From the March 1929 edition of The Sussex Country Magazine
A Sussex Pedlar
"Old Bart" was a familiar figure among the inhabitants of the Sussex villages lying inland between the modern spacious sea-fronts of Eastbourne and Brighton. He must have tramped this portion of the county many times during the quarter of a century that he had adopted this means of livelihood, and some of the children who knew him as "Bart, the Pedlar of Piddinghoe," were now respectably married men with wives and families around them.
For old Bart was well-nigh the three score and ten years allotted to mortal man by the psalmist David; and though he was apparently as hale and hearty as ever, moving amid the small Downland communities with the agility of a man likely to outlive another decade, his oldest acquaintances predicted a sudden end.
Though labelled the "Pedlar of Piddinghoe," he had no fixed abode, and Piddinghoe (near Newhaven) could only claim to be the first village wherein he had sold his merchandise. He carried his wares from place to place, dependent upon their sale and the good will of his fellows, for food and shelter. Winter and summer alike found him pack-laden, starting in the early morning hours on the day’s itinerary, that terminated only at nightfall.
The contents of his pedlar’s pack were a revelation. Not only did he carry commodities for the housewife, trifles of lingerie and jewellery, and cosmetics to tempt the eye of vanity, but a goodly sample of literature varying from booklets of verse to pocket editions of the classics – could be observed among his wares.
It said much for the intelligence of the Sussex folk that his book trade outrivalled that of his more material goods, and a family Bible in one of the cottages at Litlington, still testifies to having been purchased of Old Bart.
His rambles were legion. Once he had been seen, by an observant traveller to those parts, taking a well-earned rest on the hill overlooking the Devil’s Dyke, seated by the side of his pack, eating a meal of bread and cheese, the while he studied "Lavengro" with greater avidity than he ate his meagre repast.
There could be no doubt as to Old Bart having once been a scholar. His knowledge of men and events was sufficient proof of that fact. He was a philosopher of no mean order, and his mind was as well stored as his pedlar’s pack. Why he had forsaken the world for a solitary life tramping the countryside was known to none save himself.
He had a way with the camera, too. His snapshots of the villagers at their cottage doors, at their daily tasks, or at play, found as ready a market as his more finished productions of photographic art, not merely among the originals of the photographs, but in the towns, from whence they migrated to the walls of better-class dwellings, and brought in capital for the pedlar to invest in his stock-in-trade. His photographs of "Old John," a picturesque figure in the village of West Firle, sold in a Lewes shop for three guineas.
His famous photographs of the Downs – "Harvest on the Downs," "A Downland Shepherd" and "A Sussex Ploughman" – had attracted the attention of a celebrated London artist on holiday at Rye. Seeing them hanging on the walls of the Mermaid Tavern, he inquired of the landlord as to their photographer, and expressed an earnest desire to meet the man who had captured the spirit of these beautiful scenes so successfully.
But Old Bart did not fall a prey to the tempting bait the stranger offered – an excellent permanent position in his city studio. The pedlar courteously but firmly declined the offer, preferring the winds and the waves, the smell of the salt sea air, the green, springy turf on the Downs, the freedom of movement, and the joy of living amid the hospitality of his peasant friends on his Sussex trampings., to the lure of wealth obtainable in the murkiness of the metropolis.
The rolling stone had gathered much moss, and his accomplishments increased with the years, until he was in a fair way of becoming spoilt in his own little world, and the pride of the countryside. Yet he was ever ready to do a good turn.
One afternoon, he decried a fellow tramp lying on the Pevensey Flats, in an exhausted condition, his fiddle clasped tenderly in his tired arms that lay folded across his breast. He awoke the sleeper, sharing his simple meal with him, and helping him on the way – for the musician was a stranger and had lost his bearings completely.
A passing friendly carrier gave them a lift into Eastbourne, for the fiddler was bound for Newhaven. Ere the pedlar took leave of his road companion, he begged leave to play his instrument outside the Lamb Inn, just to see whether the old magic touch had flown. It was evident, by the crowd of listeners, that it was still there, and he quickly captured the hearing and practical sympathy of the spectators, and gathered a wealth of coins for his less able-bodied companion. They parted company after the incident, but not before they had been served a free meal by the kindly landlord of the historic inn.
Vague rumours continued to float upon the waves of time, but Old Bart knew nothing of them, and none ever broke the barrier of reserve which enveloped him, and prevented him from being the victim of mere idle curiosity as to his private affairs. He moved among them in gay friendliness and perfect serenity of mind. When, at the ripe age of eighty-five, he passed from them to "the bourne from whence no traveller returns," he left them a book of reminiscences – "Old Bart’s Diary" – teeming with wisdom and humour. It promptly found an honoured place in the homes he had visited during his lifetime, and was eagerly read as a record of the pedlar’s journeyings.
But the diary gave no clue to his identity. He died, as he had lived, an unknown, though not unloved, personality, and left the gleanings of a life lived in harmony with Nature, for the benefit of posterity. The original MS is the property of the oldest inhabitant of Lullington, with whom he had worshipped in his lifetime in the modest church.
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From the April 1929 Edition
Soft lies the turf along the cliffs
That tower above the sea.
Bright gleam the gulls that circle while
The sheep graze dreamily.
But where the sunlight softest falls
Upon the peaceful hill
Lonely and black against the sky
There stands the ghoulish mill.
Dark and inscrutable it towers
Facing the stormy gales
That whistle through its blackened beams
But never stir its sails
Maybe some hideous crime it hides
None know its mystery
But gibbet-like it stands and shares
Its secret with the sea.