Monday, 27 July 2009

When A Childhood Idyll Disappears

These days a trip down to my home town of Lewes is a very different experience to the restless summertime angst that characterised my teens there. Even into my adult life a sixth form surliness would descend on me when ever I visited which was was only cured when I became a father. Now I love showing-off the place to my children.

One landmark I had always wanted them to see was the mysterious sounding Isle of Thorns a few miles outside Lewes. Nestled in the middle of the Ashdown Forest, it was a sort of country club without actually being one. Founded by a local philanthropist in the 1930s as a bolt hole for London's poorest children it had been taken over by the University of Sussex in 1964. The only criteria for getting into the grounds was for a member of your family to be on the university's faculty, as my dad was, although there were days when it felt like every Guardian under the sun had turned up as no one really bothered checking.

Bleached Italianate buildings surrounded the Isle of Thorns' centrepiece which was a large outdoor - and unmanned - swimming pool with its not very private changing rooms and pitch black toilets (or lavatories as I am sure they were called) that absolutely stank. Elsewhere there was a small paddling pool with two large sentry-like granite turtles on either side of the entrance, and a couple of tennis courts with white lines so faint it was impossible to have a meaningful game. Apart from the pool my favourite hang-out was a big, slightly ghostly hall that featured wall paintings of Scottish soldiers that had apparently been barracked there during the Second World War. I was never sure what this building was for other than a place for me to knock a tennis ball against the tartan clad figures for hours on end. The more adventurous could walk down to a 'hidden' lake that could only be reached by a rickety bridge coated in green slime shielded by the magnificent pines of the Ashdown Forest.

So here I was again some thirty years later brimming full of nostalgia as I took the right hand fork just after the village of Danehill that pointed towards Chelwood Gate. The journey to the Isle of Thorns is something I remember as vividly as the place itself. This would begin in the chalky downlands of Lewes and continue through the very heart of the Sussex Weald full of lush fruit farms, stately homes, the Bluebell Railway and beautiful Saxon churches. Finally, noisy and cramped in the back of dad's Morris Minor, my sisters and I would bounce for joy at the sight of the tiny sign that marked the entrance to this hidden idyll. At this point my heart would race a little faster just in case it might be closed but this never happened.

Halfway up the unassuming little drive the swimming pool would come into view. We'd pile out of the car, flinging everything under the nearest tree as we raced up a little slope to stare adoringly at the cartoon blue of the pool followed by a manic search for any friends. And there we would stay for the rest of the day with little or no parental interference until our shadows grew as tall as the conifers towering over us.

It wasn't all good mind. I remember turning up one afternoon to hear that a student had drowned in the pool earlier in the day. Tragic though it was we children didn't really take it in and neither, it would seem, did anyone else. The pool didn't close as a mark of respect or anything like that and we continued climbing in and out of the shallow end which wasn't shallow at all. In their defence my mum and dad claim they were always looking out for us but compared with the parenting of the noughties their generation did appear quite laid back.

Older, and several rites of passages later the eighties arrived. I went off to college and I don't think I went to the Isle of Thorns again except for fleeting visits out of curiosity. Eventually and not surprisingly, new safety measures brought the complex to a working end most powerfully symbolised by the swimming pool that lay empty for years save for a dirty little puddle at the deep end. Still, it and everything else remained as a timeless reminder of my childhood and this is what I was now going to show my children.

As we turned into Laundry Lane that leads up to the Isle of Thorns we were met by a small line of traffic. At the end a large notice announced we had arrived at the head offices of Cat Protection. Bold yellow signs dotted the landscape that now featured new offices. Tragically the Isle of Thorns of my youth was no more.

We parked in a landscaped car park full of saplings. I tried to retrace my route to the pool but instead found a large building that housed hundreds of abandoned cats. The pool had gone. Looking for another familiar landmark I went in search for the cluster of trees under which I had once pulled down my my uncle's swimming trunks in full view of everyone but they too had disappeared. The only thing I recognised was the hall with the echoing walls but that had become an office so I had no idea what happened to the Scottish soldiers.

I harrumphed and stomped about a bit. How could this magical place be destroyed by orphaned cats?! My children looked on and soon my rational adult head returned. A swimming pool in the middle of the Ashdown Forest for a few rarefied university types? These days you'd have to pay a whopping great membership fee for that privilege.

I do regret my daughters never experiencing that wonderful sense of space I found there. Everything seeped into the countryside around it. OK, so it was full of hidden dangers we were perhaps too ready to overlook. But its informality allowed a whole generation of children an unlimited amount of freedom almost unthinkable by today's standards.

How was I to share these feelings with my two daughters? I looked around in the hope of some kind of empathy but they were too busy cooing at the forlorn cats staring back at them through the glass.

We turned back to the car. Just as I was about to get in I thought I caught a whiff of pine, baked clay and chlorine that used to greet me whenever I went for a swim, cheerful in the knowledge that a lovely long summer lay ahead.

1 comment:

ChrisLewis said...

Hi Mathew,

I can't profess to have ever read your blog before, but I came across your blog post following a quick search for "Isle of Thorns swimming pool" on Google following my own reminiscing back on my school days...

In the early 90s the primary school I attended (Downsview in Croydon) used the Isle of Thorns as a base for residential school trips for pupils in Year 5, as well as a venue for family camping trips for school families during the holidays.

I have many very fond memories of playing in the exact same setting that you describe in your post - particularly the swimming pool and that huge hall! Reflecting on my school and family visits, I can still vividly remember playing hockey and cycling in that hall, and recall the incredible sense of adventure clambering over the wall of the then out-of-bounds* swimming pool with one of my more daring school friends!

The sense of space you describe I also appreciate - as a child it was the perfect environment for us all to run wild... I don't think me or any of my schoolfriends ever played a game of hide-or-seek as good as the ones we played amongst the dense bracken there!

A couple of years ago whilst working in Sussex during my University holidays I too took a trip down to the Isle of Thorns to investigate how it looks nowadays, and was rather saddened to see all the landmarks gone. It didn't take long to notice things had changed: I couldn't see the old dormitory buildings lining the side of the entrance road! :-)

Anyway, great to see someone else remembers it. Now an engineering graduate, I've been reunited with many of my primary school friends through the wonder of the Internet and all of them were sad to hear of its demise too!

Thanks for writing your thoughts up!


Chris Lewis
chris at dogcow co uk

* I did swam in the pool in my earlier years at Downsview, but it was later closed owing to a significant (and frankly terrifying) crack in the bottom, attributed to lighting damage.