Firle: In An English Country Melting Pot

Nowhere in England looks more like the perfect English village than Firle in East Sussex. It has an ancient church, with bells that ring out across beautiful countryside. There is a fine old pub with a roaring fire. The cottages, made of brick and flint, have roses growing in their gardens. Children are playing in the lane, pretending to be on the village cricket pitch — which is one of the oldest in the country, and a model of its kind. And to add to the feeling of fantasy, Firle even has a working post office.

The little shop looks as it did nearly a century ago, when Virginia Woolf strolled up from her rented cottage to post letters. Outside is a classic red Gilbert Scott phone box. Inside, a woman smiles as she hands over bread and milk, writing down the cost in a till book to be forgotten about until the end of the month. “I know everyone by name,” says the postmistress, Ami Reece. “I trust my customers. They are my friends.” Can it be for real?

The Sunday Times Magazine 30 December 2009

The 300 or so inhabitants of Firle, East Sussex, seem to live in a mythical place, a dream of an England you see only in the films of Richard Curtis or brochures published by the National Trust and other pushers of creamtea porn. It should be full of tourists, but, weirdly, it’s not. They don’t seem to know about the place.

The locals won’t thank me for telling you, either, because Firle isn’t desperate for attention like some of its fudge-touting neighbours. They don’t want to be invaded by strangers, no matter how rich; which is why many locals are fearful of what will happen when a new South Downs National Park is opened, enveloping Firle and the stunning farmland in which it sits. This will become the prettiest, most unspoilt village in a heavily hyped attraction: the closest national park to the capital, accessible on a day trip from, say, Lambeth.

The park will be created at the end of March, becoming the 15th of its kind in the country, along with the Lake District, Snowdonia, Exmoor and the Cairngorms. The South Downs already attracts 39m people a year, which is more than any existing national park. The change of status will mean more visitors, particularly from overseas. There will be new signs, new planning restrictions and a new authority to enforce them.

“We are going to be told we need more car parks, more loos and more access,” says Hugh Barnes, the church warden. “We give enough access to walkers already. Why should we give any more?” The South Downs Way runs over Firle Beacon, the hill behind the village. From up there the landscape resembles the opening of The Vicar of Dibley, so walkers often come down to see if it’s for real. Getting to Firle by car is more tricky: the turn off the A27 can be deadly, and you have to ignore a “dead-end” sign. The dark, bendy lane feels as if it’s going nowhere, passing the gate of a big house that looks important but seems always to be closed. Persist and you find a secret refuge for the traditionally English.

Here you can see an extraordinary number of things that made it onto the list when the public was asked to vote for icons of Englishness. A government wheeze, the intention was to demonstrate how imaginatively multicultural England had become. Chicken tikka masala got through, but the majority of icons chosen in 2007 were strongly nostalgic.

You can’t see a Routemaster bus in Firle, but you can see the church, the cricket pitch, the post office, the phone box, the local hunt, the pub and a pint of real ale, for a starting seven. The name of the village comes from the Old English word “fierol”, meaning overgrown with oak (8), and it appears in the Domesday Book (9). Its history is associated with Henry VIII (10). At the Ram Inn you can tick off roast beef and yorkshire pudding (11), fish and chips (12) and a nice cup of tea (13). Outside, admire the gardens (14), smell the roses (15) and pause by a hedgerow (16) to spot a robin (17). Up at the church, where a Land Rover (18) is parked, the eccentric (19) vicar wears a floppy hat like Tom Baker’s Doctor Who. The village, he says, is like “The Archers (20) on acid”.

I could go on. This would be heaven for Americans in search of the quaint, or British pensioners nostalgic for a time when “the net” was what kept the rollers in at night. But as one local told me: “It’s because oiks in charabancs don’t come here that Firle is as it is.” That attitude means it can be as welcoming as Royston Vasey, the League of Gentlemen’s horrific comic TV village “for local people”. Shuffling out of the little Norman church of St Peter after the morning service, not a single parishioner says a word to me. By the village hall there is a police notice asking if locals have seen any “suspicious people”.

Seeking warmth in the Ram Inn, I start an uneasy conversation with a man who won’t tell me his name. “Don’t want to be in the papers.” Hang on, I haven’t told him I’m a writer. “We’re a bit wary. The bonfire and all that.” What is he talking about? “You know, when they set fire to the gypsy caravan. With the family in it.”

I’m not sure he’s joking. The strangeness of Firle sinks in with another pint. What a witchcraft has kept this place so well preserved? And why are there so many people about? Most villages like this are bought up by bankers who seldom come down, but I just saw a mother and child playing in a house that should belong to an absentee hedge-fund manager. What’s going on? Most sinister of all, why are all the front doors the same colour? Green. Perhaps it is the dying of the light, but it suddenly feels like Four Weddings and a Wicker Man. Help! The secretive drinker smiles mysteriously. “Firle is not what it seems.”

Okay. What it seems, at first glance, is a pretty rural panic room for people frightened by the modern world, the sort of ultra-conservative place the BNP would go all gooey over. “You’re wrong,” says my reluctant companion, making for the door. “But I shouldn’t say any more. You need to speak to His Lordship. Not that His Lordship will want to speak to you…”

Firle is so fond of the past that it still has a lord of the manor, the eighth Viscount Gage, who owns the land for miles around. “We don’t give interviews,” he tells me. “We don’t like to draw attention to ourselves.”

If that is the Gage family strategy, they make a right hash of it. His ancestor, Sir John, a friend of Henry VIII, oversaw the dissolution of the monasteries, despite being a Catholic. John’s son burnt Protestants in the streets. Another Gage commanded the British forces in the American war of independence and got the blame when it was lost. After that, the viscounts concentrated on keeping their land and staying friends with royalty. The sixth was in love with Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon and often had her over to stay. Prince Philip still comes for the odd sleepover.

Henry Nicholas Gage, known as Nick, went to Eton and was in the army before becoming a farmer. He inherited the estate after his brother’s death in 1993. So far, so conformist — but then last spring, he sprung a huge surprise.

“Oh Lord!” said the headline to a story of how the 75-year-old divorced viscount had married a woman half his age. The newspaper in question did not quite ask what a 37-year-old arts lecturer from Brighton saw in an elderly viscount with a beautiful stately home and over 5,000 acres of prime Sussex real estate, but it might as well have done. Friends of the couple say love struck when she visited the house. “I’ve always kept the company of younger people,” Lord Gage eventually tells me in person, after several phone calls and much persuasion. I’ve been invited over, with the offer of a walk to the Ram for lunch.

The elegant front view of Firle Place has been used for films and television series including Jonathan Creek. The Tudor interior has paintings by Van Dyck and Gainsborough, Chippendale furniture and cabinets stuffed with exquisite porcelain, but I see none of that. I am told to go round the back, where the kitchen door is opened, eventually, by a small man, scowling. This is Peter, His Lordship’s butler, breakfast cook and many other things besides. There used to be 30 staff, now there are three. “I don’t know where he is. In his studio, painting, maybe.”

Lord Gage appears after a while. Despite white hair and shaded eyes, he looks a decade younger than he is. “Shall we go into the dining room?” It’s dark. “We have shuttered up much of the house for the winter.” He heaves open heavy wooden boards to let in shafts of light onto a huge table and an imposing portrait in oils. “Sherry?”

The decanter turns out to contain whisky. The whisky turns out to be our lunch… mostly because it takes so long for His Lordship to grill me about my intentions and whether I’m a local. “There has been a lot of nonsense about ‘virile Lord Gage’,” he says with an air of dismay, but then his wife has just given him a child. “People say it’s irresponsible, but he has made me amazingly happy. He is a charming little boy.”

For much of the time, mother and son live in a converted barn on the estate. I wonder what his eldest son and heir thinks of it all. “I think it must be a culture shock, but he has come round to it.”

Henry Gage, 34, lives in a tower on the estate, a converted folly, and has progressive ideas: at one point he was growing hemp in the grounds for an eco-friendly clothes-maker. “My lips are sealed,” says Lord Gage. “I need Henry, and Henry needs me.” What father and son are doing is to resist — not the modern world as such, but the potential impact of holiday homes and urban expansion on a landscape for which their family has long assumed responsibility. “This is where Englishness takes place,” says His Lordship, “in the preservation of the countryside.”

Englishness has changed, though. We have become resentful towards those with historic money and power. We prefer our countryside to be preserved by national parks. That offends Lord Gage. “Obviously, they feel we are incapable. We’ve been looking after the countryside for 500 years.” He reveals a that he has turned down the chance to build 1,500 homes on some of his farmland to make £30m. “The idea shocked me intensely. I’d have been so unpopular that I could no longer have lived here. It would have been evil money.”

Lord Gage does accept that the national park will help to protect the South Downs from the expanding towns that surround them, and it will cover an area much greater than he has influence over, from Winchester in the west to Eastbourne in the east. Under the new authority, new developments will have to be environmentally sustainable and reflect the character of the existing landscape. On the other hand, there will be more grants for farmers and small businesses, who will be able to sell products such as lamb or wine using a new South Downs National Park brand. They will have more customers, because as a park the area will have a higher international profile. That is what worries Lord Gage. “If we get hundreds of buses, we will be in trouble.”

He opens Firle Place to the public for 60 days a year, but only to avoid paying death duties on the art. “We don’t want too many visitors because of the wear and tear of the house.” One summer visitor took more than a passing interest in the porcelain, breaking in to steal pieces worth over £1m, including a Hollandaise Nouveau figurine.

Does Lord Gage ever long to escape his responsibilities? He smiles ruefully. “A bit.” Later, I stumble woozily down to the Ram in search of food, and find Peter the butler having a pint. He has served the family for over 30 years but is still indiscreet. “The Gages are superstitious. They live with ghosts.” He means it literally (a blue lady and a grey lady haunt the place) and metaphorically. “If I ask His Lordship where to put a guest, he’ll say, ‘In my father’s room.’ I’ll say, ‘It hasn’t been your father’s room since 1918.'”

Firle is feudal. That solves the mystery of the green doors. Almost every house is owned by Lord Gage, and you can’t have one unless you are a family friend, a retired or current estate worker or someone deemed useful to village life. “We don’t want commuters,” he says. “Firle is for Firle people.” What sort of people are they then? “Obviously, the person has to have a good character.” That sounds like social engineering to me. “What are you saying?” Okay, let me put it differently. Are there, for example, any Muslims in Firle? “I’m trying desperately to think. When we had this trouble with the bonfire society…”

Ah yes. I know about that now. The Sussex Bonfire Night tradition is to burn an effigy of those who upset the community. Tony Blair, for example, after the hunt ban. Six years ago, after travellers had taken over local land, a model of a caravan was made and given the registration number P1KEY. Windows showing a family inside were painted on, and it was set alight. There was uproar after a woman in the village complained. The police got involved, and a dozen members of the Firle Bonfire Society were arrested. “The Firle ethos is about freedom from any form of dogmatic idea,” says Lord Gage. “The bonfire society probably did exceed that.”

The publicity was embarrassing. “Journalists went to the village shop where we have this wonderful Ami, who comes from… I forget. The Philippines or somewhere. I mean, she’s not English.” Not realising he is in a hole, His Lordship doesn’t stop digging. “She told them there is no racism. We are fairly tolerant. There was a wonderful ballet dancer who was about 80 who was certainly not… he was certainly gay. He did embroidery. We liked him.” Now he’s thought about the question, Lord Gage answers it: “I don’t think Muslims would particularly like it here.”

Oh dear. He makes it sound as if Firle would make a nice country retreat for Nick Griffin, but actually that’s wrong. There is a twist to this tale, because Firle really is not what it seems, either at first glance or after listening to His Lordship.

Ihave been here a long time, and they accepted me right from the start,” says Ami Reece, who is actually from Java. She met her English husband, Robert, when he was building dams there, and came to Sussex 24 years ago. “There are other nationalities here. Germany, Denmark, Italy.” Aren’t they all white? “Barbara is from Nigeria, she is totally black. We have no problem.” If Ami says so, who can argue? She is at the centre of village life. She was shocked by the class system at first, but now thanks it for her livelihood. “We wouldn’t be able to buy a business like this outright. Lord Gage wants the shop to keep going and he is very good to us.” She has to say that, doesn’t she? She smiles. “He is my landlord. But it is true.”

She hints at a deeper, quite remarkable truth.

Firle could have died when the need for estate workers declined, but Lord Gage refused to sell the houses. Instead he offered discounted rents to people prepared to work in the village. What he calls his “benevolent feudality” has made it a haven for people who want an alternative way of life. The forge is used by a blacksmith called Lorraine who makes iron ornaments. A couple of arty carpenters work with sustainable wood.

There are clothes designers, stained-glasswindow makers, other craftsmen and women and a baker, making up a young, bohemian community that would have delighted Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant when they rented Charleston farmhouse from Lord Gage’s father. It is extremely rare to be able to rent in a place like this. They’re usually for the rich, but it is said that 40% of Firle villagers receive a state benefit of some kind. “It’s difficult when everybody’s turning up to sell their knitted yoghurt to each other,” says the head of the local primary school, Douglas Kidd. The national park will help — most villagers are actually in favour. “For us it will be a smart thing, safeguarding the environment. We take a lot of long walks with the kids.”

Firle is a village of eccentrics, the greatest of whom is the vicar, Peter Owen-Jones. You may have seen him talking to transsexual Indonesian mediums or trying hallucinogenic root tea in Brazil during the BBC series Around the World in 80 Faiths. The 51-year-old TV presenter is one of a number of unpaid priests upon whom the Church of England depends. He sees signs of a new spirituality emerging here as elsewhere in England, “earthed in creation, influenced by Buddhism and a resurgent druidic paganism”. Firle is unusual in having no property-price envy. “This is the strongest community I’ve ever lived in, largely because it is a level playing field.”

Firle is only a little village tucked away in the Downs, but the challenge of a national park mirrors the debate about English national identity. Some are fearful of the incomers. Others believe the future lies in holding on fiercely to the best traditions, but adapting to make the most of irresistible change. That’s how Firle has survived so far, and become unique.

“Is Firle so lovely because it looks like the turn of the century?” asks Owen-Jones. “Or because it can represent a new way of being?” The vicar of Firle, sipping nothing more mind-bending than a rock shandy in His Lordship’s village pub, says: “I happen to believe the latter.”

Published by Cole Moreton

Award-winning interviewer, writer and broadcaster.

One thought on “Firle: In An English Country Melting Pot

  1. Hi Cole,

    Sounds like it’s going to be a book to search the soul. All the best.

    Marie Moreton

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