|River Ouse, Mount Caburn in background|
History is not the preserve of academics and experts. History is all around us and inside us, and Laing demonstrates ably and entertainingly how the knowledge of history that she carries inside her enriches her life and experience. She doesn't seem quite so sure of the present, perhaps because its ugliness has not been filtered or refined by the passage of time, but as a conjuror of ghosts - from Gideon Mantell (discoverer of the iguanodon) and Simon de Montfort (13th century rebel) to Virginia and Leonard Woolf - she rivals WG Sebald, whose 'Rings of Saturn' (1999) displays a similar fascination for the dead.
|Eric Ravilious, Cement Works No.2, 1934|
People sometimes ask me whether there was any connection between the Bloomsbury contingent based at Charleston Farmhouse and Rodmell and the artists - notably Eric Ravilious - and writers who gathered at Furlongs, the cottage where Peggy Angus lived and entertained. The answer seems to be 'no', but one can easily imagine Virginia Woolf, the inveterate walker of the Downs, and Ravilious, the seeker of interesting scenes and subjects, passing on a hilltop path - she heading for Charleston, he making for his favourite location, the Asham Cement Works...
The mining and processing of chalk had begun at Asham in the 1920s, close to the house where the Woolfs had lived when they were first married and during World War One, and where Virginia wrote 'The Voyage Out'. This house had been built in a downland valley by a lawyer from Lewes in the 19th century, and was discovered by the couple in 1912. As Leonard described in his autobiography:
Asham was a strange house. The country people on the farm were convinced that it was haunted, that there was treasure buried in the cellar, and no one would spend the night in it. It is true that at night one often heard extraordinary noises both in the cellars and in the attic. It sounded as if two people were walking from room, opening and shutting doors, sighing, whispering…I have never known a house which had such a strong character, personality of its own – romantic, gentle, melancholy, lovely...
|Asham Cement Works|
Approaching closer, he was excited by the strangeness of chalk-whitened buildings, dolly engines and a landscape dusted with fine white powder; with Peggy Angus as his guide he went back at night, when work continued by the light of arc lamps and flares.
The pair went to see Mr Wilson, the manager of the works, who was surprised but pleased to meet artists who could see beauty in an industrial operation that others tended to regard as a blot on the landscape. Given free run of the place, they returned together in all weathers to sketch and paint the chalk pits and works, the chimneys, sheds and railway lines. (from 'Ravilious in Pictures: Sussex and the Downs')
The extent of the works was considerable, and Olivia Laing recalls in her book that:
Before the cement works closed there used to be an aerial ropeway, dismantled now, that ran down the hill to the water's edge, linking the quarry to a concrete wharf where barges delivered coal and collected cement. It was here that Virginia's body was found, on 18 April 1941, three weeks after she'd walked into the river...
|River Ouse, with landfill site, capped in chalk|