Belmont House is a happy mellow ochre, with little dolphin’s on the façade at the front. As you walk in the sense is of a very large, warm, comfortable, cultured, book-filled residence. Paintings everywhere, book-shelves in most rooms, two cats, one Kitto they bought from the gypsys, the other Bagh, is Sarah’s big and purring tabby that she likens to a Bengali tiger.
The tabby followed me into the garden like a friendly escort as I took a look in the three acre hill side that begins with a level lawn and then slopes down through winding paths in the thickly wooded what you can now only call patch of forest. Ceres, the Greek goddess of fertility, has her sculpture on the top lawn in a bower of trees, and the back hand is cast down behind her. Someone has humorously put a gardening glove on her stone fingers.
In a flash one could be in a world of refined ladies and gentlemen circa 1867 (as Fowles, we all know, has been), or Jane Austen’s people could stroll down the road by the side of the garden. Yet again, these trees and paths step outside history, so that one feels above the ‘past’ and ‘the historical present’, and able to exist in a now which has no steady allegiance to historical epochs. A now of fluid swaying of leaves for which it makes little sense to impute the date 2002. As John told me later after lunch, this place is part of him, he knows it and what grows here intimately after all these years. ‘It is my paradise’. I walked a bit through the patch of forest, then decided to sit down and realise where I was. I realised that this place is beautiful, a little bonne vaux. And I thought how lucky John is to be its steward and companion, watching it change and live from day to day. I also thought to myself that it was so very fortunate I made the decision to come to England, and see the nature that John loves with my own eyes. If eco-critics in America go to the lands Edward Abbey, or Barry Lopez, or whoever else they are writing about loved, then I was getting a taste of the nature the distinguished English equivalent bats for. Talking about Fowles as a nature writer is something, Sarah agreed with me in the car on the way back to the train station that day, that hasn’t been done really in the critical literature. And as she told me, you know, nature is his first love. So it is something that really needs rectifying in literary studies, no one has done it thus far, and I have struck out on an important task.
John is a frail old man now, but (despite the odd repitition) can still converse more or less cogently. His house is a citadel of culture and refinement, and his garden and patch of forest are indeed a kind of paradise.
The Undercliff to the west of John’s home is one of the true areas of wilderness in southern England, and its winding paths and jumbled angles exude nothing if not the mysterious. What do you think inspired The French Lieutenant’s Woman? Look down this path.