A large town house with shop/business premises on the ground floor and sited on the main pedestrianised Rue du Coq and overlooking a small square can be purchased for offers around 75,000 Euros. Some properties, albeit very rundown, are even given away free with the purchase of another. Buy one get one free is not advantageous as it may appear given the restoration required but for some an offer too tempting to turn down. The property market in France compares favourably to the UK and that’s why so many Brits and other Europeans are moving there.
Hearing my two nieces speaking fluently in French was hugely impressive and they continue to move successfully through the French education system. This is one family that have built their dream into a positive reality and have overcome the myriad of difficulties of establishing a new life in a foreign land.
Maison Bellachonne is located deep in the heart of France in the Haute-Vienne department of the Limousin region. You can fly to nearby Limoges airport with flybe and Ryanair from the UK. As well as running the Chambres d’Hotes my sister is also unofficial property guru for the town and knows what’s hot and what’s not.
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 weather in Britain has been so dreich recently, a Scottish word meaning damp and grey and miserable, that when one sunny day comes along you’ve just got to get out in it. We took the number 2 bus to Steyning, a bustling ancient village listed in the Domesday book, with its main street lined with mainly timber framed buildings. It’s tucked just behind the South Downs so is a great place for walks. We headed west along Mouse Lane out of the village and then on to the footpath that cuts behind Wiston Estate.
You never know quite what you’ll come across when out walking. We’d been along this route a few times over the years and were fairly familiar with it so we weren’t expecting to see anything unusual. However, we came across an old carriage sitting in the long grass which on closer inspection we discovered to be an old tram car. The notice on the window explained that it was the last surviving Brighton tram car and the owners are hoping to renovate it and bring it back to its original condition. We had a good nose around and found the vehicle intriguing and rather incongruous just sitting there in the countryside. I wonder where the owners found it and got it here and what inspired them to undertake such a venture.
The wooded chalk path that takes you up to the ridge of the South Downs Way is steep and a good power walk will take you to the top in about ten minutes. Now out from beyond the trees the land opened up and we were on the ridge-way with fantastic views as we turned round to walk back eastwards. There were white and blue fields of linseed flowers and the Channel sparkled in the distance. All the recent rain has brought out the green of the Downs and the views around us were archetypal Sussex calendar shots. Walking on ridges is probably my favourite type of walking as the path is easy to follow and you get a sense of accomplishment at being up on the highest point.
A few miles later we took the descent down to the village for tea and something to eat. Steyning Tea Rooms is one of the many cafes and tea rooms that dot the main road through this pretty village. One of my favourites is the Tea Rooms to the easterly end of the high street. Its on a slightly raised pavement with gorgeous flower boxes and hanging baskets with summer flowers of pink, red, white and purple. Inside its got a retro feel with its rose patterned wall paper, original fireplace and colourful bunting. Food and drink is served on a variety of floral patterned bone china. The small counter heaves with giant locally made cakes and its hard to make your choice.
As it was so busy inside we opted for sitting out at one of the few pavement tables and were quick to order the special of home-made rhubarb scones with rhubarb jam and cream along with the prerequisite pot of tea of course. The sun was still shining and what a braw day, a Scottish expression for a lovely day out, it was turning out to be.
There are lots of ways to get to the village of Rottingdean from Brighton, the easiest being to jump on a coast road bus. However if you want to get there the roundabout and longer way you take the number 2 bus to Woodingdean and walk round the back along quiet countryside paths. It takes more time but then we had the whole day stretching ahead, the forecast was good and we were up for some brisk exercise. The great thing about this particular ramble is that you start at the top of the hill. The track takes you through a winding valley following a gradual descent with views of rolling downland all around. I wondered at times if I really was in the crowded South-east so quiet is this valley looping slowly down Bullock Hill to Standean Bottom. There is then a short climb up again eventually as the route goes towards Balsdean reservoir at the top of the next hill.
In a scene from a Hardy novel a flock of sheep took over the road as the shepherd moved them from one pasture to another and we had no choice but to stand aside and let them pass. This sort of traffic was the ambient kind and we were happy to give them the freedom of the road as they trotted by.
All this fresh air and walking is thirsty and hungry work and although we already had eaten our picnic our minds were most definitely turning to thoughts of further sustenance as the tea stop in Rottingdean was now within in our grasp. We followed the last leg of the walk downwards with sweeping views of the sea and Rottingdean windmill a familiar landmark against the skyline ahead.
The Grange houses Rottingdean library and museum and art gallery. Cafe lovers also know that there is a lovely flint walled garden round the back which is a wonderful spot for tea and cake in the summer. We fell upon the banana slice and the carrot cake and along with a pot of tea each the bill was just £6. The garden is of ample size and with plenty of dappled shade from the mature trees. There was still union jack bunting up from the jubilee celebrations and lots of colour too from the well tended flower beds. There is something about getting somewhere under your own steam, whether walking or cycling. You really feel that you have earned your treat and ready to devour whatever is on offer. So the direct way along the coast road would have got us there sooner but the point of going the long way round was taking pleasure in the journey there.