I’m on a bus, hurtling over the hills at exhilarating speed. An oxbow lake flashes into view: while geography was never a passion, the sharp curves of the meandering river as it reaches the sea at Cuckmere Haven demand my full attention. The arresting view has featured in paintings by Eric Ravilious as well as a Hollywood film or two.
Stunning scenery and its artistic representation are one of the draws of the Sussex Art Shuttle – the bus’s official title – a new service that transports visitors between Eastbourne’s Towner Gallery, the Seven Sisters Visitor Centre just outside Seaford, the picturesque villages of Alfriston and Litlington, Charleston (former home of artists Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant), and the new Charleston gallery in Lewes.
The initiative, launched by the business consortium Sussex Modern last weekend and running until 17 December, ties in with the Turner prize, which opens on 28 September at the Towner, the centrepiece of the gallery’s centenary year. “Visitors who come by train into Eastbourne want to see the countryside as well,” says Towner’s CEO, Joe Hill who, along with Charleston’s director, Nathaniel Hepburn, is riding the route with me. “The Sussex Downs is one of England’s most beautiful landscapes and newest national parks. This service connects it with our cultural heritage.”
At £2.50 for a hop-on, hop-off ticket, the 16-seater minibus offers good value, running four times a day in each direction from Friday to Sunday. “More than 98% of our visitors come to Charleston by car at the moment,” adds Hepburn. “So, it’s been a key aspiration for us to lower this figure.” Admirably, it’s also run by volunteer drivers from a local organisation called Cuckmere Buses.
Before we depart, Hill whisks me past the Towner’s hushed galleries, currently closed in advance of the Turner prize, whose four shortlisted artists – Jesse Darling, Ghislaine Leung, Rory Pilgrim and Barbara Walker – work in media ranging from film and drawing to performance and sculpture. After gawping at the gallery’s dazzling geometric exterior, designed by Lothar Götz, we hop on the similarly colourful minibus. As we climb high into the national park, Hill and Hepburn enthuse about how the region has long attracted artists, from the Bloomsbury group to Peggy Angus and Grayson Perry. But the area’s ecology is also fascinating. “This chalk grassland has as much diverse life in it as the rainforest,” says Hill.
Medieval Alfriston is our first stop, where we alight at the market cross, one of only two remaining in Sussex. We tumble into the Much Ado bookshop, which has two floors and a “book bower” in the back garden full of bargain volumes. Its owners, Nash Robbins and Cate Olsen, who moved from Massachusetts 20 years ago, show me framed Vanessa Bell drawings and rare Victorian scrapbooks.
I could happily stay here for the whole two hours until the next bus, but lunch is calling, so we walk to The Star, built as a religious hostel in 1345. We haven’t time to visit the nearby Rathfinny vineyard, but I try its acclaimed pale pink fizz: dry and lightly fruity. The food menu includes smoked haddock croquettes, beetroot carpaccio and chicken Milanese.
Back on the 2.28pm bus, the next stop is isolated Charleston, the farmhouse where the Bloomsbury group hung out, and where two new exhibitions open on 23 September to coincide with the Turner prize. One is by the British-born South Asian artist Osman Yousefzada and the other is a new Hockney exhibition showing rarely seen early drawings.
The last stop is Lewes, where a stark new Charleston arts space opened last week in a former council office building. Alongside a free show by the contemporary artist Jonathan Baldock, the main exhibition Bring No Clothes: Bloomsbury and Fashion explores the “influence and legacy” of the Bloomsbury group on today’s fashion. It features paintings, letters, personal items and clothing from EM Forster, John Maynard Keynes, Vanessa Bell, Virginia Woolf, Lady Ottoline Morrell and Duncan Grant, alongside catwalk creations by Dior, Burberry, Erdem and Fendi.
Curated by the fashion writer Charlie Porter, it’s engaging and educational, with enlightening captions, particularly for Grant’s eroticised portraits of his lover Paul Roche. “I was thinking about the queer, non-binary and trans communities that find such a welcoming home in East Sussex,” Porter tells me afterwards. “I wanted to make a show that spoke to the past and connected it to the future.”
It’s 5pm and the last bus of the day is waiting. On the hour-long return to Eastbourne, I watch sheep grazing as we rattle up and down steep winding roads, before the sea comes into full view outside Eastbourne.
The resort is buzzing with an autumn of art-related happenings, including Eastbourne Alive, a series of public artworks and interventions by a dozen artists from Nadina Ali to Nathan Coley. At the design-led Port Hotel, where I’m staying, an exhibition in the minimalist sea-view bar displays prints from the Turner sponsor King & McGaw’s collection, including former Turner prize artists Howard Hodgkin, Patrick Caulfield and Fiona Rae.
The town’s palm-lined seafront and backstreets are home to more high-quality eating and drinking options than I remember on previous visits. As dinner is not served at the hotel, my boyfriend and I devour rustic plates of crisp-skinned mackerel fillets and rosy local steak at the packed Skylark in the attractive Little Chelsea area, with its cafes, record-shop-cum-bar Vinyl Frontier (35 Grove Road), live venue Printers Playhouse and secondhand bookshop Camilla’s (complete with pet parrot). Nearby is the local taproom Beerarama and an acclaimed artisan bakery, To The Rise.
What’s next for the Art Bus? The hope is it’ll be the start of a permanent service. The Towner is using the project to trial a cultural education centre, Black Robin Farm, in the South Downs (opening 2025), having secured investment from the levelling up fund. “It’ll be a 30-minute uphill walk from the gallery,” says Hill, “and the bus will be important to get people there in a visitor-friendly way – so this is a good way to test if there’s an appetite.”