Blue skies, Red summer

Simon Calder learnt to be a good socialist one blissful August in Sussex with the Woodcraft Folk. Forty years on he returns to his roots

Over the hills and far away, a land of promise lay: "We shall live for a time a life that great men like William Morris, Blake, Karl Marx ... have often dreamt of." OK, so the uplands in question were hardly Alpine, just a shoulder of the High Weald. And from the perspective of rather more extensive travelling, West Hoathly no longer seems too far from my old home in Crawley: just eight miles, or half-an-hour in the back of a lorry belonging to the local Co-op - which, in the summer of 1962, was how we travelled. About 20 of us, off on the trip of our young lives.

Over the hills and far away, a land of promise lay: "We shall live for a time a life that great men like William Morris, Blake, Karl Marx ... have often dreamt of." OK, so the uplands in question were hardly Alpine, just a shoulder of the High Weald. And from the perspective of rather more extensive travelling, West Hoathly no longer seems too far from my old home in Crawley: just eight miles, or half-an-hour in the back of a lorry belonging to the local Co-op - which, in the summer of 1962, was how we travelled. About 20 of us, off on the trip of our young lives.

Crawley is now at the heart of Britain's travel industry, with Virgin Atlantic, First Choice and other leading companies based there. But in the 1960s, the post-war New Town was not the liveliest of places. I was born and lived in a house beside the A23, a location singled out by Edward Verrall Lucas, the essayist and travel writer, for especial cruelty: "One would be hard put to it to think of a less desirable existence," he wrote, "than that of dwelling on a dusty road and continually seeing people hurrying either from Brighton to London or from London to Brighton." Steady, Eddie, that's my house you're talking about.

Thank goodness for the Woodcraft Folk, then as now devoted to teaching how to be a: "self-reliant, healthy and socially conscious member of society". Anyone who signed up with this left-wing voluntary organisation and committing to "the work of building up the great Co-operative and Socialist Commonwealth", could invest 7s6d (37p) for three days' board and lodging at the closest thing that Crawley had to a holiday camp. I couldn't wait. My main concern was saying the name of our destination. "West Hoathly" confuses the tongue. Now imagine you are a six-year-old with a lisp.

"Blue Skies": that was the sign-off used by Henry Fair, general secretary of the Woodcraft Folk, when he announced the acquisition of a new campground in the middle of Sussex. A sympathiser had acquired some former military huts and was prepared to lease them to the Folk at a peppercorn rent. There was room to pitch dozens of tents full of Elfins and Pioneers, and the facilities included "two full-size Army huts, three Nissen huts and two brick-built huts, all fitted with electric lighting".

The West Hoathly Centre's location was ideal: 38 miles from a London that still bore the open wounds from the Blitz. The serene surroundings proved ideal for acquiring "the skill of living in the open air, close to nature". Like the rest of the Weald, West Hoathly was scarred by the ironworks that cleared much of the woodland; this was a prototype Sheffield. Yet 40 years on, it is still Sussex profonde: a childlike landscape of hills and streams and meadows and forests of "The lofty pine, the stately oak, many of a very great age". As a six-year-old whose known universe extended barely beyond school and the shops, it was the Magic Kingdom - or, more like, a Magic People's Republic.

We could have travelled by train, on one of southern England's most spectacular lines, which runs through the Weald and the Downs from East Grinstead to Brighton. But the line had been closed a few years earlier by the running dogs of capitalism, sorry the Conservative government. (For the full story see a fascinating book by one Klaus Marx.)

When I returned to West Hoathly this week, I went by, or rather on, the railway. The Worth Way runs from Crawley along the course of an old line, shaking off the New Town that is spreading like a rash across the pretty face of Sussex. The bridleway passes the Saxon church of Worth, now marooned between the M23 motorway and a housing estate. It climbs away from the dull roar of traffic to the closest that Sussex has to a Massif Central. From this plateau, 600ft above sea level, you can see how the chalky North and South Downs cradle Crawley and Gatwick airport. They, like me, were infants in a 1960s land of some contentment.

Back in the socialist summer of 1962, when the skies stayed permanently blue, we spent the time walking, playing, and aspiring to earn dainty cotton badges to be sewn on our forest-green uniform. (The Watford branch, which had supplied the dancers for the opening event at West Hoathly, imposed hard-line egalitarianism by limiting the number of badges acquired by an individual to one.)

At the end of each day, we would sing "The Red Flag". I wasn't too sure what the socialist anthem meant, what with "In Moscow's vaults its hymns are sung", which I guess gives me something in common with most of today's Labour Party. The chief weapon against anti-social behaviour was the "Tabu"; we were solemnly told "It is Tabu to make a noise before rising time or after silence gong".

A good night's sleep was essential, because there was work to be done even by a six-year-old. The trade unions were at the height of their power, and aspired to give members a taste of the good life. In the valley to the east of West Hoathly stood Plaw Hatch Hall, a country club for trade unionists. A platoon of Elfins was deployed to pick vegetables for the workers' supper: "If each does but little, all will be done."

That night, packed three or four to an ex-Army tent, we enjoyed "the deep, deep sleep of England", that George Orwell prescribed. The grand houses that speckle the placid countryside were no doubt much more comfortable. But what was a hotbed of radicalism doing in the middle of a prim Tory landscape?

Find out in the PriestHouse, a 15th-century hall set in an effusive herb garden. Inside, you discover the social history of mid-Sussex - and a handkerchief embroidered by the Suffragettes jailed in Holloway prison in 1912. These days the women - and men - of mid-Sussex mostly vote for Nicholas Soames, the Tory former Army minister. But I found a county council document that raised concerns about the ancient village pub. The Cat Inn "has strong connections with many anti-establishment and independent minded causes", it observed.

Across the grandly named "Queen's Square" (actually just a T-junction) from the Cat Inn stands St Margaret's Church. It comprises a chronicle of ecclesiastical architecture from the Norman nave to Victorian embellishment. The terraced churchyard is this week fresh with daffodils. You can see the sharp ridge opposite decked in a solitary row of trees, and watch the hills melting into the mist, from a mirador with a motto:

"The kiss of the sun for pardon

The song of the birds for mirth

One is nearer God's Heart in a garden

Than anywhere else on earth."

The Woodcraft Folk's garden in which we Elfins grew up a little has been razed and replaced by upmarket housing. The organisation's celebrations for its 80th birthday this year are muted; last month the Government axed the Woodcraft Folk's annual grant to save £52,000, a sum that would prop up the ailing Rover car maker for 90 minutes. Perhaps the bureaucrats misheard the name of the organisation; one local I met this week thought I was searching for the "Witchcraft Folk".

My parents are still dwelling close to that "dusty road" between London and Brighton. No longer an Elfin, I live in south London on the site of William Blake's dark Satanic mills. I strive to be a "healthy and socially conscious member of society". And sometimes I yield to a craving to travel over hills to faraway lands - an indulgence I owe to the Woodcraft Folk, who cast a spell on a lucky six-year-old.

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

GETTING THERE

Since the railway station was closed, the easiest access to West Hoathly by train is to Haywards Heath, Three Bridges or East Grinstead. The Worth Way links Three Bridges and East Grinstead. Rail information: 08457 48 49 50; www.nationalrail.co.uk.

STAYING THERE

In the absence of the Woodcraft Folk Centre, you could try the 16th-century Gravetye Manor (01342 810567; www.gravetyemanor.co.uk). Doubles start at £150, rising to £215 from May to September. Breakfast is £16 per person extra.

MORE INFORMATION

The Priest House in West Hoathly (01342 810479) opens 11am-5.30pm daily (Sundays from 2pm) until 31 October; admission £2.70.

The Woodcraft Folk (020-8672 6031; www.woodcraft.org.uk) runs a range of other outdoor centres.

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