Words by Alexandra Harris...
I knew I wanted to write a book about the play of light and the movement of air in English literature. I was interested in the deep cold as it crackles through the elegiac poetry of the Anglo-Saxons, and in the very different climatic tastes that emerged from the eighteenth-century culture of the picturesque. I wanted to hold up a hand to test the direction of the breeze as it blows through the poetry of James Thomson and William Wordsworth. My front room was piled with books and papers, but I didn’t know quite where I was going.
Then, in December, abandoning the Christmas shopping and mince-pie parties, I went with friends to stay at Laughton Place in East Sussex. I loved that tower in the fields from the moment we first glimpsed it, approaching on the old wartime track across the marshes. It wasn’t just that Virginia Woolf had discovered it on a walk with Vita Sackville-West and longed to live there (thouh I vividly imagined them crossing the moat to peer in at the deserted rooms). It was the way the building stood against the sky.
Laughton Place near Lewes, East Sussex
All the centuries seemed tangible in those sixteenth-century walls as the clouds gathered, as the willows turned to silhouettes in the fading afternoon and the rain began to fall. From a window sixty-two stairs up, I watched as the rain turned to deluge and the fields became an inland sea, stretching away to the green cliff of the Downs. A few lights glimmered in the distance. We spent the evening listening to the sound of the fire, a rising wind in the chimney, and – just audible – gulls calling, taking possession of the water.
The flood receded overnight, leaving only a few puddles lit up by a dazzling winter sun. The landscape was transformed: the long grass was now visible in the kind of low, raking light that picks out every blade. Water was running peacefully through the network of sluices and ditches, occasionally glinting. Square panes of white light came shafting through the windows and moved across the floorboards. The brick walls were now full of texture. Alterations were visible like an under-drawing: here was the line of a former doorway and there a remade quoin. I had wanted a break from my weather research, but at Laughton the weather – and the way it transformed the world around me – commanded all my attention.
The Library, Stevenstone, Devon
This was not the first time I’d been struck by the weather at a Landmark. At Warden Abbey I’d carried breakfast onto the roof so as not to miss early sun on the barley twist chimneys. At Wolveton Gatehouse I’d enjoyed the cool of stone rooms on a summer day. The rain at The Library had been quite different to the rain at Laughton. The formal Italianate pavilion was somehow not expecting it: The Library and its associated Orangery cried out for blue skies. There should be warmth to ripen the oranges, bright light on the stucco, sharp shadows across the loggia – or so I thought until I began to understand the subtle appeals of classicism in England. I drew up a chair to the grand window as the lawn disappeared in mist.
The British weather represented in John Constable's Study of Cumulus Clouds (1822). Credit: Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, Paul Mellon Collection
To live in an ancient building, if only for a night or two, is to live in ancient weather. Every Landmark I’ve stayed in has a climate of its own, and has affected my understanding of the past in unexpected ways. By the time I drove away from Laughton, back along the track through the water-meadows, I knew that I wanted to make my book a kind of time travel. I would try to tell a version of English history by watching the weather change.
Alexandra Harris is a writer and lecturer whose work has focused on modern British painting and Virginia Woolf. Her latest book is Weatherland: Writers and Artists under English Skies, an exploration of how the weather has shaped the cultural life of Britain. Weatherland has been serialised on BBC Radio 4's Book of the Week and was named Book of the Year by The Times, The Independent and The Observer. Alexandra currently teaches literature at the University of Liverpool.