The seaside town of Selsey crops up frequently in Sherriff’s letters home from the army – both while in the Artists’ Rifles in Romford, and when writing from the Western Front.
The family’s interest in Selsey appears to have begun in late August 1906, when Sherriff’s father (whose actual name was Herbert, although the family called him Pips) recorded a visit in his diaries. He, Bob and Beryl had cycled down from Hampton Wick, around 60-70 miles, over the period of a couple of days, and had taken (‘very good’) rooms at Mrs Hare’s Beaconsfield Villa in East Street. The day after their arrival in Selsey they had cycled to Chichester to meet Connie (Sherriff’s mother) and Bundy (then only 6 years old), and then raced their tram back to Selsey, winning by a few minutes. They stayed there for the rest of the week, with their days chiefly spent as follows, according to Herbert:
‘Before breakfast a ride or walk up to the sea – soon after breakfast walk over fields to our ‘hut’ – read, bathed, stroll back over fields to dinner. Afternoon the same – a second bathe – reading whilst children paddled and caught cold. Evening cycled about or more walks to sea – we were about a mile or so off so got plenty of exercise going and returning. The bathing was the best part – safe and strong stream and improved my swimming very much. Swam about 1/4 mile before the end.’
At some point in the next few years the Sherriffs bought a holiday bungalow in Selsey – when exactly is not known, but they likely acquired it before 1913, because Sherriff has a postcard in his possession showing the effects of the gale in March that year, when their bungalow, ‘Sleepy Hollow’, was washed into a field.
His cousin, Gabrielle Ann Russwurm, later wrote of the event, and of the significance of Selsey to the family:
‘[Bob’s] mother and her two sisters had three of the first five bungalows on East Beach, “Sleepy Hollow”, “Dawn” and “Pax”. But late one stormy night a wave lifted them off their pylons and placed them down in the field behind. Sleepy Hollow and Dawn are still there. After the war we spent a lot of time out there. Our relatives liked to go to dances and parties in the village. Bob stayed writing and baby-sitting for me. In the daytime he went down to the wood, lout to the end to Church Norton, with his notebook. We also had earwig races in Sleepy Hollow, they ended up in Journey’s End. He lived later at 52 Manor Road for some time, and at other places in Selsey.’
According to Sherriff’s own account, he began writing Journey’s End, ‘one August Bank Holiday in one of the railway carriage bungalows on Selsey Bill.’ And it was the profits from the play which then allowed him to build a bungalow there which he named ‘Cymba’ (in honour of the amateur dramatic troupe he had formed while at Kingston Rowing Club, which had enabled him to take his first tentative steps into playwriting).
When his mother died in 1965, her ashes were interred in the wall of St Wilfrid’s Chapel, in Church Norton. And when Sherriff himself died in November 1975, his ashes were laid along with hers, in a spot which had always meant so much to both of them.