Six Facets of Light looks at the mysteries of light and its manifestations in nature. In the following chapter from the book, Wroe takes us for a walk on the chalky soil of the south coast
Sixty miles south of London, reached by an ambling train that divides at Haywards Heath, lies Eastbourne in East Sussex. Weathermen say it is the sunniest town in Britain, with brightness almost every day. Pensioners know this; they have long colonised the place, shuffling in white cardigans and golf shoes past the glacé-icing façade of the Grand, or sitting on the benches by the Martello tower where the marigolds make a show. Everything dazzles, or is bleached out. A man walking a dog across the lawns becomes a radiant ghost of himself. Teapot, cups and spoons blink blindingly on a table. The sea breaking on Holywell Ledge by the westernmost tea chalet sparkles in sequinned foam, and a single yacht – there is always one – cleaves the sea like a blade.
The artist Eric Ravilious was brought up here in the early 1900s, the tall, floppy-haired son of a man who, appropriately, made his living by selling and fitting blinds. On Sundays you might see him – ‘the Boy’, as friends called him later, in token of that unjaded child’s gaze – arm-in-arm with his parents, walking briskly to the Methodist church where the minister preached hellfire. For hours he would sit there, morning and evening, in a hall darkened by infernal visions, watching through the high windows how the light played outside. He would hear above the wheezing organ seagulls crying light, scrapping for it, keening down the great curve of it, while wood-and-canvas biplanes buzzed them and more boats, sails shining, rode jauntily on the sea. Or so he painted the scene later, adding – for good measure – vapour trails, clouds, fireworks.
For there was no getting away from it. If he escaped by bike to the Downs to the north and west of town the air was still saturated with light, like a shout. The whole region was famous for it. When Richard Jefferies, Victorian England’s greatest nature writer, moved his long lean Wiltshire frame in the 1880s to Brighton, twelve miles west of Eastbourne, hoping for health, he was enchanted by the dryness and clearness of the air. The place was ‘a Spanish town in England, a Seville’, where light so filled the sky and cascaded off the walls, caressing the blooming, fluttering, laughing girls as it went, that even a northern aspect shone. The sheer ‘champagniness’ of Brighton light, he wrote, ‘brings all things into clear relief, giving them an edge and outline’. Ravilious, cycling out into fold upon fold of clear-edged hills backed by glare, carried Jefferies’s books in his mind or his saddlebag. Aficionados of light and chalk tend, like downland starlings, to flock together.
The sheer ‘champagniness’ of Brighton light, [nature writer Richard Jefferies] wrote, ‘brings all things into clear relief, giving them an edge and outline’
The combination is too strong for some eyes. Chinese tourists on the Number 12 bus, which plies the coast road, not only don sun- glasses and sit on the shaded side but pull their caps over their faces to save themselves. It doesn’t help. Light lords it here and, besides, the land is built from it. Rabbits kick it up from the banks, white scuts jumping in a rubble of white stones. Poppies catch scarlet fire at the field’s edge, each petal glassy with powder of light. Trees are rooted in square-cut walls of it, as if their leaves did not absorb enough from the fiercely gleaming air. Men quarry it; one of Ravilious’s favourite subjects was the Asham cement works near Tarring Neville, dug deep into the Downs, where talcum-light lay in drifts over buildings, dolly engines, hedges and trees.
When the topsoil is ploughed or harrowed light shoulders through, bone beneath skin as delicate as that quarried dust. Real bones also break from it, of rabbit or sheep, or the bleached, strewn ossuaries of birds of prey. Fields that are plain smooth grass erupt with light, in pebbles of chalk or damp mushrooms overnight, with occasional perfect shells flung up by wave and gale, or even with the scattered forms of far sheep grazing – for it is a curious quality of this light that all objects, near or far, are equally intense and clear. The result can be a sense of illusion, almost trickery. W.H. Hudson, another tramper of the Downs favoured by Ravilious, thought he had stumbled once on one of those bright, prophetic fields, singled out by the cloud-fighting sun, where divine words wait to be read: an old ploughed field, it seemed from a distance, completely covered with tall white-campion flowers. But it was only a patch of downland waste strewn with shining flints, blue forget-me-nots misting among them.
‘She’s a genius, I believe, because she lights up every subject she touches.’ Hilary Mantel
A Spectator Book of the Year
Goethe claimed to know what light was. Galileo and Einstein both confessed they didn’t. On the essential nature of light, and how it operates, the scientific jury is still out. There is still time, therefore, to listen to painters and poets on the subject. They, after all, spend their lives pursuing light and trying to tie it down.
Six Facets of Light is a series of meditations on this most elusive and alluring feature of human life. Set mostly on the Downs and coastline of East Sussex, the most luminous part of England, it interweaves a walker’s experiences of light in Nature with the observations, jottings and thoughts of a dozen writers and painters – and some scientists – who have wrestled to define and understand light. From Hopkins to Turner, Coleridge to Whitman, Fra Angelico to Newton, Ravilious to Dante, the mystery of light is teased out and pondered on. Some of the results are surprising.
By using mostly notebooks and sketchbooks, this book becomes a portrait of the transitoriness, randomness, swiftness, frustrations and quicksilver beauty that are the essence of light. It is a work to be enjoyed, pondered over, engaged with, provoked by; to be packed in the rucksack of every walker heading for the sea or the hills, or to be opened to bring that outside radiance within four dark town walls.