Highways and Byways in Sussex/Chapter 11

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CHAPTER XI


BIGNOR


Burton and the sparrowhawk—James Broadbridge—The quaintest of grocer's shops—A transformation scene—The Roman pavement—Charlotte Smith the sonneteer—Parson Dorset's advice—Humility at West Burton—Bury's Amazons.


Two miles due south from Petworth is Burton Park, a modest sandy pleasaunce, with some beautiful deer, an ugly house, and a church for the waistcoat pocket, which some American relic hunter will assuredly carry off unless it is properly chained.

Mr. Knox has an interesting anecdote of a sparrowhawk at Burton. "In May, 1844," he writes, "I received from Burton Park an adult male sparrowhawk in full breeding plumage, which had killed itself, or rather met its death, in a singular manner. The gardener was watering plants in the greenhouse, the door being open, when a blackbird dashed in suddenly, taking refuge between his legs, and at the same moment the glass roof above his head was broken with a loud crash, and a hawk fell dead at his feet. The force of the swoop was so great that for a moment he imagined a stone hurled from a distance to have been the cause of the fracture."

At Duncton, the neighbouring village, under the hill, James Broadbridge was born in 1796—James Broadbridge, who was considered the best all-round cricketer in England in his day. He had a curious hit to square-leg between the wicket and himself, and he was the first of whom it was said that he could do anything with the ball except make it speak. In order to get practice with worthy players he would walk from Duncton to Brighton, just as Lambert would walk from Reigate to London, or Noah Mann ride to Hambledon from Petworth. Jim Broadbridge's first great match was in 1815, for Sussex against the Epsom Club, including Lambert and Lord Frederick Beauclerk, for a Thousand Guineas. Broadbridge, after his wont, walked from Duncton to Brighton in the morning, and he looked so much like a farmer and so little like a cricketer that there was some opposition to his playing. But he bowled out three and caught one and Sussex won the money.

Above Duncton rises Duncton Down, which is eight hundred and thirty-seven feet high, one of our mountains. But we are not to climb it just now, having business in the weald some four miles away to the east, past Barlavington and Sutton, at Bignor.

Admirers of yew trees should make a point of visiting Bignor churchyard. The village has also what is probably the quaintest grocer's shop in England; certainly the completest contrast that imagination could devise to the modern grocer's shop of the town, plate-glassed, illumined and stored to repletion. It is close to the yew-shadowed church, and is gained by a flight of steps. I should not have noticed it as a shop at all, but rather as a very curious survival of a kindly and attractive form of architecture, had not a boy, when asked the way to the Roman pavement, which is Bignor's glory, mentioned "the grocer's" as one of the landmarks. One's connotation of "grocer" excluding diamond panes, oak timbers, difficult steps, and reverend antiquity, I was like to lose the way in earnest, had not a customer emerged opportunely from the crazy doorway with a basket of goods. It was natural for the boy, whose pennies had gone in oranges and sweets, to lay the emphasis on the grocery; but the house externally is the only one of its kind within miles.

In some respects there is no more interesting spot in Sussex than the mangold field on Mr. Tupper's farm that contains the Roman pavements. Approaching this scene of alien treasure one observes nothing but the mangolds; here and there a rough shed as if for cattle; and Mr. Tupper, the grandson of the discoverer of the mosaics, at work with his hoe. This he lays on one side on the arrival of a visitor, taking in his hand instead a large key. So far, we are in Sussex pure and simple; mangolds all around, cattle sheds in front, a Sussex farmer for a companion, the sky of Sussex over all, and the twentieth century in her nonage. Mr. Tupper turns the key, throws open the creaking door—and nearly two thousand years roll away. We are no longer in Sussex but in the province of the Regni; no longer at Bignor but Ad Decimum, or ten miles from Regnum (or Chichester) on Stane Street, the direct road to Londinum, in the residence of a Roman Colonial governor of immense wealth, probably supreme in command of the province.

The fragments of pavement that have been preserved are mere indications of the splendour and extent of the building, which must have covered some acres—a welcome and imposing sight as one descended Bignor Hill by Stane Street, with its white walls and columns rising from the dark weald. The pavement in the first shed which Mr. Tupper unlocks has the figure of Ganymede in one of its circular compartments; and here the hot-air pipes, by which the villa was heated, may be seen where the floor has given way. A head of Winter in another of the sheds is very fine; but it is rather for what these relics stand for, than any intrinsic beauty, that they are interesting. They are perfect symbols of a power that has passed away. Nothing else so brings back the Roman occupation of Sussex, when on still nights the clanking of armour in the camp on the hill-top could be heard by the trembling Briton in the Weald beneath; or by day the ordered sounds of marching would smite upon his ears, and, looking fearfully upwards, he would see a steady file of warriors descending the slope. I never see a Sussex hill crowned by a camp, as at Wolstonbury, without seeing also in imagination a flash of steel. Perhaps one never realises the new terror which the Romans must have brought into the life of the Sussex peasant—a terror which utterly changed the Downs from ramparts of peace into coigns of minatory advantage, and transformed the gaze of security, with which their grassy contours had once been contemplated, into anxious glances of dismay and trepidation—one never so realises this terror as when one descends Ditchling Beacon by the sunken path which the Romans dug to allow a string of soldiers to drop unperceived into the Weald below. That semi-subterranean passage and the Bignor pavements are to me the most vivid tokens of the Roman rule that England possesses.

Charlotte Smith, the sonneteer and novelist, was the daughter of Nicholas Turner, of Bignor Park, which contains, I think, the plainest house I ever saw in the country. Charlotte Smith, who was all her life very true to Sussex both in her work and in her homes—she was at school at Chichester, and lived at Woolbeding and Brighton—was born in 1749. A century ago her name was as well known as that of Mrs. Hemans was later. To-day it is unknown, and her poems and novels are unread, nor will they, I fear, be re-discovered. Her sister, Catherine Turner, afterwards Mrs. Dorset, was the author of The Peacock at Home, a very popular book for children at the beginning of the last century, suggested by Roscoe's Butterfly's Ball. Mrs. Dorset, by the way, married a son of the vicar of Walberton and Burlington, whose curious head-dress gave to an odd-looking tree on Bury hill the name of Parson Dorset's wig—for the parson was known by his eccentricities far from home. The old story of advice to a flock: "Do as I say, not as I do," is told also of him.

The little village of West Burton, east of Bignor, is associated in my mind with an expression of the truest humility. A kindly villager had given me a glass of water, and I unfolded my map and spread it on her garden wall to consult while I drank. "Why," she said, "you don't mean to say a little place like West Burton is marked on a map." This is the very antipodes of the ordinary provincial pride, which would have the world's axis project from the ground hard by the village pump. But pride of place is not, I think, a Sussex characteristic.

Bury, the next hamlet in the east, under the hills, has curious cricket traditions. In June, 1796, the married women of Bury beat the single women by 80 runs, and thereupon, uniting forces, challenged any team of women in the county. Not only did the women of Bury shine at cricket, but in a Sussex paper for 1791 I find an account of two of Bury's daughters assuming the names of Big Ben and Mendoza and engaging in a hardly contested prize fight before a large gathering. Big Ben won.

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