Downton Abbey star Hugh Bonneville talks exclusively to C4S about his love for the Sussex countryside, history and his ‘occasional wobble’ on the magnificent South Downs. Debbie Mason also discovers a fine poet residing in him.
This is my land.
Looping birds, and the calls of seas and winds
Of names and faces where I loved and roamed and found and lost.
This is my land.
Open armed and hard, flowing and pulsing through the flint and clay,
And such sights
As the imagination fills a summer’s day.
This is our land.
No flag or border here, no party colour.
Only the hues of tree and field and barrow,
The allegiances of man and earth.
By Hugh Bonneville
Either the rumours are true and he is quite a remarkable actor, or Hugh Bonneville really does have a genuine passion for Sussex and its countryside.
The world-famous film and TV star, 53, talks for 20 minutes about his devotion to Sussex, where he lives discreetly with his wife, Lulu, and teenage son, Felix, before we even get to the reason for our interview – his opening of the new £6 million buildings at the Weald and Downland Living Museum near Chichester. More of that in a minute.
But first, I wonder if he’s reading from a script when he describes the county he has adopted as his own.
“You can walk in any part of West Sussex and feel the ruts of history beneath your feet,”
he tells me. “You can find paths along the furrows that have been there for centuries, on the whale-back downs of the east, to the wooded downlands of the west – and there are so many hidden gems along the way. You feel connected to the countryside. I just walk out of my front door, and there it is.”
Hugh says he is undisturbed by his neighbours in the rural idyll in which he lives: he can go to his local pub without fear of autograph hunters, although the odd supermarket can become ‘interesting’. But it’s the Downs he loves.
“The Downs are connected with topography and there’s no sense of county, or creed. Going up there takes you out of the everyday obsessions and bombardments that you face. You are forced to be at one with the terrain around you. In the very simplest terms, you are reminded of nature and the elements and there’s nothing more enlivening and enriching, away from the traffic lights and the entertainment.”
Born in Paddington – the title of one of his many films, when Hugh played Mr Brown in the Paddington Bear movie – Hugh moved with his parents to the Midhurst area when he was 14, and has lived there on and off ever since. His wife comes from Petersfield, just over the county border in Hampshire.
“We are on the border,” he says. “My postcode is in Hampshire, but I pay my taxes to West Sussex.”
In an ode to the area, Hugh recorded some of his own poetry to couple with composer Damian Montagu’s music on In a South Downs Way, the first album in the series of landscape symphonies Walk Upon England, by Decca Records. In a South Downs Way was released in June.
“I have always been drawn to the Downs and to the West Sussex area as a whole,” he says. “I first became aware of the county in the seventies and I think it’s been wonderful to see it develop as a national park. The sense of pride that it gives, a sense of preservation and a sense of identity – a sense of place and destination.
“At least once a month I’ll take the dogs for a walk somewhere on the Downs – and occasionally a wobble.”
By ‘wobble’ he means run, I confirm.
“I don’t do it very often – but I do sometimes huff and puff my way along,” he says. Some of his favourite areas are around Harting Down, near Petersfield. “There are some pumping walks up there.”
Three generations of Bonneville at Weald and Downland
Eventually we get on to the reason for our call – the swanky new buildings that Hugh opened earlier this summer thanks to a £4 million Lottery grant and £2 million from other donations.
The additions provide a technical boost to the museum, with interactive screen displays aiming at younger visitors, an impressive collection of artefacts, many more of which are held in archives that can be seen by appointment, and a new café and restaurant.
He is almost as poetic about the museum, which his parents took him to as a boy, as he is about the countryside that forms its backdrop just outside Chichester.
“This fantastic museum shows how we have developed over the millennia,” he says. “It shows how our living circumstances have changed over the centuries – it’s very evocative. It’s a source of imagination, and with all the re-enactments that take place it’s a form of preservation – the crafts, the wool-making techniques.
“I can remember our actual village blacksmith. I used to go and watch him. But this is something that people will not even know existed. This museum memorialises him. It makes us understand more about how today’s generation evolved.
“Even Steve Jobs and Apple grew out of something that came before.”
Hugh has followed in the footsteps of his parents in taking his own son to the museum.
“I can remember wheeling him round and hoping he’d nod off,” he says. Today, in a kind of generational full circle, he brings his 91-year-old father.
“I’ve taken him there and although he’s not in the best of health, it’s a form of solace and reassurance for him,” he says.
“It can affect and touch people of all ages. My parents used to take me in the late seventies.
It’s developed so much – there are always new things being constructed, with techniques in the workshops demonstrated today that were used in the past.
“It’s a living museum. It shows you how the way we live as human beings has evolved – from building roofs over our heads to finding food to put in our tummies. We may not always learn from the past when it comes to politics, but here we learn how culturally and aesthetically our lives have changed.
“The new building is a great new addition. It’s a fabulous new cafe, compared with the old one where you had to wait and hope for the best.”
We don’t talk about Downton Abbey, the ITV period drama about a landed family that became an international hit, and Hugh’s leading role as Lord Grantham – partly because I was warned off by Hugh’s agent but mainly because it wasn’t relevant.
Even so, next time you’re wandering up a deserted downland track, should you see a man in his fifties wheezing along behind a pair of Tibetan terriers – you might just doff your cap.