HOW DOES Sussex manage to keep a rural heart so near to London? Within 30 miles of the capital are working villages with duck-ponds, quiet pubs and flint-and-brick buildings. Brighton fast-forwards to the cutting edge of the 20th century with new age cafes and experiments with fusion cooking. More traditionally, there has been a big revival of cheeses in the county, and along the coast are small stands where fishermen sell the day's catch.
THE SOUTH DOWNS give Sussex form and spaciousness. This curvaceous chalk ridge stretches from the swooping white cliffs of the Seven Sisters near Eastbourne to the more wooded slopes near the Hampshire border. Walking the entire length takes a week. My favourite parts are mostly to the east, with views of the sea and the dusky blues and greens of an English summer laid below you, patterned with villages. For an easy view and an ice-cream, drive up to Ditchling Beacon. Another part that can be reached by road or foot is Firle Beacon, a sloping shoulder that lies seductively before the A27, tempting you to turn off the engine and head for the hills.
Lewes is an attractive town with many alleyways and quirky corners. One alley off the High Street hides the best of the town's many secondhand bookshops, Disjecta and the Pipe Passage Bookshop (both on 01273 480744), for interesting finds at good prices. Disjecta has a selection of cook- books.
Bloomsberries can visit Charleston, the murals in Berwick Church and the plain but evocative Monks Cottage in Rodmell where Virginia Woolf lived. Firle Beacon was one of her regular walks.
THIRSTY WALKERS descending Firle Beacon should head for the Ram Inn (01273 85822), a village local with a walled garden. There are benches against the wall where older villagers sit in the sun with a quiet pint. The ploughman's comes with home-cooked ham or good cheeses and the puds are true Brit. They sell the hoppy beers from Harveys, brewed in Lewes, and Breaky Bottom Seyval Blanc 1992 which is made a little further along the Downs that you see at the end of the village. This wine's notes of flint and honey are very much in tune with the landscape. Another authentic local serving Harveys is the Cricketers Arms in Berwick (01323 870469).
THE HUNGRY MONK in Jevington (01323 482178) values comfort and flavour, two obvious virtues in a restaurant but ones that can get lost amidst design and food fashions. There are four private dining- rooms upstairs (no extra cost) and a number of sitting-rooms downstairs where you can kick off your shoes and curl up on a sofa with coffee after dinner. The atmosphere and the food (a set-price menu at pounds 24.95) have the feel of a very well cooked dinner party. Duck is a speciality, with beautifully crispy skin and served with a passion fruit and Marsala sauce. Fish comes from Newhaven. Banoffi pie is the restaurant's famous creation, composed of a layer of toffee, bananas and coffee cream. It is said to be the biggest- selling pudding in the world and the name has now gone into the Oxford English Dictionary. When Nigel and Sue Mackenzie set up the restaurant in 1968, they were newlyweds who wanted to work together in the country. During lunch in the area on an idyllic summer's day, they decided that a restaurant was the way to go. They found the place by tea-time. Such was the primitive nature of the village water supply, the first year was spent surviving on rainwater and bucketfuls from the village tap. Nonetheless, the restaurant was full from the third week. Their seven cookbooks have now sold around 250,000 copies.
Brighton is famous for the Pavilion, which took its style from the Orient. The Black Chapati (01273 699011) is an idiosyncratic restaurant with authentic Eastern influences. Stephen Funnell's fascination with Indian and other Eastern foods is rooted in his travels. He learnt to cook during two-and- a-half years spent travelling in India in the Seventies and has subsequently been inspired by other travels and eating in good ethnic restaurants in England. His approach is therefore different from the free-fall fusion cooking of chefs adding Eastern ingredients to Western cooking. It is also different to an ethnic restaurant. For example, the food may combine a number of elements (rice, chutneys etc) but it is served on a single plate. One dish that typifies his approach is roast cod with a shrimp and lime-leaf sauce served with rice and salad dressed with fish sauce. The method and base ingredients are European but the flavourings authentically Thai. One clever idea is to serve fruity French cider, which suits the heat and flavours better than most wines or the more common partnership of beer.
SUSSEX SHARES the same chalk as Champagne, and a growing number of vineyards thrive here, including ones that make sparkling wine. Breaky Bottom (01273 476427) is the most beautiful of these, tucked away in a valley in the middle of the Downs and reached by a long farm-track from Rodmell. Well worth the detour. The English Farm Cider Centre (01323 811324) near Firle is the biggest collection in England of farmhouse cider, selling more than 200 kinds. Next door is an organic farm shop.
Say Cheese, in Lewes (01273 487871) and Herstmonceux (01323 833871), has 23 cheeses from the local area alone. Springs in Edburton (01273 857338) smokes fish and meat. Its farmed smoked salmon has a fabulous buttery richness and the wild smoked salmon is simply beyond ambrosial.
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