East from Uckfield, down to Petersfield, Winchester city looks so pretty...

Clinging to the Downs like a sinuous thread, the A272 travels through a part of England that time forgot. And that a Dutchman has now immortalised
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The Independent Online

I'm a city boy. If I'm going to go for an invigorating walk, it's most likely to be a shopping trip down north London's Kentish Town Road. So a 90-mile stretch of country Tarmac, swooping from Poundford in Sussex to just beyond Winchester, would not have been my own first choice of subject for a book. But to Pieter Boogaart, the 55-year-old Dutch author of an extraordinary 218-page book devoted to the delights of the A272, this rural thoroughfare is more than just a road. To him, it represents the "epitome of England".

I'm a city boy. If I'm going to go for an invigorating walk, it's most likely to be a shopping trip down north London's Kentish Town Road. So a 90-mile stretch of country Tarmac, swooping from Poundford in Sussex to just beyond Winchester, would not have been my own first choice of subject for a book. But to Pieter Boogaart, the 55-year-old Dutch author of an extraordinary 218-page book devoted to the delights of the A272, this rural thoroughfare is more than just a road. To him, it represents the "epitome of England".

Boogaart has spent 10 years researching every inch of his chosen route, listing every telephone box and petrol station, and exploring every association. But why did he choose the A272? What was so special about this particular stretch of motoring Britain? It didn't take me long to figure out. What makes it different, first of all, is its view of the Downs. Driving west from Petworth to Midhurst in West Sussex - the stretch I know best - the Downs lie sprawling on your left. If you're driving the car rather than sitting in the passenger's seat, you risk life and limb to look at them.

I always think of the Downs as an optical illusion. They're not particularly high, but they give the unmistakable impression of hugeness - irregular undulations that never look the same from two successive vantage points. Kipling called them "Our blunt, bow-headed, whale-backed Downs". Hilaire Belloc said that "Sussex is Sussex on account of the South Downs", and the same can be said of the A272.

What really makes the A272 so memorable is its feeling of being part of the landscape. You don't just "see" the Downs, you feel you're part of them. The road is not a modern-style straight motorway, but a sinuous thread that hugs the natural contours. You dip and soar, curve and sweep, almost constantly. To drive here is to feel your automobile taking on the nature of a bird, or a small airplane. Speed accentuates the exhilaration of the experience.

At times the road seems designed for maximum scenic impact, at others it is deeply frustrating. Driving east towards Petworth, for example, the great composition of Petworth House and its parkland comes into view on the left. But as the road rises, just when you think you might get a view of park and house, so too rises the stone wall marking the perimeter of the property. A brief, enticing glimpse - and then nothing. Only on entering Petworth itself, surely one of the most beautiful towns in England, does the sense of frustration lift.

Five miles west, the road's other heritage-scenic attraction is much more accessible, though simultaneously more mysterious. Cowdray Castle played host to Queen Elizabeth I, Horace Walpole and Samuel Johnson, among others. Apparently modelled on Hampton Court, it was one of the great houses of England and a treasure-chest of artworks and furnishings. A fire in 1793 ended all that, but the gutted remains, with stonework remarkably well preserved after 200 years, are haunting and evocative. On a sunny day, light filters through the empty window frames; if it's rainy, mists sit as if in silent protection of the bare, ruined stone

The land around Midhurst brings on an impossibly archaic remnant of the feudal past: the yellow doors and window frames of tied cottages belonging to the Cowdray estate. They're all over the place, a reminder of how much money there is around here. And old-fashioned money, in stone and mortar and wood, quietly disdainful, you might think, of the paper-built fortunes of contemporary e-millionaires. No one knows whose bubble will be the first to burst, but that yellow paint has been here a long, long time.

Driving east from there, back towards Petworth, the road swoops and dips before you pass a little pool of water called Benbow Pond. If Cowdray and Petworth embody everyone's idea of aristocratic grandeur, Benbow Pond embodies an ideal version of English pastoral. You've seen it in dozens of 19th-century novels and watercolours. Yet here it is through the offside window, silent and almost unvisited - though a good winter freeze might ice it over and bring out the skaters.

From there the drive becomes, if possible, even more romantic. Climbing up a wooded slope, you reach the turn-off (on the right) for Smugglers Lane, which drops from the main road at a steep incline down a track designed for brandy-laden wagons rather than the 4X4s of the local affluenti. West Sussex was a smuggler's paradise because of its large, flat beaches, and they made their way from the coast up tiny lanes like this one. Impossibly high sandy banks fence it in - you can hardly believe that you're in 21st-century England.

For Mr Boogaart, the A272 "represents England. It captures the Englishness of English life." I'm somewhat more cynical about the meaning of Englishness than he is. Why is this less quintessentially English than the litter casually dropped all over Kentish Town Road? But as a fellow foreigner, of American rather than Dutch origins, I can easily see why he's fallen head-over-heels in love with the A272. Barely two hours from London, it looks like the place that time forgot to ruin. It conforms to an image of England that has more to do with Elizabeth Gaskell and John Sell Cotman than Salman Rushdie and Damien Hirst. Forget about Post-Modernism. The A272 hasn't even reached Symbolism yet.

It's a truism of our times that praising something usually ruins it. Write a book about your village in Provence and it drowns in tourist traffic. Review your undiscovered local bistro and you can't get a table any more. I think the A272 will probably survive the attention. The smugglers use vans, and travel straight from the Channel ports on roads that are more direct and less scenic. The tourists, even if more of them roll up as a result of this book, will make the trip and then head off without stepping out of their cars. There's room enough for everyone here. Or so I hope.

'A272: An Ode to a Road' is published by Pallas Athene at £14.95

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