Highways and Byways in Sussex/Chapter 24
Sackville College—John Mason Neale—Theodosius; or, The Force of Love, at the East Grinstead Theatre—Three martyrs—Brambletye House—Forest Row—The garden of the author of The English Flower Garden—Diamond Jubilee clock-faces—"Big-on-Little" and the reverend and irreverend commentator.
The town, when it would be frivolous, to-day depends upon the occasional visits of travelling entertainers; but in the eighteenth century East Grinstead had a theatre of its own, in the main street, a play-bill of which, for May, 1758, is given in Boaden's Life of Mrs. Siddons. It states that "Theodosius; or, the
East Grinstead, the capital of north-east Sussex, is interesting chiefly for Sackville College, that haunt of ancient peace of which John Mason Neale, poet, enthusiast, divine, historian, and romance-writer for children, was for many years the distinguished Warden. Nothing can exceed the quiet restfulness of the quadrangle. The college gives shelter to five brethren and six sisters (one of whom shows the visitor over the building), and to a warden and two assistants. Happy collegians, to have so fair a haven in which to pass the evening of life. East Grinstead otherwise has not much beauty, its commanding pinnacled church tower being more impressive from a distance, and its chief street mingling too much that is new with its few old timbered façades, charming though these are.
The Judge's House, East Grinstead
The play-bill continues with a delicate hint: "Nothing in Italy can exceed the altar in the first scene of the play. Nevertheless, should any of the nobility or gentry wish to see it ornamented with flowers, the bearer will bring away as many as they choose to favour him with." Finally: "N.B.—The great yard dog that made so much noise on Thursday night during the last act of King Richard the Third, will be sent to a neighbour's over the way."
The Sussex Martyrs, to whom a memorial, as we shall see, has recently been raised above Lewes, are usually associated with that town; but on July 18, 1556, Thomas Dungate, John Forman, and Anne, or Mother, Tree, were burned for conscience' sake at East Grinstead.
Between East Grinstead and Forest Row, on the east, just under the hill and close to the railway, are the remains of Brambletye House, a rather florid ruin, once the seat of the great Sussex family of Lewknor. In its heyday Brambletye must have been a very fine place. Horace Smith's romance which bears its name, and for which Horsfield, in his History of Sussex, predicted a career commensurable with that of the Waverley novels, is now, I fear, justly forgotten. The slopes of Forest Row, which was of old a settlement of hunting lodges belonging to the great lords who took their pleasure in Ashdown Forest, are now bright with new villas. From Forest Row, Wych Cross and Ashdown Forest are easily gained; but of this open region of dark heather more in a later chapter.
Between Kingscote and West Hoathly, a short distance to the south-west of East Grinstead, is another "tye"—Gravetye, a tudor mansion in a deep hollow, the home of Mr. William Robinson, the author of The English Flower Garden. Last April, the stonework, of which there is much, was a mass of the most wonderful purple aubretia, and the wild garden between the house and the water a paradise of daffodils.
The church of West Hoathly (called West Ho-ly), which stands high on the hill to the south, has a slender shingled spire that may be seen from long distances. The tower has, however, been injured by the very ugly new clock that has been lately fixed in a position doubtless the most convenient but doubtless also the least comely. To nail to such a delicate structure as West Hoathly church the kind of dial that one expects to see outside a railway station is a curious lapse of taste. Hever church, in Kent, has a similar blemish, probably dating from one of the recent Jubilee celebrations, which left few loyal villages the richer by a beautiful memorial. Surely it should be possible to obtain an appropriate clock-face for such churches as these.
West Hoathly has some iron tombstones, such as used to be cast in the old furnace days, which are not uncommon in these parts. Opposite the church is a building of great antiquity, which has been allowed to forget its honourable age.
We are now on the fringe of the Sussex rock country, to which we come again in earnest when we reach Maresfield, and of which Tunbridge Wells is the capital. But not even Tunbridge Wells with its famous toad has anything to offer more remarkable than West Hoathly's "Big-on-Little," in the Rockhurst estate. I am tempted to quote two descriptions of the rock, from two very different points of view. An antiquary writing in the eighteenth century (quoted by Horsfield) thus begins his account:—"About half a mile west of West Hoadley church there is a high ridge covered with wood; the edge of this is a craggy cliff, composed of enormous blocks of sand stone. The soil hath been entirely washed from off them, and in many places, from the interstices by which they are divided, one perceives these crags with bare broad white foreheads, and, as it were, overlooking the wood, which clothes the valley at their feet. In going to the place, I passed across this deep valley, and was led by a narrow foot-path almost trackless up to the cliff, which seems as one advances to hang over one's head. The mind in this passage is prepared with all the suspended feelings of awe and reverence, and as one approaches this particular rock, standing with its stupendous bulk poised, seemingly in a miraculous manner and point, one is struck with amazement. The recess in which it stands hath, behind this rock, and the rocks which surround it, a withdrawn and recluse passage which the eye cannot look into but with an idea of its coming from some more secret and holy adyt. All these circumstances, in an age of tutored superstition, would give, even to the finest minds, the impressions that lead to idolatry."
And this is Cobbett's description, in the Rural Rides:—"At the place, of which I am now speaking, that is to say, by the side of this pleasant road to Brighton, and between Turner's Hill and Lindfield, there is a rock, which they call 'Big upon Little,' that is to say, a rock upon another, having nothing else to rest upon, and the top one being longer and wider than the top of the one it lies on. This big rock is no trifling concern, being as big, perhaps, as a not very small house. How, then, came this big upon little? What lifted up the big? It balances itself naturally enough; but what tossed it up? I do not like to pay a parson for teaching me, while I have God's own Word to teach me; but if any parson will tell me how big came upon little, I do not know that I shall grudge him a trifle. And if he cannot tell me this; if he say, All that we have to do is to admire and adore; then I tell him, that I can admire and adore without his aid, and that I will keep my money in my pocket." That is pure Cobbett.
West Hoathly is in the midst of some of the best of the inland country of Sussex and an excellent centre for the walker. Several places that we have already seen are within easy distance, such as Horsted Keynes, Worth and Worth Forest and Balcombe and Balcombe Forest.