from a diary:
A TALE OF TWO LIDOS
by Simon Barber
Amelia, Lady Allworthy (neé Amelia Bourne-Phipps) & her friends
(educated adventuresses all, and warrior priestesses, some)
fly from Newfoundland across the Atlantic to Europe - August 1937.
A Tale of Two LidosWednesday August 25th 1937
by Simon Barber
A bright, sunny day, no doubt using up all the month’s ration of good weather so we can have the usual storms and floods at the Bank Holiday. Not such an early start – it is definitely luxurious to breakfast at eight, and to be able to take one’s time about it.
By nine we were heading out, carrying valises with bathing costumes (as acting maid Miss Cabot insisted on carrying mine as well, and I can see her point). I would have far preferred our knapsacks, but they do not really go with our respectable outfits. Hopefully we can swap these for hiking shorts and boots soon.
Remembering not to wave at the plain-clothed policeman on duty, we slipped out via the back door and turned right, down to the promenade. It was rather early for most holiday-makers, although the tide was right out and there was that rarest of sights, flat exposed sand below the steep shingle banks. The only furs we could see were oddly dressed for the occasion; four soberly business-suited furs (oddly enough, wearing some sort of aprons) who were burying something on the beach.
The main bus line runs along the coastal road, and we jumped on the East-going bus for Newhaven harbour. Not that we were going that far today – as on Saturday, we headed out of Brighton and up onto the high, open chalk downs. An excellent view, from the top of a double-decker bus! Roedean School was the next landmark on the hill inland, where I could see a vigorous netball game in session. Very different though from the way Prudence and her dorm used to play it on the South Island beaches. Prudence never did convince Miss Devinski to let her keep her issues of “Health and Efficiency” in the Songmark library, although healthy fresh-air sports were certainly encouraged and none of the staff ever complained when away from Songmark we wore the local (lack of) swimming costume, just like in Prudence’s magazine.
Today was definitely a day for bathing costumes. We got off the bus two miles later at Saltdean, where we were to meet Miss Jenks at the lido. Saltdean (a ‘dean’ being the local name for a dry chalk valley) was basking in late Summer sun as we queued and paid our two shillings admission fee. It is a splendid, brand new place; little more than a hundred yards from the beach, just over the cliff-top road, all white Art Deco tiles and two pools with a great South-facing curving sun-trap wall like arms coming out of a central building that holds changing rooms, restaurant and suchlike. There were already a couple of dozen folk of all ages and species relaxing on the sun lounges or splashing happily in the pools. One side is shallow for kits and pups, and the other is Olympic pool sized and deep with very modern reinforced concrete diving platforms, three levels of them.
We changed into our bathing outfits, receiving for our lockers a numbered celluloid ‘coat check’ worn on a rubber strap round the wrist. I expect they float if they come loose in the pool; the setup here looks very well thought-out. Both Miss Cabot and myself took trouble that none of the other ladies in the changing room got a good look at us ‘in the fur’ – our Kuo Han… modifications would be sure to attract attention. Even on Spontoon they would be unusual.
It is the first time I have worn a bathing-costume since our last Songmark swimming classes, some months ago now. I had chosen a modern two-piece in very sheer rayon, a nice aquamarine colour with ruffles. Miss Cabot had chosen a dark green, modestly cut one-piece stretch woollen costume while Helen and Maria wore two-piece outfits in lemon yellow and light green respectively. Between us we make quite a peal of bathing belles, indeed! Looking around, the outfits on the other bathers are rather more daring than on the public beach; this is to an extent private property after all and the local by-laws do not apply quite as strictly.
It is very different, being somewhere folk have to make the most of every bit of sun even in August. Our spending so many hours swimming at Songmark in summer was mostly because anyone running round the sand dunes in full Spontoon sun with a full pack is liable to go down with heatstroke inside an hour, and our Tutors well knew it. Here, the lido pool is… appreciably warmer than the sea two hundred yards away, but felt still chilly to me. At least, to float about in. So we did little of that, and raced each other for twenty lengths of the big pool. Helen won by a nose, Miss Cabot just behind her.
After that, it was another luxury to recline in the sun, sheltered from the wind and feel our fur dry (the pool is fresh water, another improvement on sea bathing). Helen wears her “Euro” wedding ring; it is not a Spontoonie tradition but one can hardly go around here wearing oiled fur, and nobody would understand the patterns denoting her as married even if she did. Maria is not wearing her equivalent cow bell, and I think it would not be well-received by her if anyone mentioned it.
Not surprisingly, we attracted some attention – looking at the other ladies around, we do look decidedly – athletic, and Maria whispered it was like looking at four Arctic wolves in a lapdog show. I would not put it that way, but I understand what she means. For years we have been surrounded by extremely fit furs, both Songmark and the Spontoonies, and hardly ever mixed with the tourists on their beaches (though there were plenty of comments from some of my classmates about spotting beached whales in bathing suits, when we passed by).
As we relaxed on sun-beds, Helen switched to Spontoonie and noted that I could use a different bathing costume. Looking down, I could see what she means – thin rayon is very clinging, especially when it gets wet – and what with my having permanently lost some of my body fur, it rather shows certain details. But then, a gentleman would not stare to start with, and I am hardly going to be sitting in the House of Lords wearing this. Or at all, if I can help it. Miss Cabot has the same modifications but with her thicker wool costume one really cannot tell.
I noticed Maria looking at my figure, and spotted just where her eyes were focussed – it might be a month or so before I start ‘showing’, even in bathing outfits. Then, we are all of us extremely hard-trained and slim, so a kitten on the way would tend to… stand out more than on most of the rather fleshier lady bathers around us.
At about eleven we were hailed by a familiar voice – Miss Jenks, who had dropped us off in Brighton on Saturday. She was on her own, her brothers being in London still for another two days. She was wearing a cheerful orange woollen one-piece (very low-cut at the back, almost to her tail; had she put it on the wrong way round the bystanders would… notice.) There was much to catch up on. First, we challenged her to another ten lengths in the main pool – at which she proved more of a challenge than I judge most of the fifty or so bathers in sight. We still all beat her time.
Having dried out again we retired to the main building, where on the flat roof there is a tea terrace, an open air restaurant with very modern glass-topped tables, aluminium chairs and everything in the latest style. Over teas and coffees, we filled her in on our adventures since we last met – and the definite fact that someone wants the dowager Lady Allworthy as dead as her ‘husband’.
I expected Miss Jenks to be shocked and amazed that such things happen in the peaceful countryside and tourist-thronged resorts. But she nodded thoughtfully, and said she had been doing some asking around on our behalf while she was handling family business in London. She says she found some folk who had business dealings with Leon Allworthy, and can put me in touch with them. Excellent news – though it is probably not about their unexpected and significant support for charities. Still, good or (more likely) bad, facts are what I need. Indeed, Miss Jenks mentioned she had sometimes helped out in the investigation as one of the house-guests in the season, when the guest sleuth was having problems working out the murderer before the big finale on the Sunday evening.
A pleasant open-air luncheon of crisp whitebait with lemon and brown bread, then we reclaimed our clothes and, respectably dressed once more, strolled out in the bright sunshine to the car park. I recognised the car from Saturday, with her chauffeur sitting in it – though Miss Jenks asked if we would rather walk to her family home, it being only a couple of miles off. Though our outfits are Brighton respectable rather than outdoor practical, the shoes are up to the task she described (best to avoid ‘party’ shoes unless I have a more practical pair available to swap, or the setting is one where I can run bare-pawed if needed.)
Well, had it been pouring with rain it might have been another matter – but we gratefully accepted, put our valises in the car and her chauffeur drove off taking them to await our arrival. Then across the road onto the cliff edge – sheer chalk cliffs thirty feet high or so even at the bottom of the valley – and onto a cliff-top path that ran alongside. Having the busy coast road only fifty yards away was something of an annoyance, but the path is fine, heading Eastwards up the hill over short green grass with the sea to our right and plenty to look at.
East of Saltdean half a mile or so up the hill there was a new resort town, mostly sprawling expanses of bungalows spreading out above the much taller cliffs. Peacehaven, I had noted its name on the maps, and indeed we had gone through it on Saturday on the charabanc. Miss Jenks’ ears went down somewhat as I pointed it out – very fine little bungalows of their kind no doubt, each with its little patch of lawn small enough for an elderly fur to manage – but not exactly scenic.
Indeed, Miss Jenks remembers it being built from day one – that being just after the end of the Great War. Before the war it had been nice open grazing land and wheat fields, high up on the cliffs in the sunshine. Being well-drained, with good road communications and handy for the Newhaven port to France, like many such sites it became an army camp in the War, with thousands of semi-permanent tents and including in the last two years, a Tankodrome.* When the War Department sold the site in 1919 the property speculators moved in, giving their project a name that admittedly suits its change of use.
Just before we got to the start of the sprawl, we crossed the coast road and headed inland. Between Saltdean and Peacehaven there is still a strip of unspoiled countryside about a quarter of a mile wide, with a cart track heading North through the fields. We followed Miss Jenks North, while the roar of traffic behind us faded behind us and we headed Up to the top of the Downs. Which is a strange thing to say, now I think about it. Miss Cabot is quite right there.
Quite a view! As we headed downhill the vista opened up, gently rolling pastures and fields of ripe wheat golden in the sun; a few fields already harvested. It is certainly the end of Summer; some years the rains arrive on the Bank Holiday and start a soggy slide all the way into a very grey Autumn. In the distance we could see Lewes on its hill about four miles away, where hopefully folk are working on the Bentley and checking the punt gun for any danger signs. A few drops of strong acid inside the breech acid and the holes disguised with way could fatally weaken the breech, with fatal effect indeed for anyone firing a gun that size. (Amazing what knowledge a Songmark girl picks up, and not necessarily in class.)
But still, a fine day. In another mile the track was surrounded by tall trees shading us from the scorching sun, and became a deep-sunken lane evidently of very ancient use. After a few cottages a small village appeared – very small, perhaps fifty houses, an ancient flint-built church and one substantial hall, her family home – nothing much else. The nearest pub and shops are apparently a mile over the hill in the next village, Miss Jenks said.
Her ancestral home is a medium sized place, three storeys tall by about four rooms wide, well tucked into a deep valley side a hundred yards from the church, with beech trees in full leaf sheltering it from the North. Miss Jenks showed us in – we recognised the two cars parked in the stable yard; evidently our valises got here first. Her butler Alceston (a sturdy badger gentleman of local stock by his accent) and two lepine housemaids, sisters by the look of them, opened the door and welcomed us in.
I am glad that after all this time Helen has picked up sufficient manners – or rather that she decided to use them. When she sits on a chair it is generally turned the other way round, straddling it. (Not that one could really do that in the armchairs in Miss Jenks’ front parlour anyway. But in her first Songmark year Helen would surely have tried.) It is a very different world for the girl from the Texan oil-towns to be sure, to be sitting in the parlor of an English country house with a butler pouring tea for us, looking out over fresh-mown lawns and green trees.
Miss Jenks invited us to stay as long as we liked – when I pointed out that once our adversaries tracked us down we were liable to prove dangerous company, she nodded determinedly and said she had been thinking about that. Although very close to the coast road and the crowded tourist resorts in some respects, the village is the sort of place where everyone knows each other by sight – and any strangers wandering around will be noticed. One does not need Vostok-style secret police to keep an eye out for invaders! She will pass the word out, she says – adding that Alceston was a Sergeant in the War, and was mentioned in dispatches for the frequency and ferocity of his trench-raiding; possibly he includes trench-knife sharpening along with polishing the family silver in his butler’s duties. Many of the estate staff have similar experience, she added.
Helen whispered that the stock phrase in thrillers, ‘the butler did it!’, may turn out to be accurate around here. This butler has done quite a lot already. Looking at furs in impeccable black servant outfits, it seems strange imagining them twenty years ago in mud-encrusted khaki, wielding a trench-club rather than a tea-tray. But a photograph of the four of us dressed in our best at our ease here would seem just as strange put next to some of the situations we have been in. Miss Cabot (or rather Molly, but a photograph would never know) has stood on an embattled ship’s deck, that time we defended the Parsifal from Moro pirates, laughing gleefully as she threw two-pound explosive charges into packed attacking boats. Helen has stood by her husband’s side wearing only grass skirt and oiled fur on Sacred Island, and Maria was a jolly fearsome sight on Kuo Han when we cleansed that dark temple taking no prisoners. So one can never tell!
Anyway, we happily agreed to her offer, and arranged to move over tomorrow. Doing this without leaving a trail will take some planning – whoever is after me set up the Belvia Guest house as a pretty professional-grade trap! If we assume we have the equivalent of both the Vostok secret police forces to dodge, I doubt that will be over-cautious. The best solution would be one where the watchers still think we are in Brighton, while the real trail leading here gets colder by the hour.
After an hour or so we took a stroll around the village; the only motor road out heads North, and downhill to the valley leading to the busy port of Newhaven. Miss Jenks says there is a small flying-boat slip and hangars on one side of the harbour, well clear of the big cross-channel ferries; as soon as her Dragon Rapide is fully serviced she will bring it round from Shoreham to its regular home.
It seems a lot longer ago than Friday that we said adieu to the Storm Bird! Definitely eventful times. Thanks to Maria there are spare parts on the way from Italy; even so they will take awhile by train and boat, getting through customs at Newhaven, before the mechanics can make a start. If we are flying the Storm Bird again inside a week I will be amazed.
Rather than return the same way straight back towards the coast, Miss Jenks offered to show us another way out of the village. We climbed out West on footpaths running along the high crest of the Downs, and an hour’s vigorous hike curving in behind Saltdean brought us down again to the coast arriving in Rottingdean the back way, A pretty village somewhat swamped by holiday housing.
Our footpath came in through the fields, through the back gate of the old churchyard. Miss Jenks had been pointing out landscape features as we went with the pride of a born local, and in one corner shaded by yew trees she showed us what has apparently been left out of the guidebooks. Just a small, plain white headstone with a carved bee at the top, and a simple, cryptic inscription:
S.H.A matching but even simpler headstone, without the bee, a yard away reads simply “J.H.W. 1853-1931”.
1854 - 1929
“Feared by the many who deserved it
Admired by the few who knew him.”
We stopped a minute and bowed our heads silently. I thought of the cottage by the Cuckmere Haven cliffs we saw on Saturday, with the well-tended beehives in the back garden amongst the gorse flowers. We missed meeting by just a few years, one noble hound who could have really helped me!
Saying farewell till tomorrow to Miss Jenks at the coast road, we jumped on a Brighton-bound bus and in twenty minutes were back. Still a scorching day; spirits were lifted by ice-creams on the esplanade and a stroll along the pier, watching out even so for any suspicious folk. There was one smartly dressed calico feline gent carrying a violin case – we breathed easier when he walked over to the bandstand, greeted the band rehearsing there and pulled out a violin.
Looking at the advertising posters, I pointed out to Helen that if we are here at Bank Holiday, I will be able to show her another feature of local life she has never quite believed when I tell her. A ukulele concert by the cheeky Lancashire comedian George Formless, who seems to have definite Cheshire Cat ancestry by the way he can grin while singing and playing simultaneously. Helen has always thought this was an elaborate hoax like the Spontoonies make up ‘ancient traditions’ for the tourists. But no – like the socially approved country-house murders, George Formless is real. In fact I noticed at one of the cinemas they are showing his latest film, “Don’t let George Do it!” where due to a bizarrely comic turn of events he is offered the job of Prime Minister.
Maria muttered that the nation could do worse; she seems rather disappointed with our Government.
Back to the Belvia Guest House, with a lot of careful planning still to do for tomorrow!
*(Editor’s note: a genuine word that has not survived in general usage. As early aircraft based themselves at an aerodrome, so did 1918 vintage tanks assemble, train and run maintenance at their very own Tankodromes.)