Highways and Byways in Sussex/Chapter 18

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Highways and Byways in Sussex by Edward Verrall Lucas
Rottingdean and Wheatears

CHAPTER XVIII


ROTTINGDEAN AND WHEATEARS


Ovingdean—Charles II.—The introduction of Mangel Wurzel—Rottingdean as a shrine—Mr. Kipling's Sussex poem—Thomas Fuller on the Wheatear—Mr. Hudson's description of the traps—The old prosperous days for shepherds—Luring larks—A fight on the beach—The town that failed.


Beyond Kemp Town's serene and silent line of massive houses is the new road that leads to Rottingdean. The old road fell into the sea some few years ago—the fourth or fifth to share that fate. But the pleasantest way thither is on foot over the turf that tops the white cliffs.

By diverging inland between Brighton and Rottingdean, just beyond the most imposing girls' school in the kingdom, Ovingdean is reached, one of the nestling homesteads of the Downs. It is chiefly known as providing Harrison Ainsworth with the very pretty title of one of his stories, Ovingdean Grange. The gallant novelist, however, was a poor historian in this book, for Charles the Second, as we have seen, never set foot east of Brighton on the occasion of his journey of escape over the Sussex Downs. The legend that lodges him at Ovingdean, although one can understand how Ovingdean must cherish it, cannot stand. (Mock Beggars' Hall, in the same romance, is Southover Grange at Lewes.)

Peace hath her victories no less renowned than war. Ovingdean is famous not only for its false association with Charles the Second but as the burial place of Thomas Pelling, an old-time Vicar, "the first person who introduced Mangul Wurzel into England."

Rottingdean to-day must be very much of the size of Brighton two centuries ago, before fashion came upon it; but the little village is hardly likely ever to creep over its surrounding hills in the same way. The past few years, however, have seen its growth from an obscure and inaccessible settlement to a shrine. It is only of quite recent date that a glimpse of Rottingdean has become almost as necessary to the Brighton visitor as the journey to the Dyke. Had the Legend of the Briar Rose never been painted; had Mulvaney, Ortheris and Learoyd remained unchronicled and the British soldier escaped the label "Absent-minded Beggar," Rottingdean might still be invaded only occasionally; for it was when, following Sir Edward Burne-Jones, Mr. Rudyard Kipling found the little white village good to make a home in, that its public life began. Although Mr. Kipling has now gone farther into the depths of the county, and the great draughtsman, some of whose stained glass designs are in the church, is no more, the habit of riding to Rottingdean is likely, however, to persist in Brighton. The village is quaint and simple (particularly so after the last 'bus is stabled), but it is valuable rather as the key to some of the finest solitudes of the Downs, in the great uninhabited hill district between the Race Course at Brighton and Newhaven, between Lewes and the sea, than for any merits of its own. One other claim has it, however, on the notice of the pilgrim: William Black lies in the churchyard.

Mr. Kipling, as I have said, has now removed his household gods farther inland, to Burwash, but his heart and mind must be still among the Downs. The Burwash country, good as it is, can (I think) never inspire him to such verse as he wrote in The Five Nations on the turf hills about his old home:—

          No tender-hearted garden crowns,
            No bosomed woods adorn
          Our blunt, bow-headed, whale-backed Downs,
            But gnarled and writhen thorn—
          Bare slopes where chasing shadows skim,
            And through the gaps revealed
          Belt upon belt, the wooded, dim
            Blue goodness of the Weald.

          Clean of officious fence or hedge,
            Half-wild and wholly tame,
          The wise turf cloaks the white cliff edge
            As when the Romans came.
          What sign of those that fought and died
            At shift of sword and sword?
          The barrow and the camp abide,
            The sunlight and the sward.

          Here leaps ashore the full Sou'west
            All heavy-winged with brine,
          Here lies above the folded crest
            The Channel's leaden line;
          And here the sea-fogs lap and cling,
            And here, each warning each,
          The sheep-bells and the ship-bells ring
            Along the hidden beach.

          We have no waters to delight
            Our broad and brookless vales—
          Only the dewpond on the height
            Unfed, that never fails,
          Whereby no tattered herbage tells
            Which way the season flies—
          Only our close-bit thyme that smells
            Like dawn in Paradise.

          Here through the strong and salty days
            The unshaded silence thrills;
          Or little, lost, Down churches praise
            The Lord who made the Hills:
          But here the Old Gods guard their round,
            And, in her secret heart,
          The heathen kingdom Wilfrid found
            Dreams, as she dwells, apart.

Of old the best wheatear country was bove Rottingdean; but the South Down shepherds no longer have the wheatear money that used to add so appreciably to their wages in the summer months. A combination of circumstances has brought about this loss. One is the decrease in wheatears, another the protection of the bird by law, and a third the refusal of the farmers to allow their men any longer to neglect the flocks by setting and tending snares. But in the seventeenth, eighteenth and early part of the nineteenth centuries, wheatears were taken on the Downs in enormous quantities and formed a part of every south county banquet in their season. People visited Brighton solely to eat them, as they now go to Greenwich for whitebait and to Colchester for oysters.

This is how Fuller describes the little creature in the Worthies —"Wheatears is a bird peculiar to this County, hardly found out of it. It is so called, because fattest when Wheat is ripe, whereon it feeds; being no bigger than a Lark, which it equalleth in fineness of the flesh, far exceedeth in the fatness thereof. The worst is, that being onely seasonable in the heat of summer, and naturally larded with lumps of fat, it is soon subject to corrupt, so that (though abounding within fourty miles) London Poulterers have no mind to meddle with them, which no care in carriage can keep from Putrefaction. That Palate-man shall pass in silence, who, being seriously demanded his judgment concerning the abilities of a great Lord, concluded him a man of very weak parts, '_because once he saw him, at a great Feast, feed on CHICKENS when there were WHEATEARS on the Table_.' I will adde no more in praise of this Bird, for fear some female Reader may fall in longing for it, and unhappily be disappointed of her desire." A contemporary of Fuller, John Taylor, from whom I have already quoted, and shall quote again, thus unscientifically dismisses the wheatear in one of his doggerel narratives:—

             Six weeks or thereabouts they are catch'd there,
             And are well-nigh 11 months God knows where.

As a matter of fact, the winter home of the wheatear is Africa.

The capture of wheatears—mostly illegally by nets—still continues in a very small way to meet a languid demand, but the Sussex ortolan, as the little bird was sometimes called, has passed from the bill of fare. Wheatears (which, despite Fuller, have no connection with ears of wheat, the word signifying white tail) still abound, skimming over the turf in little groups; but they no longer fly towards the dinner table. The best and most interesting description that I know of the old manner of taking them, is to be found in Mr. W. H. Hudson's Nature in Downland. The season began in July, when the little fat birds rest on the Downs on their way from Scotland and northern England to their winter home, and lasted through September. In July, says Mr. Hudson, the "Shepherds made their 'coops,' as their traps were called—a T-shaped trench about fourteen inches long, over which the two long narrow sods cut neatly out of the turf were adjusted, grass downwards. A small opening was left at the end for ingress, and there was room in the passage for the bird to pass through towards the chinks of light coming from the two ends of the cross passage. At the inner end of the passage a horse-hair springe was set, by which the bird was caught by the neck as it passed in, but the noose did not as a rule strangle the bird. On some of the high downs near the coast, notably at Beachy Head, at Birling Gap, at Seaford, and in the neighbourhood of Rottingdean, the shepherds made so many coops, placed at small distances apart, that the Downs in some places looked as if they had been ploughed. In September, when the season was over, the sods were carefully put back, roots down, in the places, and the smooth green surface was restored to the hills."

On bright clear days few birds would be caught, but in showery weather the traps would all be full; this is because when the sun is obscured wheatears are afraid and take refuge under stones or in whatever hole may offer. The price of each wheatear was a penny, and it was the custom of the persons in the neighbourhood who wanted them for dinner to visit the traps, take out the birds and leave the money in their place. The shepherd on returning would collect his gains and reset the traps. Near Brighton, however, most of the shepherds caught only for dealers; and one firm, until some twenty years ago, maintained the practice of giving an annual supper at the end of the season, at which the shepherds would be paid in the mass for their spoil.

An old shepherd, who had been for years on Westside Farm near Brighton, spoke thus, in 1882, as Mr. Borrer relates in his Birds of Sussex:—"The most I ever caught in one day was thirteen dozen, but we thought it a good day if we caught three or four dozen. We sold them to a poulterer at Brighton, who took all we could catch in a season at 18d. a dozen. From what I have heard from old shepherds, it cannot be doubted that they were caught in much greater numbers a century ago than of late. I have heard them speak of an immense number being taken in one day by a shepherd at East Dean, near Beachy Head. I think they said he took nearly a hundred dozen, so many that they could not thread them on crow-quills in the usual manner, but he took off his round frock and made a sack of it to put them into, and his wife did the same with her petticoat. This must have happened when there was a great flight. Their numbers now are so decreased that some shepherds do not set up any coops, as it does not pay for the trouble."

Although wheatears are no longer caught, the Brighton bird-catcher is a very busy man. Goldfinches fall in extraordinary plenty to his nets. A bird-catcher told Mr. Borrer that he once caught eleven dozen of them at one haul, and in 1860 the annual take at Worthing was 1,154 dozen. Larks are also caught in great numbers, also with nets, the old system still practised in France, of luring them with glasses, having become obsolete. Knox has an interesting description of the lark-glass and its uses:—"A piece of wood about a foot and a half long, four inches deep, and three inches wide, is planed off on two sides so as to resemble the roof of a well-known toy, yclept a Noah's ark, but, more than twice as long. In the sloping sides are set several bits of looking-glass. A long iron spindle, the lower end of which is sharp and fixed in the ground, passes freely through the centre; on this the instrument turns, and even spins rapidly when a string has been attached and is pulled by the performer, who generally stands at a distance of fifteen or twenty yards from the decoy. The reflection of the sun's rays from these little revolving mirrors seems to possess a mysterious attraction for the larks, for they descend in great numbers from a considerable height in the air, hover over the spot, and suffer themselves to be shot at repeatedly without attempting to leave the field or to continue their course."

To return to Rottingdean, it was above the village, seven hundred years ago, that a "sore scrymmysche" occurred between the French and the Cluniac prior of Lewes. The prior was defeated and captured, but the nature of his resistance decided the enemy that it was better perhaps to retreat to their boats. The holy man, although worsted, thus had the satisfaction of having proved to the King that a Cluniac monk in this country, was not, as was supposed at court, necessarily on the side of England's foes, even though they were of his own race.

According to the scheme of this book, we should now return to Brighton; but, as I have said, the right use to which to put Rottingdean is as the starting point for a day among the hills. Once out and above the village, the world is your own. A conspiracy to populate a part of the Downs near the sea, a mile or so to the east of Rottingdean, seems gloriously to have failed, but what was intended may be learned from the skeleton roads that, duly fenced in, disfigure the turf. They even have names, these unlovely parallelograms: one is Chatsworth Avenue, and Ambleside Avenue another.