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Charles G. (Charles George) Harper.

The Brighton road : the classic highway to the south online

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with his teeth; he jumped upon it; he smote it with his heel. The iron
returned a sullen sound.

"He again essayed the lid of the sarcophagus. Despair nerved his strength.
He raised the slab a few inches. He shouted, screamed, but no answer was
returned; and again the lid fell.

"'She is dead!' cried Alan. 'Why have I not shared her fate? But mine is
to come. And such a death! - oh, oh!' And, frenzied at the thought, he
again hurried to the door, and renewed his fruitless attempts to escape,
till nature gave way, and he sank upon the floor, groaning and exhausted.

"Physical suffering now began to take the place of his mental tortures.
Parched and consumed with a fierce internal fever, he was tormented by
unappeasable thirst - of all human ills the most unendurable. His tongue
was dry and dusty, his throat inflamed; his lips had lost all moisture. He
licked the humid floor; he sought to imbibe the nitrous drops from the
walls; but, instead of allaying his thirst, they increased it. He would
have given the world, had he possessed it, for a draught of cold
spring-water. Oh, to have died with his lips upon some bubbling fountain's
marge! But to perish thus!

"Nor were the pangs of hunger wanting. He had to endure all the horrors of
famine as well as the agonies of quenchless thirst.

"In this dreadful state three days and nights passed over Alan's fated
head. Nor night nor day had he. Time, with him, was only measured by its
duration, and that seemed interminable. Each hour added to his suffering,
and brought with it no relief. During this period of prolonged misery
reason often tottered on her throne. Sometimes he was under the influence
of the wildest passions. He dragged coffins from their recesses, hurled
them upon the ground, striving to break them open and drag forth their
loathsome contents. Upon other occasions he would weep bitterly and
wildly; and once - once only - did he attempt to pray; but he started from
his knees with an echo of infernal laughter, as he deemed, ringing in his
ears. Then, again, would he call down imprecations upon himself and his
whole line, trampling upon the pile of coffins he had reared; and, lastly,
more subdued, would creep to the boards that contained the body of his
child, kissing them with a frantic outbreak of affection.

"At length he became sensible of his approaching dissolution. To him the
thought of death might well be terrible; but he quailed not before it, or
rather seemed, in his latest moments, to resume all his wonted firmness of
character. Gathering together his remaining strength, he dragged himself
towards the niche wherein his brother, Sir Reginald Rookwood, was
deposited, and, placing his hand upon the coffin, solemnly exclaimed, 'My
curse - my dying curse - be upon thee evermore!'

"Falling with his face upon the coffin, Alan instantly expired. In this
attitude his remains were discovered."

How to repress a smile at the picture conjured up of Lady Rookwood
"precipitating herself into the marble coffin"! How not to refrain from
laughing at the fantastic description of Alan piling up coffins in the
vault and jumping upon them!




XXVIII


Half a mile below Cuckfield stands Ansty Cross, (the "Handstay" of old
road-books, and said to derive from the Anglo-Saxon, _Heanstige_, meaning
highway), a cluster of a few cottages and the "Green Cross" inn, once old
and picturesque, now rebuilt in the Ready-made Picturesque order of
architecture. Here stood one of the numerous turnpike-gates.

Close by is Riddens Farm, a picturesque little homestead, with tile-hung
front and clustered chimneys. It still contains one of those old Sussex
cast-iron firebacks mentioned in an earlier page, dated 1622.

Below Ansty, two miles or thereby down the road, the little river Adur is
passed at Bridge Farm, and the twin towns of St. John's Common and Burgess
Hill are reached.

Before 1820 their sites were fields and common land, wild and
gorse-covered, free and open. Few houses were then in sight; the "Anchor"
inn, by Burgess Hill, the reputed haunt of smugglers, who stored their
contraband in the woods and heaths close by; and the "King's Head," at St.
John's Common, with two or three cottages - these were all.

[Illustration: OLD SUSSEX FIREBACK, RIDDENS FARM.]

[Sidenote: BURGESS HILL]

St. John's Common, partly in Keymer and partly in Clayton parishes, was
enclosed piecemeal, between 1828 and 1855, by an arrangement between the
lords of the manors and the copyholders, who divided the plunder between
them, when this large tract of land resently became the site of these
towns of St. John's Common and Burgess Hill, which sprang up, if not with
quite the rapidity of a Californian mining-town, at least with a celerity
previously unknown in England. Their rapid rise was of course due to the
Brighton Railway and its station. There are, however, nowadays not
wanting signs, quite apart from the condition of the brick and tile and
drainpipe-making industry, on which the two mushroom towns have come into
being, that the unlovely places are in a bad way. Shops closed and vainly
offered "to let" tell a story of artificial expansion and consequent
depression: the inevitable Nemesis of discounting the future.

[Illustration: JACOB'S POST.]

I will show you what the site of these uninviting modern places was like,
a hundred years ago. It is not far, geographically, from the sorry streets
of Burgess Hill to the wild, wide commons of Wivelsfield and Ditchling;
but such a change is wrought in two miles and a half as would be
considered impossible by any who have not made the excursion into those
beautiful regions. They show us, in survival, what the now hackneyed main
roads were like three generations ago.

[Sidenote: JACOB'S POST]

In every circumstance Ditchling Common recalls the "Crackskull Commons" of
the eighteenth-century comedies, for it has a little horror of its own in
the shape of an authentic fragment of a gibbet. This is the silent
reminder of a crime committed near at hand, at the "Royal Oak" inn,
Wivelsfield, in 1734. In that year Jacob Harris, a Jew pedlar, came to the
inn and, stabling his horse, attacked Miles, the landlord, while he was
grooming the animal down, and cut his throat. The servant-maid, hearing a
disturbance in the stable, and coming downstairs to see the cause of it,
was murdered in the same way, and then the Jew calmly walked upstairs and
slaughtered the landlord's wife, who was lying ill in bed. None of these
unfortunate people died at once. The two women expired the same night, but
Miles lived long enough to identify the assassin, who was hanged at
Horsham, his body being hung in chains from this gibbet, ever since known
as Jacob's Post.

Pieces of wood from this gallows-tree were long and highly esteemed by
country-folk as charms, and were often carried about with them as
preventatives of all manner of accidents and diseases; indeed, its present
meagre proportions are due to this practice and belief.

The post is fenced with a wooden rail, and is surmounted by the quaint
iron effigy of a rooster, pierced with the date, 1734, in old-fashioned
figures.

It is a lonely spot, with but one cottage near at hand: the common
undulating away for miles until it reaches close to the grey barrier of
the noble South Downs, rising magnificently in the distance.




XXIX


Returning to the exploited main road. Friar's Oak is soon reached. It was
selected by Sir Conan Doyle as one of the scenes of his Regency story,
"Rodney Stone"; but since the year 1900, when the old inn was rebuilt, the
spot has become an eyesore to those who knew it of old.

No one knows why Friar's Oak is so called, and "Nothing is ever known
about anything on the roads," is the intemperate exclamation that rises to
the lips of the disappointed explorer. But wild legends, as usual, supply
the place of facts, and the old oak that stands opposite the inn is said
to have been the spot where a friar, or friars, distributed alms. To any
one who knows even the least about friars, this story would at once carry
its own condemnation; but a friar, or a hermit, may have solicited alms
here. At any rate, the old inn used to exhibit a very forbidding "friar of
orders grey" as its sign, dancing beneath the oak. Stolen many years ago,
it was subsequently discovered in London by the merest accident, was
purchased for a trifling sum, and restored to its bereft signpost. The
innkeeper, however, thinking that what befell once might happen again,
hung the cherished panel within the house, where it remains to this day.

From Friar's Oak it is but a step to that newest creation among Brighton's
suburbs, Clayton Park, its clustering red-brick villas, building estates,
and half-formed roads adjoining the station of Hassocks Gate, which, by
the way, the railway authorities have long since reduced to "Hassocks."
The name recalls certain dusty contrivances of straw and carpeting
artfully contrived for the devout to stumble over in church. But, not to
incur the suspicion of tripping over the name as here applied, it may be
mentioned that "hassock" is the Anglo-Saxon name for a coppice or small
wood; and there are really many of these at and around Hassocks Gate to
this day.

[Sidenote: TURNPIKE GATES]

At Stonepound a road leads on the right to Hurstpierpoint, which is too
big a mouthful for general use, and so is locally "Hurst." The Pierpoints,
whose name is embedded in that of the place, like an ammonite in a
geological stratum, were long since as extinct as those other Normans, the
Monceaux of Hurstmonceaux, and are what Americans would term a "back
number."

............................
. Stone Pound Gate .
. Clears Patcham Gate .
.St. John's and Ansty Gates.
. Y .
............................

............................
. Patcham Gate .
. Clears Stone Pound Gate, .
.St. John's and Ansty Gates.
. 126 .
............................

Stonepound Gate was one of the nine that at one time barred the Brighton
Road, and the last but one on the way. It will be seen, by the specimens
of turnpike-tickets reprinted here, that at one time, at least, the burden
of the tolls was not quite so heavy as the mere number of the gates would
lead a casual observer to suppose, a ticket taken at Ansty "clearing" the
remaining distance, through three other gates, to Brighton. But it was
necessary for the traveller to know his way about, and, if he were going
through, to ask for a ticket to clear to Brighton; else the pikeman would
issue a ticket, which cost just as much, to the next gate only, when
another payment would be demanded. These were "tricks upon travellers"
familiar to every road, and they earned the pikemen, as a class, a very
unenviable reputation.

It was here, in the great Christmas Eve snowstorm of 1836, that the London
mail was snowed up. Its adventures illustrate the uncertainty of
travelling the roads.

In those days you took your seat on your particular fancy in coaches, and
paid your sixteen-shilling fare from London to Brighton, or _vice versa_,
trusting (yet with heaviness of heart) in Providence to bring you to a
happy issue from all the many dangers and discomforts of travelling.
Occasionally it was brought home, by storm and flood, to those learned
enough to know it, that "travelling" derived originally from "travail,"
and the discomforts of leaving one's own fireside in the winter are
emphasized and underscored in the particulars of what befell at Stonepound
in the great snowstorm of December 24th, 1836 - a storm that paralysed
communications throughout the kingdom.

"The Brighton up-mail of Sunday had travelled about eight miles from that
town, when it fell into a drift of snow, from which it was impossible to
extricate it without assistance. The guard immediately set off to obtain
all necessary aid, but when he returned no trace whatever could be found,
either of the coach, coachman or passengers, three in number. After much
difficulty the coach was found, but could not be extricated from the
hollow into which it had got. The guard did not reach London until seven
o'clock on Tuesday night, having been obliged to travel with the bags on
horseback, and in many instances to leave the main road and proceed
across fields in order to avoid the deep drifts of snow.

"The passengers, coachman, and guard slept at Clayton, seven miles from
Brighton. The road from Hand Cross was quite impassable. The non-arrival
of the mail at Crawley induced the postmaster there to send a man in a gig
to ascertain the cause on Monday afternoon, and no tidings being heard of
man, gig, or horse for several hours, another man was despatched on
horseback. After a long search he found horse and gig completely built up
in the snow. The man was in an exhausted state. After considerable
difficulty the horse and gig were extricated, and the party returned to
Crawley. The man had learned no tidings of the mail, and refused to go out
again on any such exploring mission."

The Brighton mail from London, too, reached Crawley, but was compelled to
return.

[Sidenote: CLAYTON TUNNEL ACCIDENT]

Such were the incidents upon which the Christmas stories, of the type
brought into favour by Dickens, were built, but the stories are better to
read than the incidents to experience. I am retrospectively sorry for
those passengers who thus lost their Christmas dinners; but after all, it
was better to miss the turkey and the Christmas pudding than to be "mashed
into a pummy" in railway accidents, such as the awful heart-shaking series
of collisions which took place on Sunday, August 25th, 1861, in the
railway tunnel through Clayton Hill. On that day, in that gloomy place,
twenty-four persons lost their lives, and one hundred and seventy-five
were injured.

Three trains were timed to leave Brighton station on that fatal morning,
two of them filled to crowding with excursionists; the other, an ordinary
train, well filled and bound for London. Their times for starting were 8,
8.5, and 8.30 respectively, but owing to delays occasioned by press of
traffic, they did not set out until considerably later, at 8.28, 8.31, and
8.35. At such terribly short intervals were they started, in times when
no block system existed to render such close following comparatively safe.

Clayton Tunnel was already considered a dangerous place, and there was
situated at either end (north and south entrances) a signal-cabin
furnished with telegraphic instruments and signal apparatus, by which the
signalman at one end of the tunnel could communicate with his fellow at
the other, and could notify "train in" or "train out" as might happen.
This practically formed a primitive sort of "block system," especially
devised for use in this mile and a quarter's dark burrow.

A "self-acting" signal placed in the cutting some distance from the
southern entrance was supposed, upon the passage of every train, to set
itself at "danger" for any following, until placed at "line clear" from
the nearest cabin, but on this occasion the first train passed in, and the
self-acting signal failed to act.

The second train, following upon the heels of the first, passed all
unsuspecting, and dashed from daylight into the tunnel's mouth, the
signalman, who had not received a message from the other end of the tunnel
being clear, frantically waving his red flag to stop it. This signal
apparently unnoticed by the driver, the train passed in.

At this moment the third train came into view, and at the same time the
signalman was advised of the tunnel being clear of the first. Meanwhile,
the driver of the second train, who _had_ noticed the red flag, was,
unknown to the signalman, backing his train out again. A message was sent
to the north cabin for it, "train in"; but the man there, thinking this to
be a mere repetition of the first, replied, "train out," referring, of
course, to the first train.

The tunnel being to the southern signalman apparently clear, the third
train was allowed to proceed, and met, midway, away from daylight, the
retreating second train. The collision was terrible; the two rearward
carriages of the second train were smashed to pieces, and the engine of
the third, reared upon their wreck, poured fire and steam and scalding
water upon the poor wretches who, wounded but not killed by the impact,
were struggling to free themselves from the splintered and twisted remains
of the two carriages.

The heap of wreckage was piled up to the roof of the tunnel, whose
interior presented a dreadful scene, the engine fire throwing a wild glare
around, but partly obscured by the blinding, scalding clouds of steam;
while this suddenly created Inferno resounded with the prayers, shrieks,
shouts, and curses of injured and scatheless alike, all fearful of the
coming of another train to add to the already sufficiently hideous ruin.

Fortunately no further catastrophe occurred; but nothing of horror was
wanting, neither in the magnitude nor in the circumstances of the
disaster, which long remained in the memories of those who read and was
impossible ever to be forgotten by those who witnessed it.




XXX


[Sidenote: THE SOUTH DOWNS]

From these levels at Stonepound the South Downs come full upon the view,
crowned at Clayton Hill with windmills. Ditchling Beacon to the left, and
the more commanding height of Wolstonbury to the extreme right, flank this
great wall of earth, chalk, and grass - Wolstonbury semicircular in outline
and bare, save only for some few clumps of yellow gorse and other small
bushes.

Just where the road bends, and, crossing the railway, begins to climb
Clayton Hill, the Gothic, battlemented entrance to Clayton Tunnel looms
with a kind of scowling picturesqueness, well suited to its dark history,
continually vomiting steam and smoke, like a hell's mouth.

Above it rises the hill, with telegraph-poles and circular brick
ventilating-shafts going in a long perspective above the chalky cutting
in the road; and on the left hand the little rustic church of Clayton,
humbly crouching under the lee of the downs.

"Clayton Hill!" It was a word of dread among cyclists until, say, the year
1900, when rim-and back-pedalling brakes superseded the inefficient
spoon-brake, acting on the front tyre. Coming from Brighton, the hill
drops steeply into the Weald of Sussex, and not only steeply, but the road
takes a sudden and perilous turn over the railway bridge, at the foot of
the descent, precisely where descending vehicles not under control attain
their greatest speed. Here many a cyclist has been flung against the brick
wall of the bridge, and his machine broken and himself injured; and seven
have met their death here. Even in these days of good brakes a fatality
has occurred, a cyclist being killed in November, 1902, in a collision
with a trap.

From the summit of the downs the Weald is seen, spread out like a
pictorial map, the little houses, the little trees, the ribbon-like roads
looking like dainty models; the tiny trains moving out of Noah's Ark
stations and vehicles crawling the highways like objects in a minature
land of make-believe. Looking southward, Brighton is seen - a pillar of
smoke by day, a glowing, twinkling light at evening: but for all it is so
near, it has very little affected the old pastoral country life of the
downland villages. The shepherds, carrying as of yore their Pyecombe
crooks, still tend huge flocks of sheep, and the dull and hollow music of
the sheep-bells remains as ever the characteristic sound of the district.
Next year the sheep will be shorn, just as they were when the Saxon churls
worked for their Norman masters, and, unless a cataclysm of nature
happens, they will continue so to be shorn centuries hence.

[Illustration: CLAYTON TUNNEL.]

But the shepherds have ceased to be vocal with the sheep-shearing songs of
yore; it seems that their modern accomplishment of being able to read has
stricken them dumb. Neither the words nor the airs of the old
shearing-songs will ever again awaken the echoes in the daytime, nor make
the roomy interiors of barns ring o' nights, as they were wont to do
lang-syne, when the convivial shearing supper was held, and the ale hummed
in the cup, and, later in the evening, in the head also.

But the Sussex peasant is by no means altogether bereft of his ancient
ways. He is, in the more secluded districts, still a South Saxon; for the
county, until comparatively recent times remote and difficult, plunged in
its sloughs and isolated by reason of its forests, has no manufactures,
and the rural parts do not attract immigrants from the shires, to leaven
his peculiarities. The Sussex folk are still rooted firmly in what Drayton
calls their "queachy ground." Words of Saxon origin are still the staple
of the country talk; folk-tales, told in times when the South Saxon
kingdom was yet a power of the Heptarchy, exist in remote corners,
currently with the latest ribald song from the London halls; superstitions
linger, as may be proved by he who pursues his inquiries judiciously, and
thought moves slowly still in the bucolic mind.

The Norman Conquest left few traces upon the population, and the peasant
is still the Saxon he ever has been; his occupations, too, tend to
slowness of speech and mind. The Sussex man is by the very rarest chance
engaged in any manufacturing industries. He is by choice and by force of
circumstances ploughman, woodman, shepherd, market-gardener, or carter,
and is become heavy as his soil, and curiously old-world in habit. All
which traits are delightful to the preternaturally sharp Londoner, whose
nerves occupy the most important place in his being. These country folk
are new and interesting creatures for study to him who is weary of that
acute product of civilisation - the London arab.

[Sidenote: OLD SUSSEX WAYS]

Sussex ways are, many of them, still curiously patriarchal. But a few
years ago, and ploughing was commonly performed in these fields by oxen.

[Illustration: CLAYTON CHURCH AND THE SOUTH DOWNS.]

Their cottages that, until a few years ago, were the same as ever, have
recently been very largely rebuilt, much to the sorrow of those who love
the picturesque. They were thatched, for the most part, or tiled, or
roofed with stone slabs. A living-room with yawning fireplace and
capacious settle was the chief feature of them. The floor was covered with
red bricks. When the settle was drawn up to the cheerful blaze the
interior was cosy. But many of the most picturesque cottages were damp and
insanitary, and although they pleased the artist to look at, it by no
means followed that they would have contented him to live in.

Outside, in the garden, grew homely flowers and useful vegetables, and
perhaps by the gnarled apple-tree there stood in the sun a row of
bee-hives. Sussex superstition declared that they might, indeed, be
purchased, but not for silver:

If you wish your bees to thrive,
Gold must be paid for ev'ry hive;
For when they're bought with other money,
There will be neither swarm nor honey.

The year was one long round of superstitious customs and observances, and
it is not without them, even now. But superstition is shy and not visible
on the surface.

In January began the round, for from Christmas Eve to Twelfth Day was the
proper time for "worsling," that is "wassailing" the orchards, but more
particularly the apple-trees. The country-folk would gather round the
trees and chant in chorus, rapping the trunks the while with sticks:

Stand fast root, bear well top;
Pray, good God, send us a howling crop
Ev'ry twig, apples big;
Ev'ry bough, apples enow';
Hats full, caps full,
Full quarters, sacks full.

These wassailing folk were generally known as "howlers"; "doubtless
rightly," says a Sussex archæologist, "for real old Sussex music is in a
minor key, and can hardly be distinguished from howling." This knowledge
enlightens our reading of the pages of the Rev. Giles Moore, of Horsted
Keynes, when he records: "1670, 26th Dec., I gave the howling boys 6d.;" a
statement which, if not illumined by acquaintance with these old customs,
would be altogether incomprehensible.

Then, if mud were brought into the house in the month of January, the
cleanly housewife, at other times jealous of her spotless floors, would
have nothing of reproof to say, for was this not "January butter." and the
harbinger of luck to all beneath the roof-tree?

Saints' days, too, had their observances; the habits of bird and beast


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Online LibraryCharles G. (Charles George) HarperThe Brighton road : the classic highway to the south → online text (page 15 of 18)