The lost city

IN DECEMBER 2005, we spent a Saturday night at a bed and breakfast in a remote spot near Winchelsea in East Sussex. In those days we still had our own car and could stop where we wanted on or even off the route.One of our stopping places was Redhill in Surrey. We wanted to visit its contemporary Roman Catholic church of St Joseph and St Paul’s, but not for religious reasons. The architects, who had designed it, knew that my late uncle WS Rindl, an accomplished structural engineer, was a keen amateur sculptor. They asked him to make some decorative features and a crucifix to adorn the exterior of the church. In addition to the concrete crucifix, my uncle designed and constructed concrete gargoyles to run off rainwater from the roof. Each of these gargoyles is decorated in bas-relief with castings of the tools used by builders and engineers. On one of these drainage spouts there is a representation of what looks as if it were an early rather bulky model of a pocket calculator. The church, completed in 1984, is a lovely example of imaginative 20th century architecture, well worth a detour to see.The rurally located bed and breakfast was housed in a building that was at least 300 years old if not older. The accommodation was comfortable but the breakfast was disappointing. The fried eggs served seemed as if they had been made long before breakfast and kept warm; they were not as fresh as the frost that had coated the surrounding countryside overnight. We made a brief visit to Winchelsea, a place that has always fascinated me. Founded as ‘New Winchelsea’ by King Edward the First in the 13th century, the town was a coastal port, complete with city walls. By the 1520s, what had been a thriving centre of trade declined rapidly because of shifting of the coastline resulting from silting up of its harbour. Apart from some of the town’s mediaeval gateways and the large church of St Thomas the Martyr, it is difficult to imagine that Winchelsea was once a bustling metropolis. The decline of Winchelsea is one of many examples all over the world of how environmental changes can affect the ability of civilisations to thrive. In January 2020, we visited Lakhpat in Kutch, a part of Gujarat in western India. This huge walled city, far greater in size than Winchelsea, was a thriving seaport until the early 19th century when an earthquake caused the sea inlet on which it stood to become transformed into a salty desert. Today, the seven kilometres of intact city walls contain not a city but only a few widely separated dwellings and a Sikh Gurdwara. The church, which dates back to the 13th century, looks large. However, what can be seen today is all that is left of what had once been a far larger cathedral-like building.On the Sunday morning when we entered the church, a service was being held. There was the priest and his congregation of less than eight people, looking a little lost in the huge church. Seeing the three of us entering, he welcomed us, and said in a pleading voice:
“Do stay. Come and join us. You will help swell our numbers.”
This ancient church, although beautiful, was sadly unused in comparison to the modern one we had seen at Redhill.We could not stay for long because we had a prior arrangement to meet our friend Tony at the art deco De La Warr Pavilion at Bexhill on Sea. He had invited us to view an exhibition of 20th century furniture being held there. I was amazed to find that many examples of the kind of furniture my parents had bought in the 1950s and 1960s were now regarded as classics of design and commanded high prices at the sale. I remember that some of that furniture was comfortable and some it looked good but was uncomfortable. We revisited Bexhill on Sea recently to see an exhibition of works by the op-art artist Bridget Riley. We stayed in a lovely Airbnb near the pavilion. On this visit, we had time to wander around the town, a paradise for lovers of charity shops that raise money for good causes. Bexhill is also a popular town for retired people to live out the rest of their lives.Our Airbnb was next to one of Bexhill’s numerous charity shops. This particular store, which lay between our accommodation and the Pavilion, specialised in secondhand wheelchairs, walkers, bedpans, and Zimmer frames. I guess that there is a high turnover of such items in the town.

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