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Places of Cycling: Below the Downs

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Some of the best gravel riding in Britain can be found on the 100-mile trail called the South Downs Way. Connecting Winchester, the ancient seat of King Alfred, with Eastbourne, a genteel Edwardian seaside resort, the South Downs Way slices east-west across the country, never more than thirty miles from the English Channel. The Downs themselves are a range of chalk hills, divided in places by small rivers that run to the sea and edged by picturesque villages. Running along the top of these hills, the South Downs Way offers a blend of surfaces for the intrepid cyclist and mile after mile of spectacular views.

This area has long been a refuge for writers, artists, and musicians. There is a distinct feeling of remoteness, even of otherworldliness. It is easy to lose oneself in deepest Sussex. Yet from Brighton or Lewes one can be in London within an hour. Useful for meetings with one’s editor.

Probably the most famous artistic connection to this area is that of Virginia Woolf. Travelers can visit Woolf’s house in Rodmell, now owned by the National Trust, then proceed to Charleston House, home to Woolf’s sister Vanessa Bell and spiritual (rural) home to the Bloomsbury set. But there is another interesting artistic house nearby too, less well known.

At Firle Beacon, high up on the Downs, head north and dive down a rocky track to Littledene Lane. Another left, a track running beside wheat fields, brings you to a lone cottage. This is Furlongs. It’s a private house, so don’t go knocking on the door. But you can take a moment to enjoy its splendid, peaceful isolation. And imagine simpler times.

In 1933 the painter and designer Peggy Angus discovered Furlongs whilst exploring the South Downs on foot. At the time it was barely habitable, a simple farm-workers cottage, but Angus was determined to make it her home. She made a deal with the farmer and began renting the cottage. Angus, aged 29 at the time, loved the outdoors life. Sitting among a sea of fields, Firle Beacon rising above it, Furlongs was somewhere she felt connected to the landscape. Friends from her artistic circle (she had trained at the Design School of the Royal College of Art in London, where she was taught by Paul Nash) came down to visit her in Sussex. Glynde railway station began to regularly see bohemian types tumbling off the London train and setting off along the lane towards Furlongs.

The visitor who did most to enshrine Furlongs in the national culture was Eric Ravilious. Though born in London, Ravilious spent his formative years in Eastbourne, developing a love for both art and the Downs. He too studied at the RCA with Paul Nash and spent a great deal of time exploring the landscapes around London. He fell in love with Furlongs and spent a great deal of time there. The surrounding landscape inspired some of his finest watercolors. He said that this place, ‘altered my whole outlook and way of painting, I think because the color of the landscape was so lovely and the design so beautifully obvious … that I simply had to abandon my tinted drawings.’

In Tea at Furlongs Ravilious captured a table set for two, in the garden of the cottage. There is a pot of tea, scones, and butter on the table, shaded from the summer sun by a gray umbrella. As in most of his paintings, there are no human figures in the picture. We just assume the tea is set for Ravilious and Angus. In the latter half of the twentieth century, Ravilious’s reputation may have transcended that of Angus (though as with many women artists there may be dubious reasons for that), but what is certain is that Angus’s friendship, hospitality, and teaching were critical to Ravilious’s artistic development.