by Ruth Lawrence
Balcombe stretches from the famous Ouse viaduct in the south to forest ridges to the north and west, making it one of the most beautifully located villages in Sussex.
With only 600 houses, this historic village lies conveniently on the main London to Brighton railway line and Gatwick airport, yet is close to four large gardens open to the public; this is the perfect place for those who desire rural life within easy reach of the capital, just thirty miles away. There is no shortage of activities in Balcombe; ranging from bowls, cricket and tennis to a rifle and pistol club, with gentler options including Pilates, meditation, yoga and dance. A children’s playground and recreation ground offer attractive outdoor possibilities for exercise and dog walking while more cerebral pursuits include a French Association and a History Society. The Balcombe Club, run by committee for members hosts events including comedy, bands and pool tournaments and the WI is set up to inspire women of all ages. Balcombe is also a ideal place for families with a pre-school and nursery, an Ofsted rated Good primary school and activities including a very successful Scouts group for girls and boys and a thriving church led youth club, along with St Mary’s Church being very active in the community.
One of the most memorable and thought provoking features of Balcombe lies in The Victory Hall, the unforgettable life sized murals painted by Neville Lytton, officer on the Western Front and artist. Commissioned by Lady Denman, the daughter of Lord Cowdray, the murals were completed when Lytton was 45 and remain as a testament to his vision of a peaceful and more equal society.
Standing before the murals, Lytton’s experience of frontline combat becomes poignantly obvious; there is a palpable sorrow in a scene on the east wall where four soldiers bear a dead comrade on a stretcher and another offers comfort to a fallen friend. The south wall depicts a brutally honest vision of war; a new recruit beckons his companions to the Front while under him lie a wounded man and another in death. A single soldier stands above a huddle of fallen men, his hands held, palm up in a symbolic gesture as if to ask “why?”
To either side of the stage are two female figures, Sorrow and Hope, symbolic of the despair of war and the plea for peace. The north wall turns towards peacetime; filled with depictions of local people and those known intimately by Lytton, it contains a tableau that represented his vision of a future England, a country at peace, healing itself for the next generation. Lytton himself is depicted playing the flute in a tableau set under the branches of a large oak; he used to play this instrument in the trenches when he found it had a calming effect on the men.
The paintings utilise a ‘true fresco’ technique where paint is applied to wet plaster to which it binds as it sets. The richness is apparent close up; they glow with life and depth which results from them being part of the building’s fabric rather than surface decoration.
Lady Denman wanted to make a memorial to not only the dead, but the living who returned; her enthusiasm and input ensured the completion of The Victory Hall in 1923 and a large oak panel at the Hall’s entrance lists the fallen and surviving servicemen. As National President of the WI, she was an integral part of the community and is depicted in the fresco as a supportive, characteristically humble figure in the background. Lytton’s frescoes are symbolic of his belief that arts could help to heal the scars of war.
When writing about his wartime experiences, he championed the “uncommon virtues of the common man,” and as a country landowner, realised he was no more important than the farm labourers he had taken to war in 1914. This humility led him to depict all figures equally; he knew that everyone had a part to play in the reconstruction of the country he so clearly loved and his murals stand as reminder in the centre of this quintessentially English village.
Balcombe photographs by Amber Watkins