Highways and Byways in Sussex/Chapter 1

From Wikisource
Jump to: navigation, search
Vicinity of Midhurst.png


HIGHWAYS AND BYWAYS

IN

SUSSEX


CHAPTER I


MIDHURST


The fitting order of a traveller's progress—The Downs the true Sussex—Fashion at bay—Mr. Kipling's topographical creed—Midhurst's advantages—Single railway lines—Queen Elizabeth at Cowdray—Montagus domestic and homicidal—The curse of Cowdray—Dr. Johnson at Midhurst—Cowdray Park.


If it is better, in exploring a county, to begin with its least interesting districts and to end with the best, I have made a mistake in the order of this book: I should rather have begun with the comparatively dull hot inland hilly region of the north-east, and have left it at the cool chalk Downs of the Hampshire border. But if one's first impression of new country cannot be too favourable we have done rightly in starting at Midhurst, even at the risk of a loss of enthusiasm in the concluding chapters. For although historically, socially, and architecturally north Sussex is as interesting as south Sussex, the crown of the county's scenery is the Downs, and its most fascinating districts are those which the Downs dominate. The farther we travel from the Downs and the sea the less unique are our surroundings. Many of the villages in the northern Weald, beautiful as they are, might equally well be in Kent or Surrey: a visitor suddenly alighting in their midst, say from a balloon, would be puzzled to name the county he was in; but the Downs and their dependencies are essential Sussex. Hence a Sussex man in love with the Downs becomes less happy at every step northward.

One cause of the unique character of the Sussex Downs is their virginal security, their unassailable independence. They stand, a silent undiscovered country, between the seething pleasure towns of the seaboard plain and the trim estates of the Weald. Londoners, for whom Sussex has a special attraction by reason of its proximity (Brighton's beach is the nearest to the capital in point of time), either pause north of the Downs, or rush through them in trains, on bicycles, or in carriages, to the sea. Houses there are among the Downs, it is true, but they are old-established, the homes of families that can remember no other homes. There is as yet no fashion for residences in these altitudes. Until that fashion sets in (and may it be far distant) the Downs will remain essential Sussex, and those that love them will exclaim with Mr. Kipling,

          God gave all men all earth to love,
            But since man's heart is small,
          Ordains for each one spot shall prove
           Beloved over all.
          Each to his choice, and I rejoice
           The lot has fallen to me
          In a fair ground—in a fair ground—
            Yea, Sussex by the sea!

If we are to begin our travels in Sussex with the best, then Midhurst is the starting point, for no other spot has so much to offer: a quiet country town, gabled and venerable, unmodernised and unambitious, with a river, a Tudor ruin, a park of deer, heather commons, immense woods, and the Downs only three miles distant. Moreover, Midhurst is also the centre of a very useful little railway system, which, having only a single line in each direction, while serving the traveller, never annoys him by disfiguring the country or letting loose upon it crowds of vandals. Single lines always mean thinly populated country. As a pedestrian poet has sung:—

               My heart leaps up when I behold
                 A single railway line;
               For then I know the wood and wold
                 Are almost wholly mine.

And Midhurst being on no great high road is nearly always quiet. Nothing ever hurries there. The people live their own lives, passing along their few narrow streets and the one broad one, under the projecting eaves of timbered houses, unrecking of London and the world. Sussex has no more contented town.

The church, which belongs really to St. Mary Magdalen, but is popularly credited to St. Denis, was never very interesting, but is less so now that the Montagu tomb has been moved to Easebourne. Twenty years ago, I remember, an old house opposite the church was rumoured to harbour a pig-faced lady. I never had sight of her, but as to her existence and her cast of feature no one was in the least doubt. Pig-faced ladies (once so common) seem to have gone out, just as the day of Spring-heeled Jack is over. Sussex once had her Spring-heeled Jacks, too, in some profusion.

Cowdray Park is gained from the High Street, just below the Angel Inn, by a causeway through water meadows of the Rother. The house is now but a shell, never having been rebuilt since the fire which ate out its heart in 1793: yet a beautiful shell, heavily draped in rich green ivy that before very long must here and there forget its earlier duty of supporting the walls and thrust them too far from the perpendicular to stand. Cowdray, built in the reign of Henry VIII., did not come to its full glory until Sir Anthony Browne, afterwards first Viscount Montagu, took possession. The seal was put upon its fame by the visit of Queen Elizabeth in 1591 (Edward VI. had been banqueted there by Sir Anthony in 1552, "marvellously, nay, rather excessively," as he wrote), as some return for the loyalty of her host, who, although an old man, in 1588,

Cowdray House.png

Cowdray.

on the approach of the Armada, had ridden straightway to Tilbury, with his sons and his grandson, the first to lay the service of his house at her Majesty's feet. A rare pamphlet is still preserved describing the festivities during Queen Elizabeth's sojourn. On Saturday, about eight o'clock, her Majesty reached the house, travelling from Farnham, where she had dined. Upon sight of her loud music sounded. It stopped when she set foot upon the bridge, and a real man, standing between two wooden dummies whom he exactly resembled, began to flatter her exceedingly. Until she came, he said, the walls shook and the roof tottered, but one glance from her eyes had steadied the turret for ever. He went on to call her virtue immortal and herself the Miracle of Time, Nature's Glory, Fortune's Empress, and the World's Wonder. Elizabeth, when he had made an end, took the key from him and embraced Lady Montagu and her daughter, the Lady Dormir; whereupon "the mistress of the house (as it were weeping in the bosome) said, 'O happie time! O joyfull daie!'"

These preliminaries over, the fun began. At breakfast next morning three oxen and a hundred and forty geese were devoured. On Monday, August 17th, Elizabeth rode to her bower in the park, took a crossbow from a nymph who sang a sweet song, and with it shot "three or four" deer, carefully brought within range. After dinner, standing on one of the turrets she watched sixteen bucks "pulled down with greyhounds" in a lawn. On Tuesday, the Queen was approached by a pilgrim, who first called her "Fairest of all creatures," and expressed the wish that the world might end with her life and then led her to an oak whereon were hanging escutcheons of her Majesty and all the neighbouring noblemen and gentlemen. As she looked, a "wilde man" clad all in ivy appeared and delivered an address on the importance of loyalty. On Wednesday, the Queen was taken to a goodlie fish-pond (now a meadow) where was an angler. After some words from him a band of fishermen approached, drawing their nets after them; whereupon the angler, turning to her Majesty, remarked that her virtue made envy blush and stand amazed. Having thus spoken, the net was drawn and found to be full of fish, which were laid at Elizabeth's feet. The entry for this day ends with the sentence, "That evening she hunted." On Thursday the lords and ladies dined at a table forty-eight yards long, and there was a country dance with tabor and pipe, which drew from her Majesty "gentle applause." On Friday, the Queen knighted six gentlemen and passed on to Chichester.

A year later the first Lord Montagu died. He was succeeded by another Anthony, the author of the "Book of Orders and Rules" for the use of the family at Cowdray, and the dedicatee of Anthony Copley's Fig for Fortune, 1596. Copley has a certain Sussex interest of his own, having astonished not a little the good people of Horsham. A contemporary letter describes him as "the most desperate youth that liveth. He did shoot at a gentleman last summer, and did kill an ox with a musket, and in Horsham church he threw his dagger at the parish clerk, and it stuck in a seat of the church. There liveth not his like in England for sudden attempts." Subsequently the conspirator-poet must have calmed down, for he states in the dedication to my lord that he is "now winnowed by the fan of grace and Zionry." To-day he would say "saved." Copley, after narrowly escaping capital punishment for his share in a Jesuit plot, disappeared.

The instructions given in Lord Montagu's "Booke of Orders and Rules" illustrate very vividly the generous amplitude of the old Cowdray establishment. Thus:—

MY CARVER AND HIS OFFICE.

I will that my carver, when he cometh to the ewerye boorde, doe there washe together with the Sewer, and that done be armed (videlt.) with an armeinge towell cast about his necke, and putt under his girdle on both sides, and one napkyn on his lefte shoulder, and an other on the same arme; and thence beinge broughte by my Gentleman Usher to my table, with two curteseyes thereto, the one about the middest of the chamber, the other when he cometh to ytt, that he doe stande seemely and decently with due reverence and sylence, untill my dyett and fare be brought uppe, and then doe his office; and when any meate is to be broken uppe that he doe carrye itt to a syde table, which shalbe prepared for that purpose and there doe ytt; when he hath taken upp the table, and delivered the voyder to the yeoman Usher, he shall doe reverence and returne to the ewrye boorde there to be unarmed. My will is that for that day he have the precedence and place next to my Gentleman Usher at the wayter's table.


MY GENTLEMEN WAYTERS.

{{size|s|I will that some of my Gentlemen Wayters harken when I or my wiffe att any tyme doe walke abroade, that they may be readye to give their attendance uppon us, some att one tyme and some att another as they shall agree amongst themselves; but when strangeres are in place, then I will that in any sorte they be readye to doe such service for them as the Gentleman Usher shall directe. I will further that they be dayly presente in the greate chamber or other place of my dyett about tenn of the clocke in the forenoone and five in the afternoone without fayle for performance of my service, unles they have license from my Stewarde or Gentleman Usher to the contrarye, which if they exceede, I will that they make knowne the cause thereof to my Stewarde, who shall acquaynte me therewithall. I will that they dyne and suppe att a table appoynted for them, and there take place nexte after the Gentlemen of my Horse and chamber, accordinge to their seniorityes in my service.}}

The third Viscount Montagu was not remarkable, but his account books are quaint reading. From July, 1657, to July, 1658, his steward spent £1,945 10s. solely in little personal matters for his master. Among the disbursements were, on September 11th, fourteen pence "for washing Will Stapler"; on November 22nd, 1s. 4d. to the Lewes carrier "for bringing a box of puddings for my mistress and my master"; on January 17th, £4 to "Mr. Fiske the dancing-master for teaching my master to dance, being two months"; and on April 21st, seven shillings "for a Tooth for my Lord."

The fifth Viscount was a man of violent temper. On reaching Mass one day and finding it half done, he drew his pistol and shot the chaplain. The outcry all over the country was loud and vengeful, and my lord lay concealed for fifteen years in a hiding-hole contrived in the masonry of Cowdray for the shelter of persecuted priests. The peer emerged only at night, when he roamed the close walks, repentant and sad. Lady Montagu would then steal out to him, dressing all in white to such good purpose that the desired rumours of a ghost soon flew about the neighbourhood.

The curse of Cowdray, which, if genuinely pronounced, has certainly been wonderfully fulfilled, dates from the gift of Battle Abbey by Henry VIII. to Sir Anthony Browne, the father of Queen Elizabeth's host and friend. Sir Anthony seized his new property, and turned the monks out of the gates, in 1538. Legend says that as the last monk departed, he warned his despoiler that by fire and water his line should perish. By fire and water it perished indeed. A week after Cowdray House was burned, in 1793, the last Viscount Montagu was drowned in the Rhine. His only sister (the wife of Mr. Stephen Poyntz) who inherited, was the mother of two sons both of whom were drowned while bathing at Bognor. When Mr. Poyntz sold the estate to the Earl of Egmont, we may suppose the curse to have been withdrawn.

Among the treasures that were destroyed in the fire were the Roll of Battle Abbey and many paintings. Dr. Johnson visited Cowdray a few years before its demolition; "Sir," he said to Boswell, "I should like to stay here four-and-twenty hours. We see here how our ancestors lived." According to the Tour of Great Britain, attributed to Daniel Defoe, but probably by another hand, Cowdray's hall was of Irish oak. In the large parlour were the triumphs of Henry VIII. by Holbein. In the long gallery were the Twelve Apostles "as large as life"; while the marriage of Cupid and Psyche, a tableau that never failed to please our ancestors, was not wanting.

The glory of the Montagus has utterly passed. The present Earl of Egmont is either an absentee or he lives in a cottage near the gates; and the new house, which is hidden in trees, is of no interest. The park, however, is still ranged by its beautiful deer, and still possesses an avenue of tulip[1] trees and rolling wastes of turf. It is everywhere as free as a heath.

  1. Errata last line but one for "tulip" read "chestnut." (Wikisource contributor note)