Highways and Byways in Sussex/Chapter 13

From Wikisource
Jump to: navigation, search
Highways and Byways in Sussex by Edward Verrall Lucas
St. Leonard's Forest

CHAPTER XIII


ST. LEONARD'S FOREST


Recollections of the Forest—Leonardslee—Michael Drayton and the iron country—Thomas Fuller on great guns—The serpent of St. Leonard's Forest—The Headless Horseman—Sussex and nightingales.


To the east of Horsham spreads St. Leonard's Forest, that vast tract of moor and preserve which, merging into Tilgate Forest, Balcombe Forest, and Worth Forest, extends a large part of the way to East Grinstead.

Only on foot can we really explore this territory; and a compass as well as a good map is needed if one is to walk with any decision, for there are many conflicting tracks, and many points whence no broad outlook is possible. Remembering old days in St. Leonard's Forest, I recall, in general, the odoriferous damp open spaces of long grass, suddenly lighted upon, over which silver-washed fritillaries flutter; and, in particular, a deserted farm, in whose orchard (it must have been late June) was a spreading tree of white-heart cherries in full bearing. One may easily, even a countryman, I take it, live to a great age and never have the chance of climbing into a white-heart cherry tree and eating one's fill. Certainly I have never done it since; but that day gave me an understanding of blackbirds' temptations that is still stronger than the desire to pull a trigger. The reader must not imagine that St. Leonard's Forest is rich in deserted farms with attractive orchards. I have found no other, and indeed it is notably a place in which the explorer should be accompanied by provisions.

To take train to Faygate and walk from that spot is the simplest way, although more interesting is it perhaps to come to Faygate at the end of the day, and, gaining permission to climb the Beacon Tower on the hill, in the Holmbush estate, retrace one's steps in vision from its summit. In this case one would walk from Horsham to Lower Beeding, then strike north over Plummer's Plain. This route leads by Coolhurst and through Manning Heath, just beyond which, by following the south, that runs for a mile, one could see Nuthurst. Lower Beeding is not in itself interesting; but close at hand is Leonardslee, the seat of Sir Edmund Loder, which is one of the most satisfying estates in the county. North and south runs a deep ravine, on the one side richly wooded, and on the other, the west, planted with all acclimatisable varieties of Alpine plants and flowering shrubs. The chain of ponds at the bottom of the ravine forms one of the principal sources of the Adur. In an enclosure among the woods the kangaroo has been acclimatised; and beavers are given all law.

North of Plummer's Plain, in a hollow, are two immense ponds, Hammer Pond and Hawkin's Pond, our first reminder that we are in the old iron country. St. Leonard's Forest, and all the forests on this the forest ridge of Sussex, were of course maintained to supply wood with which to feed the furnaces of the iron masters—just as the overflow of these ponds was trained to move the machinery of the hammers for the breaking of the iron stone. The enormous consumption of wood in the iron foundries was a calamity seriously viewed by many observers, among them Michael Drayton, of the Poly Olbion, who was, however, distressed less as a political economist than as the friend of the wood nymphs driven by the encroaching and devastating foundrymen from their native sanctuaries to the inhospitable Downs. Thus he writes, illustrating Lamb's criticism of him that in this work he "has animated hills and streams with life and passion above the dreams of old mythology":—

 The daughters of the Weald
(That in their heavy breasts had long their griefs concealed),
Foreseeing their decay each hour so fast come on,
Under the axe's stroke, fetched many a grievous groan.
When as the anvil's weight, and hammer's dreadful sound,
Even rent the hollow woods and shook the queachy ground;
So that the trembling nymphs, oppressed through ghastly fear,
Ran madding to the downs, with loose dishevelled hair.
The Sylvans that about the neighbouring woods did dwell,
Both in the tufty frith and in the mossy fell,
Forsook their gloomy bowers, and wandered far abroad,
Expelled their quiet seats, and place of their abode,
When labouring carts they saw to hold their daily trade,
Where they in summer wont to sport them in the shade.
"Could we," say they, "suppose that any would us cherish
Which suffer every day the holiest things to perish?
Or to our daily want to minister supply?
These iron times breed none that mind posterity.
'Tis but in vain to tell what we before have been,
Or changes of the world that we in time have seen;
When, now devising how to spend our wealth with waste,
We to the savage swine let fall our larding mast,
But now, alas! ourselves we have not to sustain,
Nor can our tops suffice to shield our roots from rain.
Jove's oak, the warlike ash, veined elm, the softer beech,
Short hazel, maple plain, light asp, the bending wych,
Tough holly, and smooth birch, must altogether burn;
What should the builder serve, supplies the forger's turn,
When under public good, base private gain takes hold,
And we, poor woful woods, to ruin lastly sold."

We shall learn later more of this old Sussex industry, but here, in the heart of St. Leonard's Forest, I might quote also what another old author, with less invention, says of it. Under the heading of Sussex manufactures, Thomas Fuller writes, in the Worthies, of great guns:—

"It is almost incredible how many are made of the Iron in this County. Count Gondomer well knew their goodness, when of King James he so often begg'd the boon to transport them. A Monke of Mentz (some three hundred years since) is generally reputed the first Founder of them. Surely ingenuity may seem transpos'd, and to have cross'd her hands, when about the same time a Souldier found out Printing; and it is questionable which of the two Inventions hath done more good, or more harm. As for Guns, it cannot be denied, that though most behold them as Instruments of cruelty; partly, because subjecting valour to chance; partly, because Guns give no quarter (which the Sword sometimes doth); yet it will appear that, since their invention, Victory hath not stood so long a Neuter, and hath been determined with the loss of fewer lives. Yet do I not believe what Souldiers commonly say, 'that he was curs'd in his Mother's belly, who is kill'd with a Cannon,' seeing many prime persons have been slain thereby."

Cannon were not, of course, the only articles which the old Sussex ironmasters contrived. The old railings around St. Paul's were cast in Sussex; and iron fire-backs were turned out in great numbers. These are still to be seen in a few of the older Sussex cottages in their original position. Most curiosity dealers in the country have a few fire-backs on sale. Iron tombstones one meets with too in a few of the churches and churchyards in the iron district. There are several at Wadhurst, for example.

I have seen grass snakes in plenty in St. Leonard's Forest, and was once there with a botanist who, the day being fine, killed a particularly beautiful one; but the Forest is no longer famous, as once it was, for really alarming reptiles. The year 1614 was the time. A rambler in the neighbourhood, in August of that year, ran the risk of meeting something worth running away from; just as John Steel, Christopher Holder, and a widow woman did. Their story may be read in the Harleian Miscellany. True and Wonderful is the title of the narrative, A Discourse relating a strange and monstrous Serpent (or Dragon) lately discovered, and yet living, to the great Annoyance and divers Slaughters both of Men and Cattell, by his strong and violent Poyson: In Sussex, two Miles from Horsam, in a Woode called St. Leonard's Forrest, and thirtie Miles from London, this present Month of August, 1614. With the true Generation of Serpents. The discourse runs thus:—"In Sussex, there is a pretty market-towne, called Horsam, neare unto it a forrest, called St. Leonard's Forrest, and there, in a vast and unfrequented place, heathie, vaultie, full of unwholesome shades, and over-growne hollowes, where this serpent is thought to be bred; but, wheresoever bred, certaine and too true it is, that there it yet lives. Within three or four miles compasse, are its usual haunts, oftentimes at a place called Faygate, and it hath been seene within halfe a mile of Horsam; a wonder, no doubt, most terrible and noisome to the inhabitants thereabouts. There is always in his tracke or path left a glutinous and slimie matter (as by a small similitude we may perceive in a snaile's) which is very corrupt and offensive to the scent; insomuch that they perceive the air to be putrified withall, which must needes be very dangerous. For though the corruption of it cannot strike the outward part of a man, unless heated into his blood; yet by receiving it in at any of our breathing organs (the mouth or nose) it is by authoritie of all authors, writing in that kinde, mortall and deadlie, as one thus saith:

"Noxia serpentum est admixto sanguine pestis.—Lucan.

"This serpent (or dragon, as some call it) is reputed to be nine feete, or rather more, in length, and shaped almost in the forme of an axeltree of a cart; a quantitie of thickness in the middest, and somewhat smaller at both endes. The former part, which he shootes forth as a necke, is supposed to be an elle long; with a white ring, as it were, of scales about it. The scales along his backe seem to be blackish, and so much as is discovered under his bellie, appeareth to be red; for I speak of no nearer description than of a reasonable ocular distance. For coming too neare it, hath already beene too dearely payd for, as you shall heare hereafter.

"It is likewise discovered to have large feete, but the eye may be there deceived; for some suppose that serpents have no feete, but glide upon certain ribbes and scales, which both defend them from the upper part of their throat unto the lower part of their bellie, and also cause them to move much the faster. For so this doth, and rids way (as we call it) as fast as a man can run. He is of countenance very proud, and at the sight or hearing of men or cattel, will raise his necke upright, and seem to listen and looke about, with great arrogancy. There are likewise on either side of him discovered, two great bunches so big as a large foote-ball, and (as some thinke) will in time grow to wings; but God, I hope, will (to defend the poor people in the neighbourhood) that he shall be destroyed before he grow so fledge.

"He will cast his venome about four rodde from him, as by woefull experience it was proved on the bodies of a man and a woman comming that way, who afterwards were found dead, being poysoned and very much swelled, but not prayed upon. Likewise a man going to chase it, and as he imagined, to destroy it with two mastive dogs, as yet not knowing the great danger of it, his dogs were both killed, and he himselfe glad to returne with hast to preserve his own life. Yet this is to be noted, that the dogs were not prayed upon, but slaine and left whole: for his food is thought to be, for the most part, in a conie-warren, which he much frequents; and it is found much scanted and impaired in the encrease it had woont to afford.

"These persons, whose names are hereunder printed, have seene this serpent, beside divers others, as the carrier of Horsam, who lieth at the White Horse in Southwarke, and who can certifie the truth of all that has been here related. {{float right|John Steele.
Christopher Holder.
And a Widow Woman
dwelling nere Faygate."

It would be very interesting to know what John Steele, Christopher Holder, and the widow woman really saw. Such a story must have had a basis of some kind. A printed narrative such as this would hardly have proceeded from a clear sky.

St. Leonard's Forest has another familiar; for there the headless horseman rides, not on his own horse, but on yours, seated on the crupper with his ghostly arms encircling your waist. His name is Powlett, but I know no more, except that his presence is an additional reason why one should explore the forest on foot.

Sussex, especially near the coast, is naturally a good nightingale country. Many of the birds, pausing there after their long journey at the end of April, do not fly farther, but make their home where they first alight. I know of one meadow and copse under the north escarpment of the Downs where three nightingales singing in rivalry in a triangle (the perfect condition) can be counted upon in May, by night, and often by day too, as surely as the rising and setting of the sun. But in St. Leonard's Forest the nightingale never sings. American visitors who, as Mr. John Burroughs once did, come to England in the spring to hear the nightingale, must remember this.