Cherries, ghosts and village fetes: Sara’s enthralling show about the Downs

Sara Clifford. Picture by Ray Gibson
Sara Clifford. Picture by Ray Gibson

Sara Clifford has been on a whistlestop tour of the South Downs with the goal of discovering people’s stories, anecdotes, legends, myths and musings.

From chocolate-box villages to vibrant pubs, tireless volunteers to bright-eyed schoolchildren, Sara encountered a variety of fascinating characters and places.

Now, having spoken to more than 500 people across the Downs, the playwright has weaved the stories together into a quirky one-person, one-hour show that will be performed in venues across the region during September.

Sara comes to The Hope Inn, Newhaven, BN9 9DN, on Saturday, September 14 (8pm, www.hopeinnnewhaven.co.uk) and Depot Cinema, Lewes, BN7 2JS, on Sunday, September 15 (1pm, www.lewesdepot.org).

“It’s been fantastic – I’ve absolutely loved it,” says Sara, who became the Writer in Residence for the National Park earlier this year in a partnership with Inn Crowd, managed by Applause Rural Touring and supported by Arts Council England.

“I love the South Downs anyway and, living in Lewes, I’ve always felt very lucky to be in the heart of the National Park.”

The hundreds of people who talked to Sara put pen to paper to write Downs-inspired poems that have been used to influence the show.

Sara learned several interesting facts about the National Park and was intrigued by people’s reactions when she shared her knowledge.

She explains: “A lot of people didn’t know the South Downs was formed from the chalky remains of tiny sea creatures in a primeval ocean.”

“I discovered that Winchester had two cathedrals at one point, the Old Minster and the New – but the new one was built so close that the two choirs were clashing with each other. I came across the delightful bee orchid – a flower that looks and smells like a bee to another bee! I also learned a lot about local ghosts and legends. Each place seems to have its own local legend. There was a clanking woman in Winchester’s High Street and apparently there’s a silver coffin at the top of Firle Beacon.

“Did you know that the Romans brought cherries over and would spit out the cherry stones so we ended up with roads lined with cherry trees?”

It’s this humble fruit that sets the scene for Sara’s show, which will be delivered by actor and comedian Jo Neary and directed by Anna Crilly.

Entitled Cherry Soup – True, and not so true, tales of the South Downs, Sara bills it as “sweet and sour and a little unexpected”.

“The story is a cherry seller sitting by the road in a creaky camping chair and people stop by and tell their stories,” explains Sara. “It’s a mixture of stories, a bit of music, and hopefully it will be quite humorous in places for the audience.

“I didn’t want it to be a nostalgic piece about the countryside and preserving it.

“Yes it has to be conserved, but the South Downs also needs to be dynamic and open to new people coming in with new ideas.

“It’s not a museum piece! It’s a living, breathing space with many different kinds of people within it.”

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