Dr Peter Brandon 1927-2011

Dr Peter Brandon 1927-2011

Peter Frank Brandon was born at his maternal grandmothers home in Shoreham. His father a master butcher in Twickenham, where Peter and his sister Gill spent their early years, delivering meat by bicycle, which he later claimed gave him a feel for the local landscape. He attended secondary school in Twickenham and Clark’s College, Putney, where he studied accountancy, the career for which he was originally intended. He was called up for the RAF in 1945, but never flew, because of a heart murmur, and was given clerical and book-keeping duties.

Peter then changed direction decisively, obtaining a teaching qualification in 1951, and an External London general degree in Geography, English Literature and History, undertaken by private study. He taught at a secondary modern school until 1957, but on his father’s death, took on the family shop until it was sold, at which time he returned to Shoreham in 1959, where he subsequently lived with his mother. Almost simultaneously he gained a first-class honours degree in Geography at Birkbeck College, London, staying there to work on a PhD on Sussex medieval fields and commons, and teaching himself mediaeval Latin to transcribe documents. In 1961 he was appointed head of Geography at North Western Polytechnic, Kentish Town, commuting from Shoreham for 26 years until his retirement in 1987, following which he taught on the Landscape Studies degree in the Centre for Continuing Education at Sussex University, quickly becoming a popular part-time lecturer.

From 1960 he produced a steady stream of scholarly articles. For SAC he published on medieval Alciston, the medieval Weald, the relations between medieval weather and farming, the origin of Newhaven and the drainage of the Lewes and Laughton Levels. He also contributed to the prestigious Cambridge Agrarian History of England and Wales, volume II (1042 to 1350). Three books appeared: his influential contribution to W.G. Hoskins and Millward’s series, on The Sussex Landscape (1974), A History of Surrey (1977) and his edited The South Saxons (1978).

Thereafter he changed direction somewhat to concentrate more on themes of creative painting and writing in the landscape, together with a greater interest in the 18th century and beyond. However, research during the 1970s and 1980s was not always easy. There were departmental meetings and political crises at the Polytechnic and a move from Kentish Town to Holloway Road in 1975. Nevertheless, he was editor of Sussex Archaeological Collections 1974-1979; literary director of the Sussex Record Society 1970-1979, and president in 1978. He was elected a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries in 1985. In 1990 The South-East from AD 1000 (with Brian Short) was published, a companion to the archaeology volume produced by Peter Drewett, David Rudling and Mark Gardiner.

By this time Peter had retired but his writing flourished. The last 20 years of his life were extraordinarily productive, and two inter-related interests now emerged strongly. One was his fierce resistance towards any threat to rural landscape: he became president of the Society of Sussex Downsmen (now the South Downs Society); chairman of the Sussex branch of CPRE 1986 to 1999, and from 1992 a founder member of the Sussex Downs Conservation Board, forerunner of the present National Park Authority. The second theme blended his passion for literature with his affection for the Sussex landscape. He now also entered into a productive relationship with Phillimore which produced his trilogy, The South Downs (1998), The Kent and Sussex Weald (2003), and The North Downs (2005). Others followed, including the brilliant The discovery of Sussex (2010). He had now established himself as the most distinguished authority on the landscape history, and protection,of South East England. He was elected a vice-president of the Sussex Archaeological Society by 2005.

So many books, then, on Sussex and the South East. And we all recognised his vitality, enthusiasm, love of countryside, and ability to communicate. He was quite incapable of being dull, and his conversation matched his writings: erudite, stimulating, wise. It is also a testament to his determination that he produced no fewer than seven books in the eight years following the onset of kidney failure. The subject of his last book was Sussex writers in their landscapes, on which he was still working in his hospital bed. It is hoped that this will be published posthumously in late 2012 or 2013. He died on 2 November 2011 at the Royal Sussex County Hospital renal unit, Brighton. Asked on the day before he died “What present advice would you pass on to folk?” he replied “We must fight to keep what countryside we have left!”

Brian Short and Ann Winser