12 MAR 2019:As you make your way - by train or car - through the quiet and glorious countryside of England's East Sussex it's hard to believe you are approaching one of the world's greatest opera houses.  Your destination is the tiny village of Glyne, on the outskirts of which stands Glyndebourne, a country house that has been home to opera since 1934.  In the early days the opera-loving owners of this home - the Christies - presented operas within the house, but the annual festival became so popular that a free-standing, 1,200-seat opera house has now been built on the beautiful grounds. 

Now, every summer, world-renowned opera singers join the Glyndebourne Chorus, together with the London Philharmonic Orchestra or the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, in magnificent productions of traditional and modern operas.  

Opera lovers will be familiar with the Festival's offerings, but a visit to Glyndebourne is more than just a theatre visit.  It is a quintessential English experience, one that may be viewed as somewhat elitist, but one that is a unique and memorable experience.  That's because the gardens of the house are open to ticket holders before the performance and during the lengthy intermission.  People arrive late afternoon, many with folding chairs, picnic tables and cool boxes.  Each couple or group chooses a spot in the garden and commences to 'set up'.  Champagne corks pop and 'nibbles' are laid out and enjoyed until it's time for the performance to start.  Ere long bells chime and everyone moves into the auditorium to take their seat for the performance.

Then comes the lengthy intermission; it's time for dinner.  Everyone returns to their chosen spot in the garden for their cold dinner.  (In the case of inclement weather there are wide covered terraces with tables overlooking the garden where the picnics can be enjoyed.) Oysters and salmon are much in evidence, perhaps with a traditional summer pudding to follow, then it's back into the theatre for the final acts.

This dining arrangement for visitors from overseas is hardly possible, but for those (and anyone else who would prefer to be served a meal) there is a lovely restaurant and terrace on site.  Or picnics can even be ordered from a local supplier.

It's all very elegant, but a gourmet picnic or meal in a lovely setting is not the only thing that makes Glyndebourne so special.  People dress up!  Most men sport tuxedos ('black tie' in England).  When I was young, long gowns were de rigueur but today there are just as many women in cocktail suits or dresses or, for the young, very short snazzy numbers.   (So you can save space in your luggage by packing 'short', leaving space for the tuxedo!). But don't let this dress code put you off; it's certainly not a rule and many men wear a suit while some male theatrical types may be spotted sporting something very trendy and unusual.  

And one doesn't necessarily need to drive there.  The nearest train station is Lewes, about three miles away.  There are hourly trains to Lewes from London Victoria (journey time just over an hour) and all Glyndebourne performances finish in time for audiences to return to London by train. Upon arrival at the station in Lewes there is a free round-trip coach service to take visitors to the Festival.   In fact part of the fun is joining other beautifully attired opera lovers at Victoria Station and taking the train to this quintessential English experience.  

But I'd recommend staying a while in East Sussex and exploring its beautiful countryside, quaint villages and rich historical offerings.  Of these I'd highly recommend a visit to the Charleston Farmhouse, located less than four miles from Glyne.  Set in the heart of the glorious Sussex downs, the Charleston Farmhouse was the country home of painters Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant from 1916. 

Their names may not be all that familiar to those born much later in that century, but some of their family and friends most certainly will be: Vanessa's sister was the writer Virginia Woolf, and other family members and friends who came to stay included writers Lytton Strachey and E.M. Forster, the economist Maynard Keynes and the art critic Roger Fry. Diaghilev, Picasso and T.S. Eliot were among the many guests here.  Many of these people together became known as the Bloomsbury group, named after the region of London where they lived, wrote and painted.  

But the 'Bloomsburys' were not always in London.  In spite of a lack of creature comforts, ugly wallpaper and an overgrown garden, Vanessa and Duncan fell in love with the Sussex house that was to become Charleston and set about creating what is today the most important remaining example of Bloomsbury decorative style.  Today the house and gardens are open to the public and a visit is highly recommended.  It is a delightful way to spend a few hours, while the journey there will take you through some glorious English countryside.

The house is not large and visitors are welcomed in small guided groups.  Lingering in the traditional English cottage garden is much encouraged, where there's a profusion of flowers as well as sculptures, a pretty pond, a vegetable and cut-flower garden and much more to delight.  There's also good food to be had in the Threshing Barn Café and an intriguing shop full of unusual gifts and books.

But what about this house itself?  Most of the fifteen or so rooms bear names such as 'studio', 'study', 'pottery', 'folly'.  The bedrooms carry the regular visitors' names (though it is common knowledge today that this unconventional group did not always remain in the bedroom allocated to them!).  Each room is full of the work of the artists in the group, and I mean 'full'.  They decorated the fireplaces, painted the walls, designed the upholstery fabric, sewed the drapes, stitched the needlepoint, crafted the pots and vases, painted the junk-shop furniture, stencilled the doors, filled the bookshelves and, of course, painted many of the pictures on the walls.  

There is a Canadian connection with a French painting that no longer hangs in Charleston.  It was/is a Poussin, bought in Paris after the First World War for around $100 by Duncan Grant who did not realize its worth.  (Nor, obviously, did the seller!) Grant eventually sold the painting to someone who did recognize its worth - Anthony Blunt, the eminent art historian (eventually 'outed' as a Soviet spy, though that's another story!).  Blunt, much to Grant's chagrin, eventually sold the painting for a far larger sum, the buyer on this occasion being the National Gallery of Montreal.

And that's not the only Canadian connection at Charleston.  In the gift shop you will find a handsome cookery book by Jan Ondaatji Rolls entitled The Bloomsbury Cookbook: Recipes for Life, Love and Art.  This volume not only shares recipes enjoyed by the residents of Charleston, but gives glimpses of the house and its art.  Proceeds go to help support the Charleston Trust ... and Jan Ondaatji Rolls was Toronto born.


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Ann Wallace

Ann Wallace is living a writer's dream currently writing of her adventures as she and her husband sail their boat around Europe.

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