Steyning from Above
Steyning,  Tieran Meets the World,  UK

Lockdown in my Hometown | Steyning

Lockdown Gives Sussex Locals Time to Reflect in Steyning

VIDEO [Article Below]

Summary: How did the coronavirus lockdown impact a small British Town? How do residents feel the community has changed during the pandemic? And what was it like to grow up in Steyning, a quaint English town? In this closer to home episode of Tieran Meets the World, I returned to Steyning, my hometown, after 1.5 years on the road as a pandemic swept across the world. In the midst of all the Covid restrictions, I spoke to locals in socially distanced interviews to find out how they thought their community had changed during the lockdowns. 

Home at Last

For once, I’m not sleeping on someone’s living room floor, sofa, or in a hotel. I’m home, gazing out of my window at the silhouette of the South Downs’ rolling hills against an evening sky streaked with aircraft vapour trails. After months without a plane in sight, they stand out now more than ever and, in the orange glow of the sun, they look like they’re on fire. 

I have to admit, I felt a sense of whiplash. Going from being almost constantly on the road for a year-and-a-half, albeit with a few breaks, to suddenly being stuck at home was disorientating. Despite being in one place, the urge to move on was still there. This hadn’t been the plan. My bike was still in Azerbaijan, and with it most of my clothes, my cycling equipment, and even my guitar. A family had agreed to look after it for me while I came home to visit family. “I’ll be a few weeks”, I’d said, naively, while all of us were oblivious of what was to come. Right now, I should be in Kazakhstan or Uzbekistan, pedalling through a vast, empty desert, tracing the ancient silk road. But, if I’m being honest here, I appreciated the chance to stop and catch my breath for a while.

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For billions of people around the globe, the days had blurred into weeks, and then months, and time became all but a concept. Shops had closed their doors, people retreated to their homes, and society fell into an eerie silence. “The Great Pause”, they called it. I feel conflicted in appreciating the year that time stood still; for many, it will have been the hardest time of their lives. Being confined to your home is alright for someone like me. I live in the countryside, in a house that doesn’t feel claustrophobic, with a garden I can relax in. But for millions in the UK, the peak of lockdown meant being stuck in a small city flat with just an hour of fresh air per day. It meant losing loved ones, stressing over jobs that might not be there in a few months, or dealing with mental health issues in isolation. I was becoming more and more keenly aware of my glaring privilege, a feeling that was emphasised even more when BLM (Black Lives Matter) protests spread across the U.S. and much of Europe.

But I know I’m not alone in noticing the silver linings of a global shutdown. The world was quieter, cleaner, calmer. People reconnected with family members they might share a house with but rarely get the chance to see. They focused on hobbies instead of jobs, and I can think of several friends who re-evaluated the direction their careers and lives were heading in and changed course because they had that extra time to reflect.

We rediscovered a sense of community that, in my opinion, has been steadily degraded over the past few years. With Brexit and the following divisions and chaos that ensued, it seemed like people were drifting further and further apart, and people with different opinions were increasingly unable to talk. I’ve heard the pandemic referred to as “the great equalizer”. While I don’t agree with that 100% (how can you compare the experience of someone in a rural, three-bedroom house with that of a family in an inner-city council flat?) there was a sense of comradery with fellow neighbours. The rifts are still there, of course, but as neighbours have checked up on each other and helped out those who were higher-risk, I felt a little more hopeful about the future.

We were reminded of the importance of our NHS (National Health Service). My patriotism doesn’t extend far, but one thing I can say that does, without question, make me proud of Britain, despite its many flaws, is the healthcare system; tax-funded and free at the point of use. I mean, how often, in this day and age, is their widespread support across the entire political spectrum for anything? The NHS even featured as part of our opening ceremony in the 2012 London Olympics.

I began to reflect on life in my hometown more than I ever had done. I’ve spent so much time cycling around other parts of the world, and interviewing locals about their cultures, but I realised that I’ve never really taken the time to explore a little closer. Truth be told, growing up I always took my hometown for granted. The countryside I spent my summers in, the pubs I had lunch in, the park I learned to ride my bike in, were all just kind of… there. Its quirks became so familiar that they didn’t stand out as quirks any more.

It’s easy to examine on a superficial level; it’s got two pubs, a few cafés, a supermarket, another pub, a church, a school, and, last but not least, a fourth pub. There’s even a set of dentures that have been embedded in a wall since 1954; how they got there varies depending on who you ask. “They fell out of a builders mouth into the cement while he was working!” “They were put there intentionally for good luck!” Whatever their origin, they’re deemed such an attraction that my class swung by to see them during a school trip in year 4.

Dentures Embedded in a wall in Steyning

A set of dentures embedded in a flint wall became a local attraction. They’ve been replaced with a replica set, as the original has been moved to Steyning Museum.

Around 6,000 people, myself included, call it home, and about 31% of them, myself not included, are over 65.  It’s quiet, conservative, and life moves a little slower here. 

But those are all facts and numbers. They’re cold, calculated, lifeless; objective truths that a few moments on Google could tell you. But what does Steyning feel like? What’s it like to breathe its air, walk in its streets, talk to its people? 

I figured, while I had the time and nowhere else to go, why not do what I did in over a dozen countries right here? I’ve neglected Steyning for far too long, and it’s about time I paid it some attention. I dusted off my camera and microphone, wrote and rewrote what you’re reading right now a few times while the cogs in my brain, rusty after months of dormancy, began to turn again, and set out to delve into the town the nurtured me.

Steyning High Street

A quiet section of Steyning’s High Street.

What’s it like to live in Steyning: a Quintessentially British Town?

This was off to a slow start. We Brits are famous for being reserved. The idea of expressing ourselves openly in an interview, I’m sure, fills many of us with terror. But we’re also known for being polite. So much so that nobody actually had the heart to refuse an interview to my face. Instead, they’d agree at first, and then figure out an excuse later. One said yes and then cancelled on the day, one said she’d call me but never did, another ignored my emails. I was getting frustrated, but reminded myself that it is pretty unusual for a stranger to walk up to you in the middle of a street or shop and ask if you’ll spill your inner thoughts to them. If you think about it, struggling to get an interview is an experience of British culture in and of itself. I’d anticipated this, and it should’ve been no surprise that it took a lot longer to find interviewees than on the Arctic to Asia cycle tour, but I didn’t expect it to take quite as long as it did.

Steyning Clocktower

Steyning Clocktower is, without a doubt, the high street’s most iconic landmark. 

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I duck my head under some ancient-looking wooden beams and walk between crooked shop fronts in a sheltered alleyway. I’m not actually tall enough to hit them, but the fact that they’re there makes me do it anyway. Cobblestone walk is easy to miss if you don’t know what you’re looking for, but step inside and you’ll find a snaking path that leads to a teahouse and an old shopping arcade.  Home to an array of independent shops set up in small, green sheds, you’ll find, among other things a store dedicated exclusively to selling singing bowls, a vinyl shop, and even a place offering to tell you the future with tarot readings. I’m not here to find out next week’s winning lottery numbers, though, as tempting as the offer may be. In fact, I’ve finally found an interviewee; the owner of Cobblestone Teahouse.

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Stop for a chat with Janine, and you’ll quickly notice an energy about her; a warm friendliness and an infectious positivity that cleared some of the morning grogginess clouding my brain. I suppose you need that if you’re running a bustling teahouse. We sat outside, the sun spilling across wooden benches halfway along the winding, cobbled trail that brought me here. “It’s like a Tardis”, she’d said when I’d first met her, “bigger on the inside”.

Before we go further, I need to give the non-Brits among you some context. In Britain, a tearooms doesn’t just serve tea. It serves “afternoon tea”. And no, that isn’t just tea in the afternoon; that would be too obvious. Afternoon tea, is a traditional combination of tea, sandwiches and cakes. But, standing above everything else on the menu is what I consider to be the crown jewel of British cuisine; scones. Baked until they’re golden and crumbing, sweetened with anything from raisins to rhubarb, and served alongside a pot of jam and clotted cream, they are one of a few culinary hallmarks that I think the UK can genuinely take pride in. This, in Janine’s professional opinion, is what makes a cream tea:

“To me, a cream tea (afternoon tea but with only the scones) is a freshly baked scone; I have my own recipe for my scones, made with a lot of love. They’re freshly baked every morning. And then it’s got to be butter – never margarine – and jam and clotted cream. I am very much jam and cream person… not cream and jam.”

Sidenote: that last bit is more important than it sounds. There is a rift in British society between two schools of thought; the sane among us, like Janine, who put jam on before the cream, and the monsters who apply cream first. Who’d have thought a simple afternoon snack could be a source of such contention? 

Ok, context over. 

Janine Dee at the Cobblestone Teahouse

Janine Dee in the Cobblestone Teahouse, which she took over in 2017.

I could see the fondness in Janine’s eyes as she looked at the business she’d taken over three years earlier. I imagined, at this point, it must feel like a family member.  

That building was meant to be a tea room.” She said with a flicker of a smile. “In my heart, I feel happy it is one, because that’s what it was meant to be.” I get it. It has a certain homeliness that would be wasted if it were anything else.

Nearly every structure here, it seems, has a long, meandering story, and history still echoes through Steyning’s streets. Pieces of wood that once were parts of ships when the town was a busy port, now make up the timber frames of shops and homes on the high street. The local church predates the battle of Hastings, and many of the oldest buildings make even our most elderly residents seem young. Janine’s tearoom is no exception.

“The inside is 16th century. It used to be a bakery. I know when they were doing some of the renovation, my landlord said they found some of the old original flour bags that had been packed into the walls. When cars first came about, people used to come down from London to a place near here to pick up their new cars. They’d then drive to Steyning, come here to the bakery and get a basket of scones and a picnic hamper before driving off.”

Supposedly, she went on to tell me, a previous owner had a falling out with whoever was writing the history of Steyning long ago, so there’s not a lot documented about the tearooms’ past. It’s also, according to staff, home to a friendly ghost that occasionally moves things around.

The Cobblestone Teahouse on Cobblestone Walk, Steyning

The Cobblestone Teahouse can be found through a small alleyway beneath the clocktower and along a path known as “cobblestone walk”.

History aside, Janine explained why she wouldn’t choose to run her business anywhere more built up.

“I’d prefer to be somewhere like this than the heart of Brighton or Worthing. You get all your regulars coming in. Over time, over the last few years, it’s like a family. Especially during Corona when it was lockdown, I’d message some of the elderly customers just to check they were alright. Whereas I think that if I was in a city, you wouldn’t get that personal feel. You just get to know everybody here. I wouldn’t want to be in a big built up area, not at all.”

It’s true, and that extends beyond running a business. In Steyning, it’s nearly impossible to go anywhere without seeing people you know. Every village and small town has a certain closeness. It might be harder to spot in a place like England, where people aren’t quite as forthcoming. But if you pay attention, you’ll see it in the nods of acknowledgment between passers-by in the streets, the smiles of recognition between neighbours, and the spontaneous conversations in supermarket aisles, at bus stops, or in parks. It feels cohesive, and that’s something you don’t get as much in large cities where you have to search hard to find someone you know.

So, Janine, tell us: why should someone take the time to visit Steyning?

“It’s so quintessentially English. If you want to come and see real Sussex, and real England, then come to Steyning. There are so many place you can visit, and different things to do. It’s got that old world feel with some modern stuff to go with it. So it’s not left behind. It’s just stunning. And the buildings; when you look down Church street, and almost any other street, there’s not many places that have got that kind of look.”

The School on Church Street, Steyning

Steyning is full of “half-timber” Tudor architecture.  The building pictured above has been a school since 1614.

Being in a close community does come with trade-offs. A by-product in this “slightly too large for everyone to know everyone, but too small to remain anonymous” environment, is that when disagreements do arise, their roots can penetrate deep. The sense of familiarity between people in a small town can sometimes exacerbate the tensions, much like how arguments can turn into long-standing feuds among members of the same family. 

For years now, there’s been a campaign to have a skate park built in Steyning’s playing field. That doesn’t sound like a big deal – and to be honest, it shouldn’t have been – but stick with me here. The area in question was a little-used stretch of tarmac in a far-flung corner of a large recreational park. It served no purpose, was of no environmental importance, and didn’t look great either. Nonetheless, a band of detractors, calling themselves the “friends of the memorial playing field”, opposed the plan at every turn. They even threatened legal challenges that could bankrupt the council if it went forward. So, despite a poll showing majority support for the skate park, by a large margin at that, the plan was dropped. 

Almost a decade has passed since then, but still a lot of the people on opposing sides of that campaign are not on speaking terms. I met up with Mike Kelly and Jane Oxley, a couple who were highly involved with the pro-skate-park campaign. They spoke about a lot more than just the skate park – but we’ll get to that later –  and told me of the objections they heard repeatedly from those opposing the project:

“They said we were “bringing urbanisation to Steyning”. That’s the phrase that was used. They didn’t want that here. They didn’t like what it might bring to Steyning. It might bring people in from outside who may cause trouble. And they said it’s not right to have it in Steyning in the playing field. But it’s a playing field! That’s what it should be for!”

I think that sums up what I think I’ve been trying to put into words about Steyning for a while now. A certain level of hostility to change and outsiders. There is an inertia here. A feeling that things don’t, and even shouldn’t, change much. To be honest, on some level, I understand the sentiment; there is an urge that I feel, sometimes, to keep Steyning as it is; to preserve its identity and aesthetic as much as possible.

And to an extent, efforts should be made to do that. Buildings in certain areas must have an exterior that “fits in” with their surroundings in order to get planning permission, and the national park nearby means much of the countryside is protected from development. Both of those things, in my opinion, are great. But at some point, you have to accept that some changes are necessary, or else suddenly you find yourself fighting any form of change anywhere, regardless of how beneficial it would be. 

On top of that, with this closeness, cliques form. If you’re in one of those cliques, good for you. But if you’re outsider coming in, particularly if you come from an unconventional background, it can feel a little exclusionary. Don’t get me wrong, I love Steyning to pieces, but if you don’t fit into a certain box, it can be hard to find your place in a town like this, at least at first. I think back to when my mum and I first arrived here. As a single Jewish mother raising a child alone, a lot of people turned up their noses at her. It’s no surprise, then, that pretty much all of the people I hung out with when I was younger were children of single parents who’d had the same experience. It took us a long time to fit in, but as more and more people are moving here, particularly younger people that commute into the city, I hope that will slowly start to change for newcomers. 

The impact of Coronavirus on a Small English Town

It would be impossible to write anything about life in Steyning without addressing the elephant in the room. That elephant was once Brexit, which seemed to take over our airwaves and conquer our newspaper front-pages for years. 

But then another bigger, meaner elephant, with fiercer tusks took its place. This one didn’t care what you voted for, or what your political ideology was. In a heartbeat, the headlines changed, and now it was Covid-19 that was been plastered all over the news. But the vast majority of the coverage has been in larger towns and cities. So, what’s the impact been in a place like Steyning? 

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As a business owner, you can plan for certain events; a bad month, a broken heating system, some damaged property. But to what extent is it possible to have a contingency plan for the entire world coming to a standstill for months?

“Nobody could ever have planned for this, never. But we utilised the time really well; the minute lockdown came, the minute I could come back and safely do all the decorating, we totally refurbished the place. We painted everything, all the furniture, and we did a thorough deep clean. If lockdown hadn’t come about, I’d never have had the opportunity to do that. And then we started to do the takeaways and the deliveries, just to keep the name out there. From a business point of view, that was never going to make a lot of money. But it was more to go out there, and to keep people aware of Steyning and the cobblestone teahouse. The minute July the 4th came [the day the government allowed cafés to reopen], we were ready to open that door, and I have not looked back since. We have been inundated. Because I’ve got all the outside seating, and I’ve got plenty of indoor seating where people are spaced out. It’s light, it’s airy, and people feel comfortable.”

Janine had taken over cobblestone teahouse at a time when Britain endured two consecutive, destabilising gut-punches. On top of the pandemic, there’s been the navigation of Brexit negotiations, and as of now our future relationship with the E.U. is uncertain. And uncertainty is a challenge for business-owners. Janine told me that running the teahouse for the last year in particular taught her some lessons.

“I take each day as it comes. You can look a certain amount of time a head. I put my heart and soul into whatever I’m doing, and you can’t plan too far ahead. You can be sensible, and I certainly wouldn’t go out and buy myself another business, or some Lamborghinis, at the moment. For now, it’s just a case of taking what comes. You can’t stress over it, because you’ll end up having a nervous breakdown.. The last year has made me think “just see what happens”.”

No Lamborghinis, that’s a shame. But aside from that her outlook was optimistic. 

“People know us here. I have loads of dog-walkers come in, so the dogs know me too! They know my voice because I feed them sausages. People feel comfortable here. They don’t want to go to a big town at the moment. Even I don’t, I haven’t really been to Brighton or gone anywhere else that I wouldn’t feel comfortable in [during lockdown]. The customers come here and have a chat, especially the elderly people. It could be someone who only comes out once a day, they come here and know the girls.” She indicated towards her staff.They have a chat and feel comfortable. And it keeps them going. They’ve been stuck inside for months, and some have nobody to talk to. So for them this is that bit of respite, and a bit of fun. And it’s lovely, we love seeing them. It’s nice that they feel so comfortable to come here. It makes me happy to make them feel that way.”

That’s another challenge Steyning and towns like it face through all this. An older population means more people who are high-risk. 

As the sun beat down us in their garden, under the watchful eyes of a porcelain collie dog, Mike and Jane explained a problem they’d had first-hand experience with.

Jane Oxley and Mike Kelly in Steyning during lockdown

Jane Oxley and Mike Kelly invited me to their Garden for a socially-distanced interview that turned into a three-hour chat about everything from Brexit to education. I left with a parting gift of home-grown tomatoes!

“There’s individuals who are very elderly, who have other medical problems… there’s someone we know who goes into town each day to shop but mentally they can’t understand what’s happening. And they walk right up to us when they see us.”

Dementia”, Jane added, with a sad grimace.

Going through the shop, she sees the signs but thinks ‘that’s silly, I don’t need to do that’”.

It’s easy to feel isolated from it all here, untouchable even. The area hasn’t had many Coronavirus cases, and, surrounded by countryside, you feel shielded. But it’s cases like this that worry me about Steyning. If there was to be an outbreak here, the consequences don’t bear thinking about. Almost a third of its residents are aged 65 and over, and that portion stretches to more than 53% if you include over 50s. That sense of fragility, though, has made people more aware of those in the community who are in need of help, and Mike and Jane told me they’ve seen some positive changes in their neighbourhood since lockdown began.

Our neighbour set up a Whatsapp group for our road,” Jane echoed a similar story to one I’d heard in other parts of Steyning, “because there were people who were completely isolated; they’ve got health problems and they couldn’t go out shopping. So we all helped each other.”

VE day on Mill Road, Steyning

Neighbours on my come out to their driveways for socially distanced afternoon tea to celebrate VE day on the 8th of May (the date the Nazi’s surrendered in WWII) during lockdown.

That’s the sign of a good community, which is a positive that this terrible Covid has taught us.” Mike interjected, “I don’t want to go back to normal. I want to go back to something better than the normal we had before. The normal we had before was unjust. It had people sleeping in the streets. Suddenly”, he clicked his fingers,  “they were able to find money for housing in hotels for them.

“Build Back Better”; that’s the name of the national campaign to return to a different kind of normal once the pandemic is over, with an emphasis on public services and equality while tackling climate change. Mike and Jane, like many others, saw this as an opportunity to finally make changes in British society that they feel are long overdue.

“[Jane and I] are fine!” Mike gestured to his wife, and then the lush Garden we were sat in, the faint trickle of their pond’s water feature merging with the clucking of next-doors chickens in a strange harmony.  This Garden we could come to and work in. We weren’t stuck at the top of a high-rise flat with a greedy landlord, trying to live in a one-bed flat with a load of kids. And during that very hot weather, which we were delighted with, we could sit in the Garden. But where did they sit? In the hot, sticky flats. And then they get criticised when they come down to the coast to try and cool off and have a swim.

Will we go back to the old, and start ignoring our neighbours on the road? I haven’t lost hope. I have hopes that people will come out of this a little more resigned to think about what society really means, and that they will begin to really do something to improve it. That they notice the poverty, and the unjust nature of our society. We can’t allow ourselves to get back to the old normal; we need a new normal.” 

Final Thoughts

Part of recognising what home is to you is seeing the good and the bad. I’m not here to “sell” Steyning, so I feel it’d be disingenuous to gloss over the fact that the small-town charm belies a certain closed-mindedness. It doesn’t apply to everyone that lives here, and I believe that, in a strange way, being somewhat “closed” has allowed Steyning to retain its identity even while it’s modernised. 

There is a familiarity that people here feel towards one another and, though it can make certain tensions hard to overcome, it’s a large part of what holds the community together through a pandemic. You might think a young liberal with an unconventional background would feel out of place here, but I’ve only grown to appreciate Steyning’s idyllic allure more the older I’ve become. For now, it’s good to be back for a while, and not sleeping on someone’s living room floor, sofa, or in a hotel.

Thoughts? Leave a comment down below!

Check out our new interactive map, displaying the locations of each of our interviews!

Be sure to follow us on Facebook and Instagram to keep up to date with our blog. If you want to see more of the cycle touring side of our adventure, you can also have a gander at our YouTube channel! If you want to see how we’re doing on our journey, check out our Live Updates page.

The Man who Cries for a Town
Stuck in Limbo Living in Abandoned Soviet Buildings

Attempting to cycle from Tromsø in Northern Norway to Baku, Azerbaijan while interviewing locals en route. Despite my chequered history with bikes, here’s to me returning home with an intact facial structure and at least as many body parts as I left with.

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