Monday, 20 June 2011

Letter from a windmill

I know I’m not alone in finding a certain romance in windmills. Cervantes had Don Quixote famously tilting at them, imagining them to be giants. Fictional TV sleuth and magician’s creative consultant Jonathan Creek lives in one as did, according to the song, the notorious clog-wearing mice of old Amsterdam. So I was thrilled when my wife Sue suggested - by way of celebrating both my 50th birthday and our 25th wedding anniversary - that we should stay in a converted windmill in Rye.

Rye is a special place to us, having been the destination for several family holidays, inspired by my love affair with Malcolm Saville’s Lone Pine books, (a number of which are set in and around the ancient Sussex town.) A few days of escape in dear old Rye - familiar but still enchanting - sounded perfect.

Rye Windmill is now a Bed & Breakfast with a calm and calming atmosphere and owners who thoughtfully but unobtrusively attend to every detail. The room was so comfortable and the breakfasts so perfect that we couldn’t even object to the noisy carousing of what we later discovered to be marsh frogs in the river Tillingham beneath our window. (You can hear what a marsh frog sounds like by clicking here.)

We were blessed with a few precious days of May warmth and sunshine and were able to enjoy long walks around Camber Castle. The castle, like Rye itself, was once a coastal defence that now stands stranded by a receded sea, as if it has been built inland by mistake. And beyond Camber Castle, we discovered Castle Water. For a moment we could have been in the Lake District and it’s hard to comprehend that this beautiful wildlife sanctuary of Castle Water hadn’t been there as long as the 16th century castle but was actually a very unromantic large gravel pit created by the extraction of shingle between 1930 and 1970. Ignorant of this, we allowed the blissful weather and location to create the illusion of our very own desert island with its shingle beach, comfortably shifting, like some kind of sedimentary memory-foam, beneath us when we slumped down for a rest.

Over the years we’ve been visiting Rye it has inevitably changed. Some of the pubs which were previously unbeatable pockets of atmosphere are now not worth visiting. Conversely, one pub that has been given a completely new lease of life is the Queens Head. We’d unfortunately missed the performance of French medieval folk band Les Derniers Trouvères who had been there for the Bank Holiday weekend but we were still able to enjoy real ale and a satisfying vegetarian chilli for a mere fiver. And there can't be many other pubs that run arts and crafts gatherings where you can learn the skills of bookbinding and reflections painting.

One of the other changes to Rye since our earlier visits has been the closure of a few of its second-hand bookshops and some of these seem to be have been replaced by photographers' galleries like Clive Sawyers’ next to Landgate Arch. Clive produces limited-edition photographic art taking as his subject not only the landscapes of Rye and Camber but those of Manhattan and Chicago.

Of course, I took a suitable book along to read during our stay -- Alphonse Daudet’s Lettres de mon moulin (Letters from my windmill). In the late 19th century Daudet was the most successful novelist in France. Nowadays his books are largely unread. I bought my copy of this charming book 30 years ago when I lived in Brittany and I had never read it properly. Why not? Perhaps because I had never stayed in a windmill before.

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Tony Gillam is Senior Lecturer in Mental Health Nursing at the University of Wolverhampton and Visiting Lecturer at the University of Worcester. An award-winning mental health nurse, he is also a freelance writer and musician, has published numerous articles and is the author of 'Reflections on Community Psychiatric Nursing'.