In the words of GK Chesterton, Sussex and its timeless beauty is the place where “London ends and England can begin”. But as the world saw this week, it is also the sort of place where the daughters of rock stars superglue their hand to gates and children eat “frack off” cupcakes in the name of the environment.
The protests in the village of Balcombe, nestling in the valleys of West Sussex, against the shale gas explorations of oil company Cuadrilla are a thoroughly modern affair with social media mobilising passionate opposition.
But the demonstrations are also the continuation of an ancient and rich vein of radicalism and dissent in the home county. From Thomas Paine’s years in Lewes laying the groundwork for the American Revolution by pondering the iniquities of the pay of customs officers to the desire of a housewife called Anita Roddick to set up a cosmetics business in Brighton called The Body Shop, Sussex – both East and West – has a long-standing knack of thumbing its nose at orthodoxy.
The roots of this non-conformism, expressed eloquently by the historian and peer Asa Briggs when he helped found the University of Sussex in 1961 with the aim of “redrawing the map of learning”, lie as much in the primeval geography of the county as the more recently acquired refusal of its inhabitants to bow to the mainstream.
Proud Sussex resident Peter Owen-Jones, the vicar and broadcaster who knows a thing or two about non-conformism after dropping out of school at 16 and running a mobile disco before becoming an advertising executive, said: “Until the middle ages at least, Sussex was incredibly wooded – it was somewhere people could hole up in a way that wasn’t possible in the likes of Surrey or Kent.
“Sussex is and always has been a place where people who didn’t necessarily accept the status quo could go to live and find support among the like-minded. It is this ethos which it has carried down the ages. Look at Brighton – it was the place where young couples who weren’t necessarily married would go to do what young couples do. You didn’t get that in Guildford.”
The crucible of Sussex’s sanscullotism is undoubtedly the East Sussex county town of Lewes, which still stages the nation’s most raucous celebrations of 5 November every year in memory of 17 Protestant martyrs burnt to death in barrels between 1555 and 1557.
As well as providing shelter for Paine, it has kept its radical roots in more recent years, not least by becoming one of the first towns in Britain to respond to the economic crisis by issuing its own currency – the Lewes pound – with the aim of supporting the town’s businesses.
Brighton, which sent the first Green MP, Caroline Lucas, to Westminster, has long fancied itself as the city which shows London how to remove the stick from its behind.
But the Sussex hinterland is also bountiful in the unorthodox, from the British headquarters of the Church of Scientology, the controversial alleged cult of choice for Tom Cruise et al, to the barricades of Balcombe.
As the Reverend Owen-Jones, who is the vicar of Firle, put it: “Sussex gives you the freedom to think differently and it is thriving as a result. It is the place where I feel completely at home.”
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