Highways and Byways in Sussex/Chapter 8

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CHAPTER VIII


LITTLEHAMPTON


A children's paradise—Wind-swept villages—Cary and Coleridge—Sussex folklore—Climping—Richard Jefferies and Sussex—John Taylor the Water Poet—Highdown Hill—A miller in love with death—A digression on mills and millers—Treason at Patching—A wife in a thousand—A Sussex truffler—The Palmer triplets.


Littlehampton is favoured in having both sea and river. It also has lawns between the houses and the beach, as at Dieppe, and is as nearly a children's paradise as exists. The sea at low tide recedes almost beyond the reach of the ordinary paddler, which is as it should be except for those that would swim. A harbour, a pier, a lighthouse, a windmill—all these are within a few yards of each other. On the neighbouring beach, springing from the stones, you find the yellow-horned poppy, beautiful both in flower and leaf, and the delicate tamarisk makes a natural hedge parallel with the sea, to Worthing on the one side, and to Bognor on the other.

The little villages in the flats behind the eastern tamarisk hedge—Rustington, Preston, Ferring, are, in summer, veritable sun traps, with their white walls dazzling in radiance. Such trees as grow about here all bow to the north-east, bent to that posture by the prevailing south-west winds. A Sussex man, on the hills or south of them, lost at night, has but to ascertain the outline of a tree, and he may get his bearings. If he cannot see so much as that he has but to feel the bark for lichen, which grows on the north east, or lee, side.

It was at Littlehampton in September, 1817, that Coleridge met Cary, the translator of Dante. Cary was walking on the beach, reciting Homer to his son. Up came a noticeable man with large grey eyes: "Sir, yours is a face I should know. I am Samuel Taylor Coleridge."

The county paper for February 27, 1796, has this paragraph: "On Monday last a duel was fought betwixt Mr. R——n and Lieut. B——y, both of Littlehampton, in a field near that place, which, after the discharge of each a pistol, terminated without bloodshed. The dispute, we understand, originated about a pew in the parish church."

A local proverb says that if you eat winkles in March it is as good as a dose of medicine; which reminds me that Sussex has many wise sayings of its own. Here is a piece of Sussex counsel in connection with the roaring month:—


If from fleas you would be free,
On the first of March let all your windows closed be.

I quote two other rhymes:—

If you would wish your bees to thrive
Gold must be paid for every hive;
For when they're bought with other money
There will be neither swarm nor honey.

The first butterfly you see,
Cut off his head across your knee,
Bury the head under a stone
And a lot of money will be your own.

On Whit Sunday the devout Sussex man eats roast veal and gooseberry pudding. A Sussex child born on Sunday can neither be hanged nor drowned.

West of Littlehampton is an architectural treasure, in the shape of Climping church, which no one should miss. The way is over the ferry and along the road to the first signboard, when one strikes northward towards Ford, and comes suddenly upon this squat and solid fane. A Saxon church stood here, built by the Prioress of Leominster, before the Conquest: to Roger de Montgomerie was the manor given by the Conqueror, as part of the earldom of Arundel and Chichester, together with Atherington manor, much of which is now, like Selsey's park, under the Channel. De Montgomerie gave Climping manor to the nuns of Almanesches, by whom the present Norman fortress-tower (with walls 4¼ feet thick) was added, and in 1253 John de Climping, the vicar, rebuilt the remainder. The church is thus six and a half centuries old, and parts of it are older. "Bosham, for antiquity; Boxgrove, for beauty; and Climping, for perfection" is the dictum of an antiquary quoted by the present vicar in a little pamphlet-history of his parish. As regards the Norman doorway, at any rate, he is right: there is nothing in Sussex to excel that; while in general architectural attraction the building is of the richest. It is also a curiously homely and ingratiating church.

One of the new windows, representing St. Paul, has a peculiar interest, as the vicar tells us:—"St. Paul was a prisoner at Rome shortly after Caractacus, the British Chief, whose daughter, Claudia, married Pudens, both friends of the Apostle (2 Tim. iv. 21). Pudens afterwards commanded the Roman soldiers stationed at Regnum (Chichester), and if St. Paul came to Britain, at Claudia's request (as ancient writers testify), he certainly would visit Sussex. How close this brings us here in Sussex to the Bible story!"

At Baylies Court, now a farmhouse, the Benedictine monks of Seez, also protégés of Robert de Montgomerie, had their chapel, remains of which are still to be seen.

Climping, which otherwise lives its own life, is the resort of golfers (who to the vicar's regret play all Sunday and turn Easter Day into "a Heathen Festival") and of the sportsmen of the Sussex Coursing Club, who find that the terrified Climping hare gives satisfaction beyond most in the county.

Of Ford, north of Climping, there is nothing to say, except that popular rumour has it that its minute and uninteresting church (the antithesis of Climping) was found one day by accident in a bed of nettles.

A good eastern walk from Littlehampton takes one by the sea to Goring, and then inland over Highdown Hill to Angmering, and so to Littlehampton again or to Arundel, our present centre. Goring touches literature in two places. The great house was built by Sir Bysshe Shelley, grandfather of the poet; and in the village died, in 1887, Richard Jefferies, author of The Story of My Heart, after a life of ill-health spent in the service of nature. Many beautiful and sympathetic descriptions of Sussex are scattered about in Jefferies' books of essays, notably, "To Brighton," "The South Down Shepherd," and "The Breeze on Beachy Head" in Nature near London; "Clematis Lane," "Nature near Brighton," "Sea, Sky and Down," and "January in the Sussex Woods" in The Life of the Fields; "Sunny Brighton" in The Open Air, and "The Country-Side, Sussex" and "Buckhurst Park" in Field and Hedgerow. Jefferies had a way of blending experiences and concealing the names of places, which makes it difficult to know exactly what part of Sussex he is describing; but I think I could lead anyone to Clematis Lane. I might, by the way, have remarked of South Harting that the luxuriance of the clematis in its hedges is unsurpassed.

John Taylor, the water poet, has a doggerel narrative entitled "A New Discovery by Sea with a Wherry from London to Salisbury," 1623, wherein he mentions a woful night with fleas at Goring, and pens a couplet worthy to take a place with the famous description of a similar visitation in Eothen:—

            Who in their fury nip'd and skip'd so hotly,
            That all our skins were almost turned to motley.

Taylor gives us in the same record a pleasant picture of the Sussex constable in 1623:—

            The night before a Constable there came,
          Who asked my trade, my dwelling, and my name,

          My businesse, and a troupe of questions more,
          And wherefore we did land vpon that shore?
          To whom I fram'd my answers true and fit,
          (According to his plenteous want of wit)
          But were my words all true or if I ly'd
          With neither I could get him satisfi'd.
          He ask'd if we were Pyrats? We said No,
          (As if we had we would haue told him so)
          He said that Lords sometimes would enterprise
          T' escape and leaue the Kingdome in disguise:
          But I assur'd him on my honest word
          That I was no disguisèd Knight or Lord.
          He told me then that I must goe sixe miles
          T' a Justice there, Sir John or else Sir Giles:
          I told him I was lothe to goe so farre,
          And he told me he would my journey barre.
          Thus what with Fleas and with the seuerall prates
          Of th' officer, and his Ass-sociats
          We arose to goe, but Fortune bade us stay:
          The Constable had stolne our oares away,
          And borne them thence a quarter of a mile
          Quite through a Lane beyond a gate and stile;
          And hid them there to hinder my depart,
          For which I wish'd him hang'd with all my heart.
          A plowman (for us) found our Oares againe,
          Within a field well fil'd with Barley Graine.
            Then madly, gladly, out to sea we thrust,
          'Gainst windes and stormes, and many a churlish Gust,
          By Kingston Chappelle and by Rushington,
          By Little-Hampton and by Middleton.

Highdown, above Goring, is a good hill in itself, conical in shape, as a hill should be according to the exacting ideas of childhood, with a sweeping view of the coast and the Channel; but its fame as a resort of holiday makers comes less from its position and height than from the circumstance that John Oliver is buried upon it. John Oliver was the miller of Highdown Hill. When not grinding corn he seems to have busied himself with thoughts upon the necessary end of all things, to such an extent that his meditations on the subject gradually became a mania. His coffin was made while he was still a young man, and it remained under his bed until its time was ripe, fitted—to bring it to a point of preparedness unusual even with the Chinese, those masters of anticipatory obsequies—with wheels, which the miller, I doubt not, regularly oiled. John Oliver did not stop there. Having his coffin comfortably at hand, he proceeded to erect his tomb. This was built in 1766, with tedious verses upon it from the miller's pen; while in an alcove near the tomb was a mechanical arrangement of death's-heads which might keep the miller's thoughts from straying, when, as with Dr. Johnson's philosopher, cheerfulness would creep in.

The miller lived in the company of his coffin, his tomb, and his mementi mori, until 1793, when at the age of eighty-four his hopes were realised. Those who love death die old.

Between two and three thousand persons attended the funeral; no one was permitted to wear any but gay clothes; and the funeral sermon was read by a little girl of twelve, from the text, Micah vii. 8, 9.

The mill of John Oliver has vanished, nothing but a depression in the turf now indicating where its foundations stood. Too many Sussex windmills have disappeared. Clayton still has her twain, landmarks for many miles—I have seen them on exceptionally clear days from the Kentish hills—and other windmills are scattered over the county; but many more than now exist have ceased to be, victims of the power of steam. There is probably no contrast æsthetically more to the disadvantage of the modern substitute than that of the steam mill of to-day with the windmill of yesterday. The steam mill is always ugly, always dusty, always noisy, usually in a town. The windmill stands high and white, a thing of life and radiance and delicate beauty, surrounded by grass, in communion with the heavens. Such noise as it has is elemental, justifiable, like a ship's cordage in a gale. No one would paint a steam mill; a picture with a windmill can hardly be a failure. Constable, who knew everything about the magic of windmills, painted several in Sussex—one even at Brighton.

Brighton now has but one mill. There used to be many: one in the West Hill road, a comelier landmark than the stucco Congregational tower that has taken its place close by and serves as the town's sentinel from almost every point of approach. In 1797 a miller near Brighton anticipated American enterprise by moving his mill bodily to a place two miles distant by the help of eighty oxen.

Another weakness of steam mills is that they are apparently without millers—at least there is no unmistakable dominating presence in a white hat, to whom one can confidently apply the definite article, as in the mill on the hill. Millers' men there are in plenty, but the miller is lacking. This is because steam mills belong to companies. Thus, with the passing of the windmill we lose also the miller, that notable figure in English life and tradition; always jolly, if the old songs are true; often eccentric, as the story of John Oliver has shown; and usually a character, as becomes one who lives by the four winds, or by water—for the miller of tradition was often found in a water-mill too. The water-miller's empire has been threatened less than that of the windmill, for there is no sudden cessation of water power as of wind power. Sussex still has many water-mills—cool and splashing homes of peaceful bustle. Long may they endure.

Highdown Hill has other associations. In 1812 the Gentlemen of the Weald met the Gentlemen of the Sea-coast at cricket on its dividing summit. The game, which was for one hundred guineas, was a very close thing, the Gentlemen of the Weald winning by only seven runs. Among the Gentlemen of the Sea-coast was Mr. Osbaldeston, while the principal Gentleman of the Weald was Mr. E. H. Budd.

A mile north of Highdown Hill, in a thickly wooded country, are Patching and Clapham; Patching celebrated for its pond, which washes the high-road to Arundel, and Clapham for its woods. Three hundred and more years ago Patching Copse was the scene of a treasonable meeting between William Shelley, an ancestor of the poet, one branch of whose family long held Michelgrove (where Henry VIII. was entertained by our plotter's grandfather), and Charles Paget: sturdy Roman Catholics both, who thus sought each other out, on the night of September 16, 1583, to confer as to the possibility of invading England, deposing Elizabeth, and setting Mary Queen of Scots upon the throne. Nothing came of the plot save the imprisonment of Shelley (who was condemned to death but escaped the sentence) and the flight of Paget, to hatch further treason abroad.

The last Shelley to hold Michelgrove, now no more, was Sir John, who, after it had been in the family for three hundred and fifty years, sold it in 1800. This was the Sir John Shelley who composed the following epitaph in Clapham church (one of Sir Gilbert Scott's restorations) to commemorate the very remarkable virtues of his lady—untimely snatched from his side:—

Here Lyeth the Body of Wilhelmina Shelley
who departed this Life the 21st of March 1772
Aged Twenty three years.

She was a pattern for the World to follow:
Such a being both in form and mind perhaps never existed before.
A most dutiful, affectionate, and Virtuous Wife,
A most tender and Anxious parent,
A most sincere and constant Friend,
A most amiable and elegant companion;
Universally Benevolent, generous, and humane;
The Pride of her own Sex,
The admiration of ours.
She lived universally belov'd, and admir'd
She died as generally rever'd, and regretted,
A loss felt by all who had the happiness of knowing Her,
By none to be compar'd to that of her disconsolate, affectionate, Loving,
& in this World everlastingly Miserable Husband,
Sir JOHN SHELLEY,
Who has caused this inscription to be Engrav'd.

Horsfield tells us that "the beechwoods in this parish [Patching] and its immediate neighbourhood are very productive of the Truffle (Lycoperdon tuber). About forty years ago William Leach came from the West Indies, with some hogs accustomed to hunt for truffles, and proceeding along the coast from the Land's End, in Cornwall, to the mouth of the River Thames, determined to fix on that spot where he found them most abundant. He took four years to try the experiment, and at length settled in this parish, where he carried on the business of truffle-hunter till his death."

Angmering, which we may take on our return to Arundel, is a typically dusty Sussex village, with white houses and thatched roofs, and a rather finer church than most. On our way back to Arundel, in the middle of a wood, a little more than a mile from Angmering, to the west, we come upon an interesting relic of a day when tables bore nobler loads than now they do: a decoy pond formed originally to supply wild duck to the kitchen of Arundel Castle, but now no longer used. The long tapering tunnels of wire netting, into which the tame ducks of the decoy lured their wild cousins, are still in place, although the wire has largely perished.

At an old house near the Decoy (now converted into cottages), which any native will gladly and amusedly point out, lived, in the reign of Henry VIII., Lady Palmer, the famous mother of the Palmer triplets, who were distinguished from other triplets, not only by being born each on a successive Sunday but by receiving each the honour of knighthood. The curious circumstances of their birth seem to be well attested.