Highways and Byways in Sussex/Chapter 23

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Highways and Byways in Sussex by Edward Verrall Lucas
Forest Country again

CHAPTER XXIII


FOREST COUNTRY AGAIN


Balcombe—The iron furnace and the iron horse—Leonard Gale of Tinsloe Forge—Mr. Wilfred Scawen Blunt of Crabbet—"The Old Squire"—Frederick Locker-Lampson of Rowfant—The Rowfant books—"To F. L."—The Rowfant titmice.


On leaving the train at Balcombe, one is quickly on the densely wooded Forest Ridge of Sussex, here fenced and preserved, but farther east, when it becomes Ashdown Forest, consisting of vast tracts of open moorland and heather. Balcombe has a simple church, protected by a screen of Scotch firs; its great merit is its position as the key to a paradise for all who like woodland travel. From Balcombe to Worth is one vast pheasant run, with here and there a keeper's cottage or a farm: originally, of course, a series of plantations growing furnace wood for the ironmasters. In Tilgate Forest, to the west of Balcombe Forest, are two large sheets of water, once hammer-ponds, walking west from which, towards Horsham, one may be said to traverse the Lake Country of Sussex. A strange transformation, from Iron Black Country to Lake Country!—but nature quickly recovers herself, and were the true Black Country's furnaces extinguished, she would soon make even that grimy tract a haunt of loveliness once more.

No longer are heard the sounds of the hammers, but Balcombe Forest, Tilgate Forest, and Worth Forest have still a constant reminder of machinery, for very few minutes pass from morning to night without the rumble of a train on the main line to Brighton, which passes through the very midst of this wild game region, and plunges into the earth under the high ground of Balcombe Forest. I know of no place where the trains emit such a volume of sound as in the valley of the Stanford brook, just north of the tunnel.

The noise makes it impossible ever quite to lose the sense of modernity in these woods, as one may on Shelley Plain, a few miles west, or at Gill's Lap, in Ashdown Forest; unless, of course, one's imagination is so complaisant as to believe it to proceed from the old iron furnaces. This reminds me that Crabbet, just to the north of Worth (where church and vicarage stand isolated on a sandy ridge on the edge of the Forest), was the home of one of the most considerable of the Sussex ironmasters, Leonard Gale of Tinsloe Forge, who bought Crabbet, park and house, in 1698—since "building," in his own words, is a "sweet impoverishing."

But we must pause for a moment at Worth, because its church is remarkable as being the largest in England to preserve its Saxon foundations. Sussex, as we have seen, is rich in Saxon relics, but the county has nothing more interesting than this. The church is cruciform, as all churches should be, and there is a little east window in the north transept through which, it is conjectured, arrows were intended to be shot at marauding Danes; for an Englishman's church was once his castle. Archæologists familiar with Worth church have been known to pass with disdain cathedrals for which the ordinary person cannot find too many fine adjectives.

To regain Crabbet. The present owner, Mr. Wilfred Scawen Blunt, poet, patriot, and breeder of Arab horses, who is a descendant of the Gales, has a long poem entitled "Worth Forest," wherein old Leonard Gale is a notable figure. Among other poems by the lord of Crabbet is the very pleasantly English ballad of

THE OLD SQUIRE.

     I like the hunting of the hare
       Better than that of the fox;
     I like the joyous morning air,
       And the crowing of the cocks.

     I like the calm of the early fields,
       The ducks asleep by the lake,
     The quiet hour which Nature yields
       Before mankind is awake.

     I like the pheasants and feeding things
       Of the unsuspicious morn;
     I like the flap of the wood-pigeon's wings
       As she rises from the corn.

     I like the blackbird's shriek, and his rush
       From the turnips as I pass by,
     And the partridge hiding her head in a bush,
       For her young ones cannot fly.

     I like these things, and I like to ride
       When all the world is in bed,
     To the top of the hill where the sky grows wide,
       And where the sun grows red.

     The beagles at my horse heels trot,
       In silence after me;
     There's Ruby, Roger, Diamond, Dot,
       Old Slut and Margery,—

     A score of names well used, and dear,
       The names my childhood knew;
     The horn, with which I rouse their cheer,
       Is the horn my father blew.

     I like the hunting of the hare
       Better than that of the fox;
     The new world still is all less fair
       Than the old world it mocks.

     I covet not a wider range
       Than these dear manors give;
     I take my pleasures without change,
       And as I lived I live.

     I leave my neighbours to their thought;
       My choice it is, and pride,
     On my own lands to find my sport,
       In my own fields to ride.

     The hare herself no better loves
       The field where she was bred,
     Than I the habit of these groves,
       My own inherited.

     I know my quarries every one,
       The meuse where she sits low;
     The road she chose to-day was run
       A hundred years ago.

     The lags, the gills, the forest ways;
       The hedgerows one and all,
     These are the kingdoms of my chase,
       And bounded by my wall.

     Nor has the world a better thing,
       Though one should search it round,
     Than thus to live one's own sole king,
       Upon one's own sole ground.

     I like the hunting of the hare;
       It brings me day by day,
     The memory of old days as fair,
       With dead men past away.

     To these, as homeward still I ply,
       And pass the churchyard gate,
     Where all are laid as I must lie,
       I stop and raise my hat.

     I like the hunting of the hare;
       New sports I hold in scorn.
     I like to be as my fathers were,
       In the days e'er I was born.

We are indeed just now in a bookish and poetical district, for a little more than a mile to the east of Crabbet, in a beautiful Tudor house in a hollow close to the station, lived Frederick Locker-Lampson, the London lyricist; and here are treasured the famous Rowfant books and manuscripts which he brought together—the subject of graceful verses by many of his friends. Not the least charming of these tributes (printed in the Rowfant Catalogue in 1886) are Mr. Andrew Lang's lines:

TO F. L.

     I mind that Forest Shepherd's saw,
       For, when men preached of Heaven, quoth he;
     "It's a' that's bricht, and a' that's braw,
       But Bourhope's guid eneuch for me!"

     Beneath the green deep-bosomed hills
       That guard Saint Mary's Loch it lies,
     The silence of the pasture fills
       That shepherd's homely paradise.

     Enough for him his mountain lake,
       His glen the hern went singing through,
     And Rowfant, when the thrushes wake,
       May well seem good enough for YOU.

     For all is old, and tried, and dear,
       And all is fair, and round about
     The brook that murmurs from the mere
       Is dimpled with the rising trout.

     But when the skies of shorter days
       Are dark and all the "ways are mire,"
     How bright upon your books the blaze
       Gleams from the cheerful study fire.

     On quartos where our fathers read,
       Enthralled, the Book of Shakespeare's play,
     On all that Poe could dream of dread,
       And all that Herrick sang of gay!

     Fair first editions, duly prized,
       Above them all, methinks, I rate
     The tome where Walton's hand revised
       His wonderful receipts for bait!

     Happy, who rich in toys like these
       Forgets a weary nation's ills,
     Who from his study window sees
       The circle of the Sussex hills.

Rowfant was once the scene of one of the most determined struggles in history. The contestants were a series of Titmice and the G.P.O., and the account of the war may be read in the Natural History Museum at South Kensington:—"In 1888, a pair of the Great Titmouse (Parus major) began to build their nest in the post-box which stood in the road at Rowfant, and into which letters, &c., were posted and taken out by the door daily. One of the birds was killed by a boy, and the nest was not finished. In 1889, a pair completed the nest, laid seven eggs, and began to sit; but one day, when an unusual number of post-cards were dropped into, and nearly filled, the box, the birds deserted the nest, which was afterwards removed with the eggs. In 1890, a pair built a new nest and laid seven eggs, and reared a brood of five young, although the letters posted were often found lying on the back of the sitting bird, which never left the nest when the door of the box was opened to take out the letters. The birds went in and out by the slit."