My grandmother Virginia came of age during the Second World War. In her later years, she would reminisce about an era in which a humble girl from Penzance could make friends with people from places as far-flung as Winnipeg and Reykjavik; find independence through war work and throw herself into dances with a joie de vivre borne of a knowledge that bombers could raze the white cliffs on any given morrow.
For all of Virginia’s honeyed recollections, there were regrets. The spartan wartime diet elicited mixed reports from a woman who, in her later years, was fond of thickly iced cream buns. And despite a regular regime of chest expansion exercises (and blonde locks that owed something to 1930s screen siren Jean Harlow), Virginia declared her younger self “not bosomy enough” to attract offers to foxtrot from those most glamorous of 1940s arrivals: the American GIs.
I recalled these confidences when I rediscovered Virginia’s wartime diary in my London attic last year. You see, I inherited from Virginia my modest curves and intermittent clumsiness, but also this well-thumbed account of a year in a young woman’s life at a pivotal moment in modern history; when Virginia was stationed as a nursery nurse for London evacuees at Glyndebourne opera house and estate.
Aware of the family connection, I had long dreamed of a weekend history getaway to this region of the South Coast: known for its arty towns, storied opera venue and fine walks through rolling chalk downland and gentle green pasture.
So on a bright early summer’s day, I set off by train from London Victoria to explore the locations mentioned in Virginia’s 1942 account. They include the Downs summit Virginia nicknamed “slippery hill”, where she and her colleague Hilda would climb on the lookout for flashes of RAF gunfire shooting down German doodlebugs; and the Art Deco Odeon cinema on Cliffe High Street in Lewes where, after tea at Janett’s tea shop, Virginia would enjoy morale-boosting screenings such as oddball romantic comedy Hold Back the Dawn.
From 1939 to 1945, hundreds of toddlers were evacuated from London to Glyndebourne, already a famous opera venue. In 1939 Glyndebourne manager Mr W E Edwards, who was keen to avoid the estate being requisitioned by the Ministry of Defence, offered several of its buildings to London County Council as a home for evacuees.
“Three hundred small children arrived here from institutions across London,” Glyndebourne archivist Phil Boot told me, as we strolled through the estate’s sweet-scented rose garden. Seventy young female war workers from across England were also dispatched to the estate as well as Mrs Wheeler, a matron who referred to herself, somewhat stiffly, as the Commandant. (In Virginia’s diary “Mrs W” upbraids nursery nurses for accepting lifts in trucks from troops and insists on improving pursuits such as “keep-fit somersaults”.)
I spent a pleasant few hours on the Glyndebourne grounds and in the Jade Room: a panelled gallery with an Oriel window looking out onto manicured gardens that are enjoyed, during Glyndebourne’s May to August season, by picnicking opera-goers. Formerly an opera dressing room it became a dormitory filled with rows of small cots in my grandmother’s day. A 1992 refurbishment unearthed items the evacuee toddlers had posted beneath the room’s fine teak floorboards: improvised cardboard toys, a decapitated tin soldier and an empty Canadian cigarette packet, presumably gifted to a far bosomier staff member from the troops billeted nearby.
In the 1940s this stretch of the Sussex coast was England’s front line of defence, John Kay, a local historian, told me. “In 1940 the Battle of Britain lit up the skies and Canadian troops based in this part of Sussex carried out the disastrous raid of Dieppe in August 1942,” he said.
Leaving Glyndebourne in the full song of rehearsals, I spent a few hours strolling the Downs. The natural world hasn’t changed much since my grandmother’s day: the arable fields close-cropped and the hedgerows alive with swallows, swifts and martins. Virginia would walk into these gentle hills to pick violets and primroses and for a moment’s peace from the children and Mrs W, where “the views were simply marvellous and the earth smelled warm”.
Back in Lewes, there was time for a stroll around town to the site of the old Odeon cinema (51 Cliffe High Street), now the Yorkshire Building Society, and Janett’s tea shop (205 High Street), now occupied by Efes kebab shop. Further up the High Street, there is Lewes’s famous 15th-century bookshop, where Virginia bought Keats and Shelley paperbacks, as a fellow nursery nurse called Thirnell, a racier character, shopped for big band records.
My gran ate fish and chips (dubbed the “good companions” by Churchill) in Lewes on nine occasions in her 1942 diaries. Little surprise, perhaps, when accounts of wartime suppers at Glyndebourne refer to dishes such as “Brussels sprouts on toast” and “mashed potato stirred through with powdered egg”. I stopped at the Big Fish (7 Fisher Street), where the batter was delectably crisp and the portion sizes as wide as the smiles of new Korean owner Alex Wu.
The pages of Virginia’s diary map out a world that is in some ways changed and in many ways much the same. Virginia’s year in Sussex was rich in a sense of youthful adventure and a liberatory mood that Kay recognises: “The Second World War brought horror, death and disaster for millions, but for many young women, like your granny and the young Queen Elizabeth, it brought freedom and romance,” he told me.
When I knew Virginia, she lived a smaller life: suspicious of her several nemeses (loud neighbours, the Post Office and manufacturers of shrinking packets of biscuits). My trip back into Sussex’s history brought me closer to a bold young woman who flirted with Canadian troops, strode great distances come sunshine or blackout gloom (then as now there was no public transport to Glyndebourne), and who took a moment to pick Sussex primroses as the bombs fell. Here’s to the timeless beauty of Sussex, and a young woman with the world at her feet.