A walk with the FT: The Glyndebourne route

If you visit the website of Glyndebourne, the celebrated opera house in East Sussex, you might expect to see details of music, singers, audiences and the rest. You might not expect to find monthly figures for the generation of electricity and emissions per performance. But Gus Christie, Glyndebourne’s executive chairman, is a man with a strong sense of purpose as far as the environment is concerned, and, after six years of planning, this January saw the inauguration of a 67m wind turbine on the hill behind the house where his family has lived for five generations.

The turbine’s majestic height and sleek lines are impressive, even slightly overwhelming, but as the land rises, it easily folds itself away into the declivities of the landscape – helped by the fact that Christie decided to paint it a light gunmetal grey. Ninety per cent of Glyndebourne’s electricity was its ultimate target, and he’s delighted that these aims are already being met.

Walking with Christie and his wife, the soprano Danielle de Niese, and their Portuguese water dog, Caesar, reveals the depth of his relationship with this land. As we launch up the rutted chalky track that rises steeply behind Glyndebourne, he laughs that “I analysed this soil in my school geology lessons.” Already a magnificent view to the east has spread out below us. “And that,” he gestures to a large copse of planted trees veering down the slope beside the path, “is called The Vinegars. The family tried to grow wine there, and that’s what it tasted like.”

On New Road, a short way north of Glyndebourne, Week Lane makes an easy start to this looping walk through the network of footpaths that run across wide downland and into the Nature Reserve around Mount Caburn, the high tump of an Iron Age fort that is our focus. “Caburn – don’t you think that’s a good name?” asks Christie, then tells me that it’s the middle name of the third of his four teenage sons, from his first marriage.

There are other memorable names here. Following the paths westward in the direction of Lewes, a left turn just before the golf course takes you across Bible Bottom to join a bigger path towards Glynde, on through Caburn Bottom, another of the sharp, deep ravines that separate the naked backs of the downs before the steep climb to the fort itself. These characteristic bald downs are not actually an original feature of the landscape: when Sir David Attenborough lent his support to the construction of the turbine, he pointed out to concerned local people that the area was once thickly wooded – ours is a man-made landscape that changes constantly.

Gus Christie and his wife, the soprano Danielle de Niese

Both the couple spend time up here: Christie walking, biking, shooting in season, tobogganing with his sons when it snows; de Niese exercising to keep fit for the demands of an international opera career. One day, thinking herself alone, she succumbed to the urge to dance to a pop tune on her iPod – only to turn and find a baffled-looking man shyly pointing a camera at her. She certainly makes an exotic sight here, a naturalised parakeet to Christie’s native falcon. He looks the picture of the country squire; she’s walking in stacked-heel cowboy boots, big Prada sunglasses, a blue-grey dress and, carried above her head throughout, a flounced white parasol to protect her honey-toffee skin from too much exposure.

This ought to look absolutely ridiculous; it absolutely doesn’t. Taken by her early talent across the world from Australia to California, at 33, she seems well embedded in her new home (the couple married in 2009) and talks about future projects as naturally as he does. Next concerns include plans for remodelling the garden in front of the house – currently a bus park during the festival – and, more ambitiously, an eco-friendly heating system for the whole of the enormous rambling complex. Next up on the musical front is Glyndebourne’s annual tour, which starts next week and sends three operas around the country. Through the winter there will be preparations for a new opera by British composer Orlando Gough. It will get the full Glyndebourne gloss in terms of direction, design and the rest, but the singers, aged between 16 and 80, will come from the local community. Performances take place in March.

This, with the Young Voices and New Generation programmes, all puts Glyndebourne in a different light. It is slow to shed its starchy, black-tie image, and it probably doesn’t want to entirely. But for an arts institution that has remained independent since its founding in 1934 by Christie’s grandfather John, it is clearly serious about education, outreach and opportunity.

The valley of Lewes Downs National Nature Reserve, at the foot of Mount Caburn

Slightly out of breath, we’ve reached the summit of Mount Caburn. On every side, the land rolls out to a far horizon: it’s a stunning vantage point. Below us to the south, cars trundle past on the A27. None of us knows the slightest thing about the Iron Age, so we glide straight over that, and gaze southwards at the placid ribbon of the Ouse, with its neatly embanked offshoot leading up to the village of Glynde, now down to our left. “Where did Virginia Woolf drown herself?” de Niese asks, and Christie points out Monk’s House in Rodmell, away in a clump of trees. It looks too peaceful for that.

From here, we start on the steep descent to the east, past an ancient pit now filled with trees: a pair of peregrines are nesting there, Christie says, and points out a goshawk hang-gliding over the treetops. We could now loop round via Glynde but it’s a working day, and we head back talking about Christie’s former career as a wildlife film-maker. Since he took over running Glyndebourne from his father 12 years ago, he says, spending hours staking out a rare jackal has lost its charm. At 48, what matters more is home turf, and the fierce if quiet struggle between tradition and innovation.

The turbine suddenly comes back into sight, turning lazily and silently against the grey sky. I’ve never much liked them, I must admit, but this one has started to seem like a friend.

Jan Dalley is the FT’s arts editor.

The Glyndebourne Tour travels across the country from October 4 to December 8

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