Sightings in Sussex

Rambling in the English countryside is more perilous than the African bush

I had never before wondered what Priscilla Presley, Marlon Brando, Leonard Nimmoy and King Hussein of Jordan might have had in common.  After all, King Hussein isn’t much of an actor. Neither is Priscilla Presley, actually.

It had been an uncharacteristically warm start to Autumn in England. The trees were turning gold around fields under the plough.

There was a harvest festival in every church but old traditions had adapted. Altars were no longer decked with sheaves of corn but with tins of baked beans. Stalls didn’t brag giant marrows; they held cupcake-decorating competitions. I daubed mine with a proud SA flag, which was roundly approved by the South African vicar.

The English talk a lot.  You bump into them by a stall at a fete or a ploughing match or a garden-opening or an apple fair – there’s a seemingly endless string of lane-clogging local events – and you accidentally ask how they are. They tell you. “My joints are playing up a bit in this damp” or “Coming down with a bit of a cold” or “I am fine but my spaniel’s developing a nasty rash.”

They dawdle. They walk slowly, they think slowly and they order slowly in pubs: “Ooooh, I don’t know. Nothing alcoholic. Gives me headaches. What do you think I should eat, Susan? The Vegetarian Rissotto with Shiitake Mushrooms or the Sea Bass with Mashed Swede?”

Who on earth wants to eat mashed swede with their fish? Or with anything?

We had walked there through the woods. Everyone else was in jeans and gumboots. I was in shorts and vellies. I had slipped on slimy bridges, trodden in badger poo, been stung by nettles, tripped over mossy tree trunks and fallen down holes in the bracken.

It was far more perilous than a walk in the bush at home. We had crossed fields on guilty footpaths and skirted people’s gardens, trying not to stare into their kitchens. We had passed an amateur toy aeroplane show – there are professionals at this game? – and a miniature boat regatta on a murky pond. More events. More eccentrics.

After lunch it was off to the railway and a car park packed with aficionados hoping to board a steam train to East Grinstead. A woman blocked me: “Do you mind if Clemmie takes a picture of your hat? She’s collecting hat photos for school.” Of course she is.

“It’s an African Hat,” I startled Clemmie. “Kudu skin.” But Clemmie wasn’t impressed. Her mother was born in Kenya. Blimey. They traded a ranch in the Rift Valley for this?

I retreated to the men’s lavatory. A sign on the wall: ‘Please adjust your dress before leaving’. I was not wearing a dress, then I realised what was meant.

At a table in the car park, behind woven webs of cable and heavily-wired boxes, sat a bunch of old men with glasses and big noses.

Train spotters. No. Wait. Amateur radio enthusiasts.

They wanted to regale me with the details their pastime and would surely have gone on for hours had a train not steamed in, with a piercing whistle, just in the nick of time. I took a brochure. Priscilla’s call sign is NY6YOS if you want to get in touch. She’s probably free. She certainly won’t be talking to Marlon or Leonard or Hussein who are ‘Silent Keys’, as the radio hams call them. ‘Dead’, we might say.

In fact, the Departed Ones are probably all talking to Elvis. It beats going to a ploughing match, I suppose.

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