Highways and Byways in Sussex/Chapter 6

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Highways and Byways in Sussex by Edward Verrall Lucas
Chichester and the Plain
Page Highways and Byways in Sussex djvu 82 - Bosham.png

Bosham.


CHAPTER VI


CHICHESTER AND THE PLAIN


Bosham and history—An expensive pun—The Bosham bells—Chidham wheat—The Manhood peninsula—Selsey's adders—Selsey Bill—St. Wilfrid and the Sussex heathen—Pagham Harbour in its palmy days—Bognor—Felpham's great rider—Mr. Hayley and Mrs. Opie—An epitaph and a poem—A fairy's funeral—William Blake in Sussex—The trial of a traitor.


On leaving Chichester West Street becomes the Portsmouth Road and passes through Fishbourne, a pleasant but dusty village. A mile or so beyond, and a little to the south, is Bosham, on one of the several arms of Chichester Harbour, once of some importance but now chiefly mud. Bosham is the most interesting village in what may be called the Selsey peninsula. Yet how has its glory diminished! What is now a quiet abode of fishermen and the tarrying-place of yachtsmen and artists (there are few Royal Academy exhibitions without the spire of Bosham church) has been in its time a very factory of history. Vespasian's camp was hard by, and it is possible that certain Roman remains that have been found here were once part of his palace. Bosham claims to be the scene of Canute's encounter with the encroaching tide; which may be the case, although one has always thought of the king rebuking his flatterers rather by the margin of the ocean itself than inland at an estuary's edge. But beyond question Canute had a palace here, and his daughter was buried in the church.

Earl Godwin, father of Harold, last of the Saxons, dwelt here also. "Da mihi basium"—give me a kiss—he is fabled to have said to Archbishop Aethelnoth, and on receiving it to have taken the salute as acquiescence in the request—"Da mihi Bosham": probably the earliest and also the most expensive recorded example in England of this particular form of humour.

It was from Bosham that Harold sailed on that visit to the Duke of Normandy which resulted in the battle of Hastings. In the Bayeux tapestry he may be seen riding to Bosham with his company, and also putting up prayers for the success of his mission. Of this success we shall see more when we come to Battle. Bosham furthermore claims Hubert of Bosham, the author of the Book of Becket's Martyrdom, who was with Saint Thomas of Canterbury when the assassins stabbed him to the death.

The church is of great age; it is even claimed that the tower is the original Saxon. The circumstance that in the representation of the edifice in the Bayeux tapestry there is no tower has been urged against this theory, although architectural realism in embroidery has never been very noticeable. The bells (it is told) were once carried off in a Danish raid; but they brought their captors no luck—rather the reverse, since they so weighed upon the ship that she sank. When the present bells ring, the ancient submerged peal is said to ring also in sympathy at the bottom of the Channel—a pretty habit, which would suggest that bell metal is happily and wisely superior to changes of religion, were it not explained by the unromantic principles of acoustics.

A heavy pole, known as the staff of Bevis of Southampton (and Arundel), was of old kept in Bosham church.

At high water Bosham is the fair abode of peace. When every straggling arm of the harbour is brimming full, when their still surfaces reflect the sky with a brighter light, and the fishing boats ride erect, Bosham is serenely beautiful and restful. But at low tide she is a slut: the withdrawing floods lay bare vast tracts of mud; the ships heel over into attitudes disreputably oblique; stagnation reigns.

Chidham, by Bosham, is widely famous for its wheat. Chidham White, or Hedge, wheat was first produced a little more than a century ago by Mr. Woods, a farmer. He noticed one afternoon (probably on a Sunday, when farmers are most noticing) an unfamiliar patch of wheat growing in a hedge. It contained thirty ears, in which were fourteen hundred corns. Mr. Woods carefully saved it and sowed it. The crop was eight pounds and a half. These he sowed, and the crop was forty eight gallons. Thus it multiplied, until the time came to distribute it to other farmers at a high price. The cultivation of Chidham wheat by Mr. Woods at one side of the county, synchronised with the breeding of the best Southdown sheep by John Ellman at the other, as we shall see later.

South of Chichester stretches the Manhood peninsula, of which Selsey is the principal town: the part of Sussex most neglected by the traveller. In a county of hills the stranger is not attracted by a district that might almost have been hewn out of Holland. But the ornithologist knows its value, and in a world increasingly bustling and progressive there is a curious fascination in so remote and deliberate a region, over which, even in the finest weather and during the busiest harvest, a suggestion of desolation broods. Nothing, one feels, can ever introduce Success into this plain, and so thinking, one is at peace.

A tramway between Chichester and Selsey has to some extent opened up the east side of the peninsula, but the west is still remote and will probably remain so. The country is, however, not interesting: a dead level of dusty road and grass or arable land, broken only by hedges, dykes, white cottages, and the many homesteads within their ramparts of wind-swept elms. Wheat and oats are the prevailing crops, still for the most part cut and bound by hand. Of the villages in the centre of the peninsula Sidlesham is the most considerable, with its handsome square church tower and its huge red tide-mill, now silent and weather-worn, standing mournfully at the head of the dry harbour of Pagham, whose waters once turned its wheels. On the west, on the shores of the Bosham estuary, or Chichester Harbour, are the sleepy amphibious villages of Appledram, famous once for its salt and its smugglers, Birdham, and Earnley. Let no one be tempted to take a direct line across the fields from Selsey to Earnley, for dykes and canals must effectually stop him. Indeed, cross country walking in this part of the country is practically an impossibility, except by continuous deviations and doublings. In attempting one day to reach Earnley from Selsey in this way (after giving up the beach in despair), I came upon several adders, and I once found one crossing a road absolutely in Selsey.

Selsey is a straggling white village, or town, over populous with visitors in summer, empty, save for its regular inhabitants, in winter. The oldest and truest part of Selsey is a fishing village on the east shore of the Bill, a little settlement of tarred tenements and lobster pots. Selsey church, now on the confines of the town, once stood a mile or more away; whither it was removed (the stones being numbered) and, like Temple Bar, again set up. The chancel was, however, not removed, but left desolate in the fields.

Selsey Bill is a tongue of land projecting into a shallow sea. A lighthouse being useless to warn strange mariners of the sandbanks of this district, a lightship known as the Owers flashes its rays far out in the channel. The sea has played curious pranks on the Selsey coast. Beneath the beach and a large tract of the sea now lies what was once, four hundred years ago, a park of deer, which in its most prosperous day extended for miles. The shallow water covering it is still called the park by the fishermen, who drop their nets where the bucks and does of Selsey were wont to graze.

But the sea has obliterated more than the pasturage of the deer; a mile distant from the present shore stood the first monastery erected in Sussex after Wilfrid's conversion of the South Saxons to Christianity. Although Saint Wilfrid eventually found a home in Sussex and worked hard among its people, his first attempt to bring Christianity to the county was, according to his friend Edda's Vita Wilfridi, ill-starred. I quote the story:—

"A great gale blowing from the South-east, the swelling waves threw them on the unknown coast of the South Saxons. The sea too left the ship and men, and retreating from the land and leaving the shore uncovered, retired into the depths of the abyss.

"And the heathen, coming with a great army, intended to seize the ship, to divide the spoil of money, to take them captives forthwith, and to put to the sword those who resisted. To whom our great bishop spoke gently and peaceably, offering much money, wishing to redeem their souls.

"But they with stern and cruel hearts like Pharaoh would not let the people of the Lord go, saying proudly that, 'All that the sea threw on the land became as much theirs as their own property.'

"And the idolatrous chief priest of the heathen, standing on a lofty mound, strove like Balaam to curse the people of God, and to bind their hands by his magic arts.

"Then one of the bishop's companions hurled, like David, a stone, blessed by all the people of God, which struck the cursing magician in the forehead and pierced his brain, when an unexpected death surprised, as it did Goliath, falling back a corpse in sandy places.

"The heathen therefore preparing to fight, vainly attacked the people of God. But the Lord fought for the few, even as Gideon by the command of the Lord, with 300 warriors slew at one attack 12,000 of the Midianites.

"And so the comrades of our holy bishop, well-armed and brave, though few in number (they were 120 men, the number of the years of Moses), determined and agreed that none should turn his back in flight from the other, but would either win death with glory, or life with victory (for both alike are easy to the Lord). So S. Wilfrith with his clerk fell on his knees, and lifting his hands to Heaven again sought help from the Lord. For, as Moses triumphed when Hur and Aaron supported his hands, by frequently imploring the protection of the Lord, when Joshua the son of Nun was fighting with the people of God against Amalek, thus these few Christians after thrice repulsing the fierce and untamed heathen, routed them with great slaughter, with a loss strange to say of only five on their side.

"And their great priest (Wilfrith) prayed to the Lord his God, who immediately ordered the sea to return a full hour before its wont. So that when the heathen, on the arrival of their king, were preparing for a fourth attack with all their forces, the rising sea covered with its waves the whole of the shore, and floated the ship, which sailed into the deep. But, greatly glorified by God, and returning Him thanks, with a South wind they reached Sandwich, a harbour of safety."

The Sussex people, it would seem, do not take kindly to missionaries, for John Wesley records that he had less success in this county than in all England.

Between Selsey and Bognor lies Pagham, famous in the pages of Knox's Ornithological Rambles, but otherwise unknown. Of the lost glories of Pagham, which was once a harbour, but is now dry, let Mr. Knox speak:—"Here in the dead long summer days, when not a breath of air has been stirring, have I frequently remained for hours, stretched on the hot shingle, and gazed at the osprey as he soared aloft, or watched the little islands of mud at the turn of the tide, as each gradually rose from the receding waters, and was successively taken possession of by flocks of sandpipers and ring-dotterels, after various circumvolutions on the part of each detachment, now simultaneously presenting their snowy breasts to the sunshine, now suddenly turning their dusky backs, so that the dazzled eye lost sight of them from the contrast; while the prolonged cry of the titterel,[1] and the melancholy note of the peewit from the distant swamp, have mingled with the scream of the tern and the taunting laugh of the gull.

"Here have I watched the oyster-catcher, as he flew from point to point, and cautiously waded into the shallow water; and the patient heron, that pattern of a fisherman, as with retracted neck, and eyes fixed on vacancy, he has stood for hours without a single snap, motionless as a statue. Here, too, have I pursued the guillemot, or craftily endeavoured to cut off the retreat of the diver, by mooring my boat across the narrow passage through which alone he could return to the open sea without having recourse to his reluctant wings. Nor can I forget how often, during the Siberian winter of 1838, when 'a whole gale,' as the sailors have it, has been blowing from the north-east, I used to take up my position on the long and narrow ridge of shingle which separated this paradise from the raging waves without, and sheltered behind a hillock of seaweed, with my long duck-gun and a trusty double, or half buried in a hole in the sand, I used to watch the legions of water-birds as they neared the shore, and dropped distrustfully among the breakers, at a distance from the desired haven, until, gaining confidence from accession of numbers, some of the bolder spirits—the pioneers of the army—would flap their wings, rise from the white waves, and make for the calm water. Here they come! I can see the pied golden-eye pre-eminent among the advancing party; now the pochard, with his copper-coloured head and neck, may be distinguished from the darker scaup-duck; already the finger is on the trigger, when, perhaps, they suddenly veer to the right and left, far beyond the reach of my longest barrel or, it may be, come swishing overhead, and leave a companion or two struggling on the shingle or floating on the shallow waters of the harbour."

Pagham Harbour is now reclaimed, and where once was mud, or, at high tide, shallow water, is rank grass and thistles. One ship that seems to have waited a little too long before making for the open sea again, now lies high and dry, a forlorn hulk. Pagham church is among the airiest that I know, with a shingle spire, the counterpart of Bosham's on the other side of the peninsula.

The walk from Pagham to Bognor, along the sand, is uninspiring and not too easy, for the sand can be very soft. About a mile west of Bognor one is driven inland, just after passing as perfect an example of the simple yet luxurious seaside home as I remember to have seen: all on one floor, thatched, shaded by trees, surrounded by its garden and facing the Channel.

Among the unattractive types of town few are more dismal than the watering-place manqué. Bognor must, I fear, come under this heading. Its reputation, such as it is, was originally made by Princess Charlotte, daughter of George III., who found the air recuperative, and who was probably not unwilling to lend her prestige to a resort, as her brother George was doing at Brighton, and her sister Amelia had done at Worthing. But before the Princess Charlotte Sir Richard Hotham, the hatter, had come, determined at any cost to make the town popular. One of his methods was to rename it Hothampton. His efforts were, however, only moderately successful, and he died in 1799, leaving to what Horsfield calls "his astonished heirs" only £8,000 out of a great fortune. The name Hothampton soon vanished.

The local authorities of Bognor seem to be keenly alive to the value of enterprise, for their walls are covered with instructions as to what may or may not be done in the interests of cleanliness and popularity; a new sea-wall has been built; receptacles for waste paper continually confront one, and deck chairs at twopence for three hours are practically unavoidable. And yet Bognor remains a dull place, once the visitor has left his beach abode—tent or bathing box, whichever it may be. It seems to be a town without resources. But it has the interest, denied one in more fashionable watering-places, of presenting old and new Bognor at the same moment; not that old Bognor is really old, but it is instructive to see the kind of crescent which was considered the last word in architectural enterprise when our great-grandmothers were young and would take the sea air.

From Bognor it is a mere step to Felpham, a village less than a mile to the east. Whether or not one goes there to-day is a matter of taste; but a hundred years ago to omit a visit was to confess one's-self a boor, for William Hayley, the poet and friend of genius, lived there, and his castellated stucco house became a shrine. At that day it seems to have been no uncommon sight for the visitor to Bognor to be refreshed by the spectacle of the poet falling from his horse. According to his biographer, Cowper's Johnny of Norfolk, Hayley descended to earth almost as often as Alice's White Knight, partly from the high spirit of his steed, and partly from a habit which he never abandoned of wearing military spurs and carrying an umbrella. The memoir of the poet contains this agreeable passage: "The Editor was once riding gently by his side, on the stony beach of Bognor, when the wind suddenly reversed his umbrella as he unfolded it; his horse, with a single but desperate plunge, pitched him on his head in an instant. . . . On another occasion, on the same visit . . . . he was tost into the air on the Downs, at the precise moment when an interested friend whom they had just left, being apprehensive of what would happen, was anxiously viewing him from his window, through a telescope." Those who look through telescopes are rarely so fortunate. It is odd that Hayley, a delicate and heavy man suffering from hip-disease, should have taken so little hurt. Although he had a covered passage for horse exercise in the grounds of his villa, no amount of practice seems to have improved his seat. This covered way has been removed, but a mulberry tree planted by Hayley still flourishes.

Whenever Hayley was ill he became an object of intense interest to visitors at Bognor. Binsted's Library in the town exhibited a daily bulletin; and in 1819 the Prince and Princess of Saxe-Coburg called upon him, while the Princess of Hesse Homburg on her return sent a prescription from Germany.

Mrs. Opie, the novelist, who stayed with Mr. Hayley every summer, and also served as a magnet to devout sojourners at Bognor, has left an account of the poet's habits which is vastly more entertaining than his poetry. He rose at six or earlier and at once composed some devotional verse. At breakfast, he read to Mrs. Opie; afterwards Mrs. Opie read to him. At eleven they drank coffee, and before he dressed for dinner, a very temperate meal, Mrs. Opie sang. After dinner there was more reading aloud, the matter being either manuscript compositions of Mr. Hayley's, or modern publications. Mr. Hayley took cocoa and Mrs. Opie tea, and afterwards Mrs. Opie read aloud or sang. At nine, the servants came to prayers, which were original compositions of Mr. Hayley's, read by him in a very impressive manner, and before bed, Mrs. Opie sang one of Mr. Hayley's hymns.

Hayley's grave is at Felpham, and his epitaph by Mrs. Opie may be read by the industrious on the wall of the church. Among the many epitaphs on his neighbours by Hayley himself, who had a special knack of mortuary verse, is this on a Felpham blacksmith:—

           My sledge and hammer lie reclined;
           My bellows too have lost their wind;
           My fire's extinct; my forge decay'd,
           And in the dust my vice is laid;
           My coal is spent, my iron gone;
           The nails are driven—my work is done.


The last verses that Hayley wrote have more charm and delicacy than perhaps anything else among his works:

           Ye gentle birds that perch aloof,
           And smooth your pinions on my roof,
           Preparing for departure hence
           Ere winter's angry threats commence;
           Like you, my soul would smooth her plume
           For longer flights beyond the tomb.

           May God, by whom is seen and heard
           Departing man and wandering bird,
           In mercy mark us for his own,
           And guide us to the land unknown.

But it is not Hayley that gives its glory to Felpham. The glory of Felpham is that William Blake was happy there for nearly three years. It was at Felpham that he saw the fairy's funeral. "Did you ever see a fairy's funeral, ma'am?" he asked a visitor. "Never, sir!" "I have! . . . I was walking alone in my garden; there was great stillness among the branches and flowers, and more than common sweetness in the air; I heard a low and pleasant sound, and I knew not whence it came. At last I saw the broad leaf of a flower move, and underneath I saw a procession of creatures, of the size and colour of green and grey grasshoppers, bearing a body laid out on a rose-leaf, which they buried with songs, and then disappeared. It was a fairy's funeral!"

Blake settled at Felpham to be near Hayley, for whom he had a number of commissions to execute. He engraved illustrations to Hayley's works, and painted eighteen heads for Hayley's library—among them, Shakespeare, Homer, and Hayley himself; but all have vanished, the present owner knows not where.

In some verses which Blake addressed to Anna Flaxman, the wife of the sculptor, in September, 1800, a few days before moving from London to the Sussex coast, he says:—

           This song to the flower of Flaxman's joy;
           To the blossom of hope, for a sweet decoy;
           Do all that you can and all that you may
           To entice him to Felpham and far away.

           Away to sweet Felpham, for Heaven is there;
           The ladder of Angels descends through the air,
           On the turret its spiral does softly descend,
           Through the village then winds, at my cot it does end.

Blake's house still stands, a retired, thatched cottage, facing the sea, but some distance from it. In a letter to Flaxman a little later, he says, "Felpham is a sweet place for study, because it is more spiritual than London. Heaven opens here on all sides its golden gates; the windows are not obstructed by vapours; voices of celestial inhabitants are more distinctly heard, their forms more distinctly seen; and my cottage is also a shadow of their houses." Beside the sea Blake communed with the spirits of Dante and Homer, Milton and the Hebrew Prophets.

Blake's sojourn at Felpham ended in 1803. A grotesque and annoying incident marred its close, the story of which, as told by the poet in a letter to Mr. Butler, certainly belongs to the history of Sussex. It should, however, first be stated that an ex-soldier in the Royal Dragoons, named John Scholfield, had accused Blake of uttering seditious words. The letter runs:—"His enmity arises from my having turned him out of my garden, into which he was invited as an assistant by a gardener at work therein, without my knowledge that he was so invited. I desired him, as politely as possible, to go out of the garden; he made me an impertinent answer. I insisted on his leaving the garden; he refused. I still persisted in desiring his departure. He then threatened to knock out my eyes, with many abominable imprecations, and with some contempt for my person; it affronted my foolish pride. I therefore took him by the elbows, and pushed him before me until I had got him out. There I intended to have left him; but he, turning about, put himself into a posture of defiance, threatening and swearing at me. I, perhaps foolishly and perhaps not, stepped out at the gate, and, putting aside his blows, took him again by the elbows, and, keeping his back to me, pushed him forward down the road about fifty yards—he all the while endeavouring to turn round and strike me, and raging and cursing, which drew out several neighbours. At length when I had got him to where he was quartered, which was very quickly done, we were met at the gate by the master of the house—the Fox Inn—(who is the proprietor of my cottage) and his wife and daughter, and the man's comrade, and several other people. My landlord compelled the soldiers to go indoors, after many abusive threats against me and my wife from the two soldiers; but not one word of threat on account of sedition was uttered at that time."

As a result, Blake was haled before the magistrates and committed for trial. The trial was held in the Guildhall at Chichester, on January 11th, 1804. Hayley, in spite of having been thrown from his horse on a flint with, says Gilchrist, Blake's biographer, "more than usual violence" was in attendance to swear to the poet's character, and Cowper's friend Rose, a clever barrister, had been retained. According to the report in the County paper, "William Blake, an engraver at Felpham, was tried on a charge exhibited against him by two soldiers for having uttered seditious and treasonable expressions, such as 'd——n the king, d——n all his subjects, d——n his soldiers, they are all slaves; when Buonaparte comes, it will be cut-throat for cut-throat, and the weakest must go to the wall; I will help him; &c., &c.'" Blake electrified the court by calling out "False!" in the midst of the military evidence, the invented character of which was, however, so obvious that an acquittal resulted. "In defiance of all decency," the spectators cheered, and Hayley carried off the sturdy Republican (as he was at heart) to Mid Lavant, to sup at Mrs. Poole's.

Mr. Gilchrist found an old fellow who had been present at the trial, drawn thither by the promise of seeing the great man of the neighbourhood, Mr. Hayley. All that he could remember was Blake's flashing eye.

The Fox Inn, by the way, is still as it was, but the custom, I fancy, goes more to the Thatched House, which adds to the charms of refreshment a museum containing such treasures as a petrified cocoanut, the skeleton of a lobster twenty-eight years old, and a representation of Moses in the bulrushes.

A third and fourth great man, of a different type both from Hayley and Blake, met at Felpham in 1819. One was Cyril Jackson, Dean of Christ Church, who, lying on his death-bed in the Manor House, was visited by the other—his old pupil, the First Gentleman in Europe.

  1. The Sussex provincial name for the whimbrel.