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Charles G. (Charles George) Harper.

The Brighton road : the classic highway to the south online

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were the almanacs and weather warnings of the villagers, all innocent of
any other meteorological department, and they have been handed down in
doggerel rhyme, like this of the Cuckoo, to the present day:

In April he shows his bill,
In May he sings o' night and day,
In June he'll change his tune,
By July prepare to fly,
By August away he must.
If he stay till September,
'Tis as much as the oldest man
Can ever remember.

If he stayed till September, he might possibly see a sight which no mere
human eye ever beheld: he might observe a practice to which old Sussex
folk know the Evil One to be addicted. For on Old Michaelmas Day, October
10th, the Devil goes round the country, and - dirty devil - spits on the
blackberries. Should any persons eat one on October 11th, they, or some
one of their kin, will surely die or fall into great trouble before the
close of the year.

Sussex has neither the imaginative Celtic race of Cornwall nor that
county's fantastic scenery to inspire legends; but is it at all wonderful
that old beliefs die hard in a county so inaccessible as this has hitherto
been? We have read travellers' tales of woful happenings on the road; hear
now Defoe, who is writing in the year 1724, of another proof of heavy
going on the highways: "I saw," says he, "an ancient lady, and a lady of
very good quality, I assure you, drawn to church in her coach by six oxen;
nor was it done in frolic or humour, but from sheer necessity, the way
being so stiff and deep that no horses could go in it." All which says
much for the piety of this ancient lady. Only a few years later, in 1729,
died Dame Judith, widow of Sir Henry Hatsell, who in her will, dated
January 10th, 1728, directed that her body should be buried at Preston,
should she happen to die at such a time of year when the roads were
passable; otherwise, at any place her executors might think suitable. It
so happened that she died in the month of June, so compliance with her
wishes was possible.




XXXI


And now to trace the Hickstead and Bolney route from Hand Cross, that
parting of the ways overlooking the most rural parts of Sussex. Hand
Cross, it has already been said, is in the parish of Slaugham, which lies
deep down in a very sequestered wood, where the head-springs issuing from
the hillsides are never dry and the air is always heavy with moisture.
"Slougham-cum-Crolé" is the title of the place in ancient records, "Crolé"
being Crawley. It was from its ancient bogs and morasses that it obtained
its name, pronounced by the natives "Slaffam," and it was certainly due to
them that the magnificent manor-house - almost a palace - of the Coverts,
the old lords of the manor - was deserted and began to fall to pieces so
soon as built.

[Illustration: THE RUINS OF SLAUGHAM PLACE.]

The Coverts, now and long since utterly extinct, were once among the most
powerful, as they were also among the noblest, in the county. They were of
Norman descent, and, to use a well-worn phrase, "came over with the
Conqueror"; but they are not found settled here until towards the close
of the fifteenth century, being preceded, as lords of the manor, by the
Poynings of Poynings, and by the Berkeleys and Stanleys. Sir Walter
Covert, to whose ancestors the manor fell by marriage, was the builder of
that Slaugham Place whose ruins yet remain to show his idea of what was
due to a landed proprietor of his standing. They cover, within their
enclosing walls of red brick, which rise from the yet partly filled moat,
over three acres of what is now orchard and meadowland. In spring the
apple trees bloom pink and white amid the grey and lichen-stained ashlar
of the ruined walls and arches of Palladian architecture, and the lush
grass grows tall around the cold hearths of the roofless rooms. The noble
gateway leads now, not from courtyard to hall, but doorless, with its
massive stones wrenched apart by clinging ivy, stands merely as some sort
of key to the enigma of ground plan presented by walls ruinated in greater
part to the level of the watery turf.

The singular facts of high wall and moat surrounding a mansion of Jacobean
build seem to point to an earlier building, contrived with these defences
when men thought first of security and afterwards of comfort. Some few
mullioned windows of much earlier date than the greater part of the
mansion remain to confirm the thought.

That a building of the magnificence attested by these crumbling walls
should have been allowed to fall into decay so shortly after its
completion is a singular fact. Though the male line of the Coverts failed,
and their estates passed, by the marriage of their womankind, into other
hands, yet their alienation would not necessarily imply the destruction of
their roof-tree. The explanation is to be sought in the situation and
defects of the ground upon which Slaugham Place stood: a marshy tract of
land, which no builder of to-day would think of selecting as a site for so
important a dwelling. Home as it was of swamps and damps, and quashy as it
is even now, it must have been in the past the breeding-ground of agues
and chills innumerable.

[Illustration: THE ENTRANCE: RUINS OF SLAUGHAM PLACE.]

A true exemplar this of that Sussex of which in 1690 a barrister on
circuit, whose profession led him by evil chance into this county, writes
to his wife: "The Sussex ways are bad and ruinous beyond imagination. I
vow 'tis melancholy consideration that mankind will inhabit such a heap of
dirt for a poor livelihood. The county is in a sink of about fourteen
miles broad, which receives all the water that falls from the long ranges
of hills on both sides of it, and not being furnished with convenient
draining, is kept moist and soft by the water till the middle of a dry
summer, which is only able to make it tolerable to ride for a short time."

Such soft and shaky earth as this could not bear the weight of so
ponderous a structure as was Slaugham Place: the swamps pulled its masonry
apart and rotted its fittings. Despairing of victory over the reeking
moisture, its owners left it for healthier sites. Then the rapacity of all
those neighbouring folk who had need of building material completed the
havoc wrought by natural forces, and finally Slaugham Place became what it
is to-day. Its clock-tower was pulled down and removed to Cuckfield Park,
where it now spans the entrance drive of that romantic spot, and its
handsomely carved Jacobean stairway is to-day the pride and glory of the
"Star" Hotel at Lewes.

The Coverts are gone; their heraldic shields, in company of an
architectural frieze of greyhounds' and leopards' heads and skulls of oxen
wreathed in drapery, still decorate what remains of the north front of
their mansion, and their achievements are repeated upon their tombs within
the little church of Slaugham on the hillside. You may, if heraldically
versed, learn from their quarterings into what families they married; but
the deeds they wrought, and their virtues and their vices, are, for the
most part, clean forgotten, even as their name is gone out of the land,
who once, as tradition has it, travelled southward from London to the
sea on their own manors.

[Illustration: BOLNEY.]

The squat, shingled spirelet of Slaugham Church and its decorated
architecture mark the spot where many of this knightly race lie buried. In
the Covert Chapel is the handsome brass of John Covert, who died in 1503;
and in the north wall of the chancel is the canopied altar-tomb of Richard
Covert, the much-married, who died in 1547, and is represented, in company
of three of his four wives, by little brass effigies, together with a
curious brass representing the Saviour rising from the tomb, guarded by
armed knights of weirdly-humorous aspect, the more diverting because
executed all innocent of joke or irreverence.

Here is a rubbing, nothing exaggerated, of one of these guardian knights,
to bear me up.

[Illustration: FROM A BRASS AT SLAUGHAM.]

Another Richard, but twice married, who died in 1579, is commemorated in a
large and elaborate monument in the Covert Chapel, whereon are sculptured,
in an attitude of prayer, Richard himself, his two wives, six sons, and
eight daughters.

Last of the Coverts whose name is perpetuated here is Jane, who deceased
in 1586.

[Illustration: HICKSTEAD PLACE.]

Beside these things, Slaugham claims some interest as containing the
mansion of Ashfold, where once resided Mrs. Matcham, a sister of Nelson.
Indeed, it was while staying here that the Admiral received the summons
which sped him on his last and most glorious and fatal voyage. Slaugham,
too, with St. Leonard's Forest, contributes a title to the peerage, Lord
St. Leonards' creation being of "Slaugham, in the county of Sussex."




XXXII


This route to Brighton is singularly rural and lovely, and particularly
beautiful in the way of copses and wooded hollows, whence streamlets
trickle away to join the river Adur. Villages lie shyly just off its
course, and must be sought, only an occasional inn or smithy, or the
lodge-gates of modern estates called into existence since the making of
the road in 1813, breaking the solitude. The existence of Bolney itself is
only hinted at by the pinnacles of its church tower peering over the
topmost branches of distant trees. "Bowlney," as the countryfolk pronounce
the name, is worth a little detour, for it is a compact, picturesque spot
that might almost have been designed by an artist with a single thought
for pictorial composition, so well do its trees, the houses, old and new,
the church, and the "Eight Bells" inn, group for effect.

Down the road, rather over a mile distant from Bolney, and looking so
remarkably picturesque from the highway that even the least preoccupied
with antiquities must needs stop and admire, is Hickstead Place, a small
but beautiful residence, the seat of Miss Davidson, dating from the time
of Henry the Seventh, with a curious detached building in two floors, of
the same or even somewhat earlier period, on the lawn; remarkable for the
large vitrified bricks in its gables, worked into rough crosses and
supposed to indicate a former use as a chapel. History, however, is silent
that point; but, as the inquirer may discover for himself, it now
fulfils the twin offices of a studio and a lumber room. The parish church
of Twineham, little more than a mile away, is of the same period, and
built of similar materials. Hickstead Place has been in the same family
for close upon four hundred years, and as an old house without much in the
way of a history, and with its ancient features largely retained and
adapted to modern domestic needs, is a striking example both of the
continuity and the placidity of English life. The staircase walls are
frescoed in a blue monochrome with sixteenth-century representations of
field-sports and hunting scenes, very curious and interesting. The roof is
covered with slabs of Horsham stone, and the oak entrance is original.
Ancient yews, among them one clipped to resemble a bear sitting on his
rump, give an air of distinction to the lawn, completed by a pair of
eighteenth-century wrought-iron gates between red brick pillars.

[Illustration: NEWTIMBER PLACE.]

Sayers Common is a modern hamlet, of a few scattered houses. Albourne lies
away to the right. From here the Vale of Newtimber opens out and the South
Downs rise grandly ahead. Noble trees, singly and in groups, grow
plentiful; and where they are at their thickest, in the sheltered hollow
of the hills, stands Newtimber Place, belonging to Viscount Buxton, a
noble mansion with Queen Anne front of red brick and flint, and an
Elizabethan back, surrounded by a broad moat of clear water, formed by
embanking the beginnings of a little stream that comes willing out of the
chalky bosom of the hills. It is a rarely complete and beautiful scene.

Beyond it, above the woods where in spring the fluting blackbird sings of
love and the delights of a mossy nest in the sheltered vale, rises Dale
Hill, with its old toll-house. It was in the neighbouring Dale Vale that
Tom Sayers, afterwards the unconquered champion of England, fought his
first fight.

[Illustration: PYECOMBE: JUNCTION OF THE ROADS.]

He was not, as often stated, an Irishman, but the son of a man descended
from a thoroughly Sussexian stock. The name of Sayers is well known
throughout Sussex, and in particular at Hand Cross, Burgess Hill, and
Hurstpierpoint. There is even, as we have already seen, a Sayers Common on
the road. Tom Sayers, however, was born at Brighton. He worked as a
bricklayer at building the Preston Viaduct of the Brighton and Lewes
Railway: that great viaduct which spans the Brighton Road as you enter the
town. He retired in 1860, after his fight with Heenan, and when he died,
in 1865, the reputation of prize-fighting died with him.

At the summit of Dale Hill stands Pyecombe, above the junction of roads,
on the rounded shoulder of the downs. The little rubbly and flinty
churches of Pyecombe, Patcham, Preston, and Clayton are very similar in
appearance exteriorly and all are provided with identical towers finished
off with a shingled spirelet of insignificant proportions. This little
Norman church, consisting of a tiny nave and chancel only, is chiefly
interesting as possessing a triple chancel arch and an ancient font.

[Illustration: PATCHAM.]

Over the chancel arch hangs a painting of the Royal Arms, painted in the
time of George the Third, faded and tawdry, with dandified unicorn and a
gamboge lion, all teeth and mane, regarding the congregation on Sundays,
and empty benches at other times, with the most amiable of grins. It is
quite typical of Pyecombe that those old Royal Arms should still remain;
for the place is what it was then, and then it doubtless was what it had
been in the days of good Queen Anne, or even of Elizabeth, to go no
further back. The grey tower tops the hill as it has done since the Middle
Ages, the few cottages cluster about it as of yore, and only those who
lived in those humble homes, or reared that church, are gone. Making the
circuit of the church, I look upon the stone quoins and the bedded flints
of those walls; and as I think how they remain, scarce grizzled by the
weathering of countless storms, and how those builders are not merely
gone, but are as forgotten as though they had never existed, I could
have it in my heart to hate the insensate handiwork of man, to which he
has given an existence: the unfeeling walls of stone and flint and mortar
that can outlast him and the memory of him by, it may well be, a thousand
years.




XXXIII


From Pyecombe we come through a cleft in the great chalk ridge of the
South Downs into the country of the "deans." North and South of the Downs
are two different countries - so different that if they were inhabited by
two peoples and governed by two rulers and a frontier ran along the ridge,
it would seem no strange thing. But both are England, and not merely
England, but the same county of Sussex. It is a wooded, Wealden district
of deep clay we have left, and a hungry, barren land of chalk we enter.
But it is a sunny land, where the grassy shoulders of the mighty downs,
looking southward, catch and retain the heat, and almost make you believe
Brighton to be named from its bright and lively skies, and not from that
very shadowy Anglo-Saxon saint, Brighthelm.

[Sidenote: THE DEANS]

The country of the deans is, in general, a barren country. Every one knows
Brighton and its neighbourhood to be places where trees are rare enough to
be curiosities, but in this generally treeless land there are hollows and
shallow valleys amid the dry chalky hillsides where little boscages form
places for the eye, tired of much bright dazzling sunlight, to rest. These
are the deans. Very often they have been made the sites of villages; and
all along this southern aspect of these hills of the Sussex seaboard you
will find deans of various qualifications, from East Dean and West Dean,
by Eastbourne, to Denton (which is, of course "Dean-ton") near Newhaven,
Rottingdean, Ovingdean, Balsdean, Standean, Roedean, and the two that are
strung along these last miles into Brighton - Pangdean and Withdean. Most
of these show the same characteristics of clustered woodlands in a
sheltered fold of the hills, where a grey little flinty church with
stunted spirelet presides over a few large farms and a group of little
cottages. Time and circumstance have changed those that do not happen to
conform to this general rule; and, as ill luck will have it, our first
"dean" is one of these nonconformists.

Pangdean is a hamlet situated in that very forbidding spot where the downs
are at their baldest, and where the chalk-heaps turned up in the making of
the Brighton Railway call aloud for the agricultural equivalent of Tatcho
and its rivals. It is little more than an unkempt farm and a roadside pond
of dirty water where acrobatic ducks perform astonishing feats of agility,
standing on their heads and exhibiting their posteriors in the manner of
their kind. But within sight, down the stretch of road, is Patcham, and
beyond it the hamlet of Withdean, more conformable.

Why Patcham is not nominally, as it is actually in form and every other
circumstance, a "dean" is not clear. There it lies in the vale, just as a
dean should and does do; with sheltering ridges about it, and in the
hollow the church, the cottages, and the woodlands. Very noble woodlands,
too: tall elms with clanging rookeries, and, nestling below them, an old
toll-house.

Not so _very_ old a toll-house, for it was the successor of Preston
turnpike-gate which, erected on the outskirts of Brighton town about 1807,
was removed north of Withdean in 1854, as the result of an agitation set
afoot in 1853, when the Highway Trustees were applying to Parliament for
another term of years. It and its legend "NO TRUST," painted large for all
the world to see, and hateful in a world that has ever preferred credit,
were a nuisance and a gratuitous satire upon human nature. No one
regretted them when their time came, December 31st, 1878; least of all the
early cyclists, who had the luxury of paying at Patcham Gate, and yielded
their "tuppences" with what grace they might.

On the less hallowed north side of the churchyard of Patcham may still
with difficulty be spelled the inscription:

Sacred to the memory of DANIEL SCALES,
who was unfortunately shot on Thursday evening,
November 7th, 1796.

Alas! swift flew the fatal lead,
Which piercèd through the young man's head.
He instant fell, resigned his breath,
And closed his languid eyes in death.
All you who do this stone draw near,
Oh! pray let fall the pitying tear.
From this sad instance may we all,
Prepare to meet Jehovah's call.

It is a relic of those lawless old days of smuggling that are so dear to
youthful minds. Youth, like the Irish peasant, is always anarchist and
"agin the Government"; and certainly the deeds of derring-do that were
wrought by smuggler and Revenue officer alike sometimes stir even
middle-aged blood.

[Illustration: OLD DOVECOT, PATCHAM.]

Smuggling was rife here. Where, indeed, was it not in those times? and
Daniel Scales was the most desperate of a daring gang. The night when he
was "unfortunately shot," he, with many others of the gang, was coming
from Brighton laden heavily with smuggled goods, and on the way they fell
in with a number of soldiers and excise officers, near this place. The
smugglers fled, leaving their casks of liquor to take care of themselves,
careful only to make good their own escape, saving only Daniel Scales,
who, met by a "riding officer," was called upon to surrender himself and
his booty, which he refused to do. The officer, who himself had been in
early days engaged in many smuggling transactions, but was now a brand
plucked from the burning, and zealous for King and Customs, knew that
Daniel was "too good a man for him, for they had tried it out before," so
he shot him through the head; and as the bullet, like those in the nursery
rhyme, was made of "lead, lead, lead," Daniel was killed. Alas! poor
Daniel.

An ancient manorial pigeon-house or dovecot still remains at Patcham,
sturdily built of Sussex flints, banded with brick, and wonderfully
buttressed.

[Sidenote: PRESTON]

Preston is now almost wholly urban, but its Early English church, although
patched and altered, still keeps its fresco representing the murder of
Thomas à Becket, and that of an angel disputing with the Devil for the
possession of a departed soul. The angel, like some celestial grocer, is
weighing the shivering soul in the balance, while the Devil, sitting in
one scale, makes the unfortunate soul in the other "kick the beam."




XXXIV


It has very justly been remarked that Brighton is treeless, but that
complaint by no means holds good respecting the approach to it through
Withdean and Preston Park, which is exceptionally well wooded, the tall
elms forming an archway infinitely more lovable than the gigantic brick
arch of the railway viaduct that poses as a triumphal entry into the town.

It is Brighton's ever-open front door. No occasion to knock or ring; enter
and welcome to that cheery town: a brighter, cleaner London.

Brighton has renewed its youth. It has had ill fortune as well as good,
and went through a middle period when, deserted by Royalty, and not yet
fully won to a broader popularity, its older houses looked shabby and its
newer mean. But that period has passed. What remains of the age of George
the Fourth has with the lapse of time and the inevitable changes in taste,
become almost archæologically interesting, and the newer Brighton
approaches a Parisian magnificence and display. The Pavilion of George the
Fourth was the last word in gorgeousness of his time, but it wears an
old-maidish appearance of dowdiness in midst of the Brighton of the
twentieth century.

[Illustration: PRESTON VIADUCT: ENTRANCE TO BRIGHTON.]

The Pavilion is of course the very hub of Brighton. The pilgrim from
London comes to it past the great church of St. Peter, built in 1824, in a
curious Gothic, and thence past the Level to the Old Steyne. The names of
the terraces and rows of houses on either side proclaim their period, even
if those characteristic semicircular bayed fronts did not: they are York
Place, Hanover Terrace, Gloucester Place, Adelaide this, Caroline that,
and Brunswick t'other: all names associated with the late Georgian period.

The Old Steyne was in Florizel's time the rendezvous of fashion. The
"front" and the lawns of Hove have long since usurped that distinction,
but the gardens and the old trees of the Old Steyne are more beautiful
than ever. They are the only few the town itself can boast.

[Sidenote: BRIGHTON]

Treeless Brighton has been the derision alike of Doctor Johnson and Tom
Hood, to name no others. Johnson, who first visited Brighton in 1770 in
the company of the Thrales and Fanny Burney, declared the neighbourhood to
be so desolate that "if one had a mind to hang one's self for desperation
at being obliged to live there, it would be difficult to find a tree on
which to fasten a rope." At any rate it would have needed a particularly
stout tree to serve Johnson's turn, had he a mind to it. Johnson was an
ingrate, and not worthy of the good that Doctor Brighton wrought upon him.

Hood, on the other hand, is jocular in an airier and lighter-hearted
fashion. His punning humour (a kind of witticism which Johnson hated with
the hatred of a man who delved deep after Greek and Latin roots) is to
Johnson's as the footfall of a cat to the earth-shaking tread of the
elephant. His, too, is a manner of gibe that is susceptible of being
construed into praise by the townsfolk. "Of all the trees," says he, "I
ever saw, none could be mentioned in the same breath with the magnificent
beach at Brighton."

But though these trees of the Pavilion give a grateful shelter from the
glare of the sun and the roughness of the wind, they hide little of the
tawdriness of that architectural enormity. The gilding has faded, the
tinsel become tarnished, and the whole pile of cupolas and minarets is
reduced to one even tint, that is not white nor grey, nor any distinctive
shade of any colour. How the preposterous building could ever have been
admired (as it undoubtedly was at one time) surpasses belief. Its cost,
one shrewdly suspects - it is supposed to have cost over £1,000,000 - was
what appealed to the imagination.

That reptile Croker, the creature of that Lord Hertford whom one


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Online LibraryCharles G. (Charles George) HarperThe Brighton road : the classic highway to the south → online text (page 16 of 18)