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Hands up who wouldn’t start a dreary Sunday with a nose around the art deco lair of a secret society if they got the chance? It’s certainly not something we’d turn down. Arcane symbols, a vial of dried blood, pottery dogs and camp blinged-up aprons for men? Lost Prom – meet the Freemasons.
Today’s trip is to Newhaven, but the Sussex Masonic Centre in Brighton is having an open day, so we stop by for a tour on our way to the station. The rarely glimpsed 1920s building features a pendulous stairwell lantern longer than both our living rooms and a cavernous black and white tiled hall, its dome ceiling gilded with the signs of the zodiac with an All Seeing Eye staring down from the centre. It’s especially impressive in comparison with the modern part of the building with its Artex ceiling-tiled modern hall.
These days the masons seem only to exist in order to hold and practice silly ‘ceremonies’. An order of events, sitting on the organ, reveals nothing of great interest, other than a donation from the ‘Helmet Fund’. One of the most noticeable things is the defibrillator in the bar area, presumably in case the old men get over excited about showing each other their nipples and having a secret ‘No Girlz Allowed – They Smell’ gang. Still, it keeps them busy.
After a bit of breakfast, it’s on to Newhaven. The small part of it we’d seen on our previous trip (to Tide Mills) and the reports we’d heard from others had prepared us for kitchen sink desolation. We’d pictured a town of no renown – crumbling buildings, blank industrial estates, boarded-up shops, empty faces. An abandoned station, an abandoned ferry port and little sign left of the once thriving cross channel traffic, now departed to Kent and the Eurotunnel.
Yet, even though it’s a Sunday and hardly anything is open – perhaps because the sun is out – it doesn’t look all that grim Quite grim, but it’s no Basingstoke. In the town centre there are plenty of empty premises, but there’s also a cake shop, a second hand bookshop, a shop called ‘Balloonatics’ (which as well as balloons also sells a strange array of giant fluffy dogs), a takeaway called ‘I Like ‘a’ Pizza’ and a pet accessories parlour with what looks like a row of day-glo nooses hanging in the window (which turn out to be dog leads). There are even a few streets that might – if only somebody showed some love to them (and money), almost be a bit, well French. Newhaven is the gateway to the South of England by sea but right now, it doesn’t feel like a gateway to anywhere, unless it’s the gateway to a particularly scruffy garage forecourt where all the toilets are blocked, the shop smells of sick and you burn your tongue on a microwaved pie.
Our favourite sight in Newhaven is its derelict Conservative Club. Torched and sad; ragged doors and windows hang off the building like pieces of loose, charred skin. There’s a sign that mysteriously says; ‘Danger Keep Out: Canon’ and a poster on the door revealing that fittingly, the last band to play there were called Tasteless. This building is what the whole of British society will look like in 5 years time, once its political masters have done their worst. This is one ruined property we won’t be mourning.
A brief but sudden shower sends us hurtling to the only shelter – a fish shop. Nhung is amazed by the cheap prices but Tamsin is concerned about the smell and nixes her buying any. Next stop; an eccentrically corroded boat on the Ouse, red and pale blue with orange rust stripes and loaded up with multi-coloured bicycles, prams and wheelbarrows. Tatty net curtains and a TV aerial suggest someone might be living here. Blue rags hang from the bow like a shabby veil.
We wander down an alleyway behind some houses and find ourselves in a small harbour area, full of even more delightfully rusty, mysterious detritus. There’s a giant hangar, families of cranes and containers with smiley face grafitti on them and a snooty-looking ginger ship’s cat strutting proudly on a houseboat. Later on we see another sweet pussy, this time a black and white one clambering on the rocks by the river in search of fishy titbits. Aw.
Back to the town centre again and some burgers, chips and milkshakes at Rose Cafe & Restaurant. At one point a woman comes in and asks, “Did I leave my top here?”
In search of more excitement, we decide to walk up to Newhaven Fort where a Battle of Britain Day is being held. Re-enactment types in vintage army uniforms, 40s swing dancers, cute miniature tanks and a Land Girls’ reunion are amongst the attractions on offer.
Built in the 1860s, the fort saw action in both World Wars, and was restored relatively recently, after standing near derelict for many years. A warren of tunnels and cave-like little chambers each hold different war-related displays, covering topics such as the blitz, life in the trenches etc. However, we don’t spend much time on these as the rooms, with their smell of damp and cat wee are too reminiscent of Tamsin’s flat.
Our best conversation of the day is with Ivy and Alice, two former Land Girls. Ivy is 92 and was stationed near Coventry where she was seriously injured during the bombing. But their eyes sparkle and dance as they reminisce about their time in the land army – it’s a privilege to speak to them.
We amble around the ramparts taking in the sights. A German U-boat crew smoking fags, lindy-hopping couples from Brighton, the sea mumbling indistinctly at the bottom of the cliffs. A couple who collect antique weapons talk to us about 1940s puttees and disappointingly nobody does any Cher-like straddling of the cannons. Finally, there is a minute’s silence and ‘The Last Post’ is played as old soldiers struggle to hold up their brightly-coloured standards against the strong wind.
Newhaven itself, like freemasonry, has a similar air – a feel of the last of England – battling gamely against elements outside its control. Its standard is still flying just, but at half-mast.
The Spitfire fly-by promised at the Fort (cancelled due to the weather conditions)
Lives in centuries of wars
Fresh rosemary (plucked by Nhung to go with her lost fish)
Small tin with WW11 postcard design
Red ensign needed for sailing trip
Two lovely Land Girls
Two lovely pussies