notes on Fittleworth

Fittleworth seems remarkably rich in its broad cultural connections for a parish so small and sleepy.

Around 1199 there is mention of a bridge crossing the River Rother close to Ernulf the Fisherman’s land. As a congregating point, an inn came into existence. The Swan maintains it has been serving ale in the same inn since 1382. More recently, the Ancient Order of Froth Blowers (Motto: “Lubrication in Moderation”) was founded in 1924. The guild was created “to foster the noble Art and gentle and healthy Pastime of froth blowing amongst Gentlemen of-leisure and ex-Soldiers. It attracted an extraordinary half a million members in the 1920s and 1930s. Lager beer was ineligible, The Swan Inn rule book stating: “it is unseemly and should be avoided always excepting by Naval Officers visiting German Colonies.”

For generations the Inn has been the haunt of Artists. John Constable used to go on painting expeditions with his brewing namesake and no doubt they stayed at the Swan which even then was a Constable House. Since then, Victorian Artists both famous and forgotten have left paintings on the panelling of the picture room, which includes work by Tom Collier, ‘some other’ Constable, George Cole, Vicat Cole, A.W Weedon and Philip Stretton.

P.G. Wodehouse’s fictional character George ‘Boko’ Fittleworth was a good friend of Bertie Wooster. Bertie describes Jeeves, on meeting Boko for the first time, as having “winced visibly and tottered off to the kitchen, no doubt to pull himself together with cooking sherry.” Pelham Grenville Wodehouse was born in Guildford, Surrey, so perhaps familiarity with the local map influenced the name.

Francis James Dickins (of ‘Dickins and Jones’ extraction) was a London photographer based in Sloane Street, Chelsea around 1891. He became a sculptor and was living in Fittleworth around 1901.

Architect Clough Williams Ellis produced terrace (1914) and loggia (1925) designs for the Maxse Family at Little Bognor, and also produced plans for a War Memorial Seat on Hesworth Common.

In 1917, the composer Edward Elgar and family went to live at Brinkwells, just north of the village. After several months, Elgar took an old Steinway from storage and set to work on a sonata for violin and piano, and his wife Alice noticed at once that it was different from anything he had written before, calling it “wood magic … so delicate and elusive.” Elgar completed the sonata within weeks, and during the next five months he developed this new style further in a piano quintet and a string quartet. A later concerto for violincello had its première in 1919 with critics noting: “The work itself is lovely stuff, very simple – that pregnant simplicity that has come upon Elgar’s music in the last couple of years, but with a profound wisdom and beauty underlying its simplicity … a fine spirit’s lifelong wistful brooding upon the loveliness of earth.” Alice died in 1920, and Elgar tried to buy Brinkwells, to no avail, leaving in 1921 for London and then Malvern.

Royal Academician Charles Sims’s (1873-1928) first one-man show at the Leicester Galleries in 1906 brought Sims financial success, enabling him to relocate to Fittleworth where several of his paintings were set, now at Compton Verney and the Tate. Sims invented a method of combining tempera with oil paint. Working as an official war artist brought about painful experiences which contributed to him ending his life.

In 1925, the Thornhill family started visiting Fittleworth prior to the building of their new house, Rotherwood, which was finished in 1926. Sculptor and a founding trustee of the Frink School, Alan Thornhill spent ten formative years here, traversing local byways on his pony. Recently visiting us (now in his mid eighties) one can only imagine that the surroundings here perhaps have influenced his own works in some way.

Antarctic explorer and former BBC Radio ‘Dick Barton’ star Duncan Carse found the solitude he needed after a particularly gruelling solo expedition to South Georgia when his new wife Venetia moved to ’a house with a garden’ at Fittleworth in 1963. The secluded garden was to prove both sanctuary and nature reserve for over 40 years. After a noted absence, spotted flycatchers returned to nest in the porch in 2007.

I find it evocative reading of a visit James Ivory made to Fittleworth whilst directing Room with a View in 1985, imagining his hosts, actress (now Dame) Maggie Smith and her husband playwright Beverley Cross, travelling to a nearby hamlet to visit Laurence (Lord) Olivier and wife Joan Plowright. One imagines that other contemporary artists such as Bryan Ferry continue to find spiritual uplift here.

Nearby, Hardham Church has some fine early-Romanesque work (‘Sussex School’) dating from the 12th century. The wall paintings are considered to form one of the most complete schemes of medieval painting in the UK.

The environs produced Sussex Marble (also called Petworth Marble or Winklestone) for a number of centuries, although the industry died out in the late 1800s and the quarry sites are long forgotten. Much of this stone is present in Westminster Abbey tombs, Chichester Cathedral and an entire chair in Canterbury Cathedral.