STEYNING – A Sussex Town

If life in Brighton becomes too hectic, then a few days in Steyning are guaranteed to put things back in perspective.   Or so I found this week when the fine weather brought more people to Brighton than I’d anticipated and my ‘quiet’ time became distinctly unquiet, although I did enjoy some fine walks along Brighton beach and along Palace Pier.

One of the prettiest Sussex towns, the Saxon town of Steyning (its history dates back to the 8th century) has more or less everything – a meandering high street, historic buildings, good shops (including an Independent Bookshop) and magnificent countryside all around, the South Downs to be precise.

Steyning had been a trading powerhouse in the early middle ages as a river port for the downland wool trade, but the silting up of the River Adur left it up the creek, so to speak.  The Black Death hit the village hard and the competition from other ports added to its economic woes, but the loss to the medieval folk of Steyning is our gain today.

The bypass has also been of benefit in this respect because, unlike many other small towns and villages in Sussex, the High Street has been spared the constant heavy traffic that makes a toll on the roads and creates noise and pollution.

Steyning is pretty well preserved, with many Tudor style half-timbered houses alongside some smart Georgian townhouses.

The preponderance of wood is especially noticeable, from the many old wooden doors to wooden fencing dividing the pavement from the road.  Below are a few of the doorways that took my camera’s eye.

There is only one high-street grocery chain in the town and the many independent retailers offer an eclectic range of foodstuffs ranging from organic to exotic: the range of coffee shops/restaurants is truly amazing, many seeming to have a bakery shop as an add-on.   Outstanding is the Independent Booksellers in which we whiled away a couple of hours, emerging later with bags full of wonderful books, some bought as Christmas presents.  It was the sort of shop where one comes across books one just knows will suit someone, the sort one doesn’t find in the big bookstores anymore.   As a consequence of the mix of old-fashioned and modern small shops, shopping in Steyning is easy paced and very enjoyable.P1030559

Steyning holds an Arts Festival every year, there is a Museum in Church Street, and in St Andrew’s Norman church in the nearby village of Bramber, where there is also an evocative ruined castle, there are some interesting carvings.    

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The South Downs Way passes just to the south of Steyning and climbs through the magnificent countryside around the Steyning Bowl, making this a perfect area for walking and cycling.   Wonderful country pubs abound in this area. 

It has now become my favourite place outside Brighton.

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Castelmola, Sicily – Medieval Village

From the natural terrace built around the ruins of a Norman castle, you have a spectacular view of the Ionian coast, majestic Etna, Taormina, the Bay of Giardini-Naxos, the straits of Messina, and the Calabrian coast:  on a clear day you can even see way beyond Catania, as far as Syracuse.  You are nearly 2,000 feet above sea level, you are in Castelmola in Sicily.

Castelmoro from below

Part of the attraction of Castelmola is gazing up at it from Taormina (as in the featured photo taken from the main square in Taormina,  and above from another part of the town) and wondering how on earth you can get up there.  It looks like the top of the world, this tiny village perched on a craggy hilltop above Taormina.  Not so long ago the village was inaccessible, visited only by a few intrepid travellers who hiked up the seriously uphill mountain paths for about 90 minutes, or drove up the curving, almost perpendicular road, to the top.  Nowadays a bus makes the 15-minute journey every hour from Taormina and things are changing, although slowly.

 

The result of this remoteness is that the people of the village have kept their dialect, their customs and their lives entirely to themselves.

Casteldemoro

Founded in the 8th century BC it was first conquered by the Greeks and afterwards by Saracens and its interesting mix of customs and traditions reflect this history.  The entrance to the village is marked by an ancient arch of Greek-Roman origin, built in 900 BC, and this dominates the Piazza S. Antonino, the main square of the village.  In earlier times the entry was through a gate carved into the rock which was moved to the front of the castle in 1927.

 

This relatively modern Piazza Sant’Antonio, built in 1954, is one of the main squares of the town and attracts the local elders who like to sit on the benches in the square to watch the village activity and the arrival and departure of the buses.  From this Piazza of white and black lava stone, bordered by a white balustrade and tree-lined sidewalks, there is a panoramic view of Taormina, its town, beaches and islands.

 

From the Piazza, roads lead off to other parts of the village, every corner offering more spectacular views whether it’s over the velvety green mountains with their trails delineated as though someone had poured them in swirling patterns on the slopes or the craggy peaks of the barren side.  The street names, numbers and signs are locally crafted in stone and wrought iron, and the pastel-coloured houses range from palest primrose to sky blues and apple greens.  In fact, it is a typical Sicilian village, better preserved than most, as it has not lost all its inhabitants as have most of those in the interior of the island.

 

That said, a fair number of the inhabitants depart in the winter for the slightly warmer temperature along the coast but during the rest of the year, they man the restaurants, bars and lace and embroidery shops for which the village is famed.

One of the most famous and most eccentric attractions is the Turrisi Bar which has a bizarre display of phalluses in wood, clay and ceramic – a sign of abundance and a good omen as per the Hellenic tradition – in every size, from large stone sculptures to bathroom taps, paintings and wooden carvings.  This ancient emblem of fertility is celebrated here in flamboyant style, and among the gifts available from the shop is the locally produced almond wine in phallic-shaped bottles, referred to, of course, as the “elixir of love”.

As so often in Sicily one passes from the profane to the sacred in the blink of an eye and in just a few steps you arrive at the Cathedral which dates back to the 16th century (rebuilt in 1935), known otherwise as the Church of St. Nicholas of Bari, in the Piazza Duomo. There isn’t a lot to hold your attention here but it has a rather beautiful pulpit and a wooden statue of Mary Magdalene which, I am told, is of the school of Bagnasco.   I confess I had no knowledge of this sculptor but I found a reference to one Rosario Bagnasco who worked mainly in wood, and who was active mainly in Palermo, so I presume it is his work. Looking towards the Bell Tower Before you leave, look to the beautiful bell tower which offers a wonderful frame for a photograph of Mount Etna in the distance behind it.

CASTEL DEL MOLA

So if you find yourself with a day, or even a half day to spare when you are in Taormina, or if you want to see one of Sicily’s loveliest medieval villages, then be sure to visit Castelmola where you will find narrow streets and quiet solitude in a community of just over one thousand residents.  In fact, if you visit out of season and find your way up the mountain to Castelmola you may feel that you have the entire town to yourself.

 

 

 

Saint-Symphorien Cemetery World War 1

I read in the news that Theresa May, Prime Minister of Great Britain, is to travel to France to lay a wreath on the graves of two young British soldiers who were killed during World War 1.  One of them was the first man to die in that ‘war to end all wars’ and the other was the last man to die.   It reminded me that I had visited Saint-Symphorien cemetery where they are buried, a couple of years ago and I thought I would re-post my original piece but to my surprise either I hadn’t posted anything about that particular battlefield or I had somehow deleted it.

However, it is still in my mind now so I thought I would just put up a few photographs of the cemetery because it is so different from all the others in France, being in woodland, and having a more peaceful appearance.  It is also the only cemetery, I believe, in which both British and German soldiers are buried together.  My visit to Ypres last year was very different.   There massive cemeteries like Tyne Cot just filled one with a deep, deep sadness as the ranks upon ranks of white gravestones spreading across the fields could not but remind one of the carnage of that war.

First though, the gravestone of the young James Parr of the Middlesex Regiment who was the first man to die, on the 21st August 1914.

First British Man to die in World War 1

And the gravestone of Private George Edwin Ellison of the 5th Royal Irish Lancers who was killed on the outskirts of Mons at 9.30 a.m. just 90 minutes before the Armistice came into force.

Headstone for G.E. Ellison, last man to die in WW1

The cemetery:

German Grave in Saint-Symphorien Cemetery
A German Grave in Saint-Symphorien Cemetery, near Mons

And just to finish on, not far from here is the spot where the first shot was fired in that war.

First shot in the Great War was fired here

And the steely grey canal over which many battles were fought in this area.Le Conde Canal with Storm Clouds