‘Elves and witches would fit right in’: the paintings that capture the primal paradise of Sussex

Entangled in the wood … Ivon Hitchens’ Curved Barn.

Entangled in the wood … Ivon Hitchens’ Curved Barn. Photograph: © Estate of the Artist/ DACS

From the cliffy coastline to the woodlands of the weald, Sussex has been home and sanctuary to author and horseman Julian Roup, who finds its magical landscapes perfectly captured in a new show

When my wife Jan and I arrived in Sussex in 1980, we started riding the South Downs on moonlit nights. The white chalk paths reflected the light and made the going easy, despite the steep drops and our night-wary horses. Once on the crest, you could see the lights of ships coming up the Channel to one side and the villages twinkling down below on the other. It is a magical space and provided a wonderful introduction to Britain, which we had come to from South Africa. As we clip-clopped home along the dark pathways, curtains would twitch – not surprisingly, as the last night riders hereabouts were smugglers transporting French brandy from the coast to London via these deep, hidden lanes.

Sussex Landscape: Chalk, Wood and Water, a new exhibition of paintings at Pallant House in Chichester, encapsulates everything I love about Sussex, a landscape I have now crisscrossed on horseback for more than four decades. Chalk Paths, by Eric Ravilious, captures the almost bleak quality of the South Downs in winter, which for centuries was part of the pilgrims’ route to Canterbury. The sense of space and loneliness in Ravilious’s heavily contoured landscape stands in contrast to the area’s heavily populated villages and towns. It reminds me how this place has been home to humankind for millennia, the swelling population eventually pushing back the boar-and-deer-haunted forest of Anderida, leaving the open rolling farmland we see in this picture.

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