Highways and Byways in Sussex/Chapter 15

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Church Street, Steyning.png

Church Street, Steyning


CHAPTER XV


STEYNING AND BRAMBER


Saint Cuthman and his mother—Steyning's architecture—Steyning's wise passiveness—Bramber castle—A corrupt pocket borough—A Taxidermist-humorist—Joseph Poorgrass in Sussex—The widow of Beeding and the Romney—A digression on curio-hunting.

Of great interest and antiquity is Steyning, the little grey and red town which huddles under the hill four miles to Henfield's south-west.

The beginnings of Steyning are lost in the distance. Its church was founded, probably in the eighth century, by St. Cuthman, an early Christian whose adventures were more than usually quaint. He began by tending his father's sheep, with which occupation his first miracle was associated. Being called one day to dinner, and having no one to take his place as shepherd, he drew a circle round the flock with his crook, and bade the sheep, in the name of the Lord, not to stray beyond it. The sheep obeyed, and thenceforward on repeating the same manoeuvre he left them with an easy mind. In course of time his father died, and Cuthman determined to travel; intense filial piety determined him to take his aged mother with him. In order to do this he constructed a wheelbarrow couch, which he partly supported by a cord over his shoulders. Thus united, mother and son fared forth into the cold world; which was, however, warmed for them by the watchful interest taken in Cuthman by a vigilant Providence. One day, for example, the cord of the barrow broke in a hayfield, where Cuthman, who supplied its place by elder twigs, was the subject of much ridicule among the haymakers. Immediately a heavy storm broke over the field, destroying the crop; and not only then, but ever afterwards in the same field—possibly to this day—has haymaking been imperilled by a similar storm. So runs the legend.

The second occasion on which the cord broke and let down Cuthman's mother was at Steyning. Cuthman took the incident as a divine intimation that the time had come to settle, and he thereupon first built for his mother and himself a hut and afterwards a church. The present church stands on its site. Cuthman was buried there. So, also, was Ethelwulf, father of Alfred the Great, whose body afterwards was moved to Winchester. Alfred the Great had estates at Steyning, as elsewhere in Sussex.

While Cuthman was building his church a beam shifted, making a vast amount of new labour necessary. But as the Saint sorrowfully was preparing to begin again, a stranger appeared, who pointed out how the mischief could be repaired in a more speedy manner and with less toil. Cuthman and his men followed his instructions, and all was quickly well again. Cuthman thereupon fell on his knees and asked the stranger who he was. "I am He in whose name thou buildest this temple," he replied, and vanished.

The present church, which stands on the site of St. Cuthman's, is only a reminder of what it must have been in its best days. When one faces the curiously chequered square tower, an impression of quiet dignity is imparted; but a broadside view is disappointing by reason of the high deforming roof, giving an impression as of a hunched back. (One sees the same effect at Udimore, in the east of Sussex.) Within are two rows of superb circular arches, with zigzag mouldings, on massive columns.

Steyning has an importance in English history that is not generally credited to it. Edward the Confessor gave a great part of the land to the Abbey at Fécamp, whose church is, or was, the counterpart of Steyning's. These possessions Harold took away, an act that, among others, decided William, Duke of Normandy, upon his assailing, and conquering, course. Steyning should be proud. To have brought the Conqueror over is at least as worthy as to have come over with him, and far more uncommon.

In Church Street stands Brotherhood Hall, a very charming ancient building, long used as a Grammar School, flanked by overhanging houses, which, though less imposing, are often more quaint and ingratiating. Most of Steyning, indeed, is of the past, and the spirit of antiquity is visibly present in its streets.

The late Louis Jennings, in his Rambles among the Hills, was fascinated by the placid air of this unambitious town—as an American might be expected to be in the uncongenial atmosphere of age and serenity. "One almost expects," he wrote, "to see a fine green moss all over an inhabitant of Steyning. One day as I passed through the town I saw a man painting a new sign over a shop, a proceeding that so aroused my curiosity that I stood for a minute or two to look on. The painter filled in one letter, gave a huge yawn, looked up and down two or three times as if he had lost something, and finally descended from his perch and disappeared. Five weeks later I passed that way again, and it is a fact that the same man was at work
Steyning Church.png

Steyning Church.

on the same sign. Perhaps when the reader takes the walk I am about to recommend to his attention—a walk which comprises some of the finest scenery in Sussex—that sign will be finished, and the accomplished artist will have begun another; but I doubt it. There is plenty of time for everything in Steyning." I am told that Steyning was incensed when this criticism was printed (there was even talk of an action for libel); but it seems to me that whatever may have been intended, the words contain more of compliment than censure. In this hurrying age, it is surely high praise to have one's "wise passiveness" (as Wordsworth called it) so emphasised. The passage calls to mind Diogenes requesting, as the greatest of possible boons, that Alexander the Great would stand aside and not interrupt the sunshine; only at Steyning would one seek for Diogenes to-day. No commendation of Steyning in the direction of its enterprise, briskness, smartness, or any of the other qualities which are now most in fashion, would so speedily decide a wise man to pitch his tent there as Mr. Jennings' certificate of inertia.

Steyning, if still disposed to stand on its defence, might plead external influence, beyond the control of man, as an excuse for some of its interesting placidity. For this curiously inland town was once a port. In Saxon times (when Steyning was more important than Birmingham), the Adur was practically an estuary of the sea, and ships came into Steyning Harbour, or St. Cuthman's Port, as it was otherwise called. There is notoriously no such quiet spot as a dry harbour town. In those days, Steyning also had a mint.

Bramber, a little roadside village less than a mile south-east of Steyning, also a mere relic of its great days, was once practically on the coast, for the arm of the sea which narrowed down at Steyning was here of great breadth, and washed the sides of the castle mound. The last time I came into Steyning was by way of the bostel down Steyning Round Hill. The old place seems more than ever medieval as one descends upon it from the height (the best way to approach a town); and sitting among the wild thyme on the turf I tried to reconstruct in imagination the scene a thousand years ago, with the sea flowing over the meadows of the Adur valley, and the masts of ships clustered beyond Steyning church. Once one had the old prospect well in the mind's eye, the landscape became curiously in need of water.

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Bramber.

After rain, Bramber is a pleasant village, but when the dust flies it is good neither for man nor beast. All that remains of the castle is crumbling battlement and a wall of the keep, survivals of the renovation of the old Saxon stronghold by William de Braose, the friend of the Conqueror and the Sussex founder of the Duke of Norfolk's family. Picnic parties now frolic among the ruins, and enterprising boys explore the rank overgrowth in the moat below.

The castle played no part in history, its demolition being due probably to gunpowder pacifically fired with a view to obtaining building materials. But during the Civil War the village was the scene of an encounter between Royalists and Roundheads. A letter from John Coulton to Samuel Jeake of Rye, dated January 8, 1643-4, thus describes the event:—"The enemy attempted Bramber bridge, but our brave Carleton and Evernden with his Dragoons and our Coll.'s horse welcomed them with drakes and musketts, sending some 8 or 9 men to hell (I feare) and one trooper to Arundel Castle prisoner, and one of Capt. Evernden's Dragoons to heaven." A few years later, as we have seen, Charles II. ran a grave risk at Bramber while on his way to Brighton and safety.

Bramber was, for many years, a pocket borough of the worst type. George Spencer, writing to Algernon Sidney after the Bramber election in 1679, says:—"You would have laughed to see how pleased I seemed to be in kissing of old women; and drinking wine with handfuls of sugar, and great glasses of burnt brandy; three things much against the stomach." In 1768, eighteen votes were polled for one candidate and sixteen for his rival. One of the tenants, in a cottage valued at about three shillings a week, refused £1000 for his vote. Bramber remained a pocket borough until the Reform Bill. William Wilberforce, the abolitionist, sat for it for some years; there is a story that on passing one day through the village he stopped his carriage to inquire the name. "Bramber? Why, that's the place I'm Member for."

Bramber possesses a humorist in taxidermy, whose efforts win more attention than the castle. They are to be seen in a small museum in its single street, the price of admission being for children one penny, for adults twopence, and for ladies and gentlemen "what they please" (indicating that the naturalist also knows human nature). In one case, guinea-pigs strive in cricket's manly toil; in another, rats read the paper and play dominoes; in a third, rabbits learn their lessons in school; in a fourth, the last scene in the tragedy of the Babes of the Wood is represented, Bramber Castle in the distance strictly localising the event, although Norfolk usually claims it.

Isolated in the fields south of Bramber are two of the quaintest churches in the county—Coombes and Botolphs. Neither has an attendant village.

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Coombes Church.

The owl story, which crops up all over the country and is found in literature in Mr. Hardy's novel Far from the Madding Crowd, the scene whereof is a hundred miles west of Sussex, has a home also at Upper Beeding, the little dusty village beyond Bramber across the river. Mr. Hardy gives the adventure to Joseph Poorgrass; at Beeding, the hero is one Kiddy Wee. His rightful name was Kidd; but being very small the village had invented this double diminutive. Lost in the wood he cried for help, just as Poorgrass did. "Who? who?" asked the owl. "Kiddy Wee o' Beedin'," was the reply.

It was not long ago that a masterpiece was discovered at Beeding, in one of those unlikely places in which with ironical humour fine pictures so often hide themselves. It hung in a little general shop kept by an elderly widow. After passing unnoticed or undetected for many years, it was silently identified by a dealer who happened to be buying some biscuits. He made a casual remark about it, learned that any value that might be set upon it was sentimental rather than monetary, and returned home. He laid the matter before one or two friends, with the result that they visited Beeding in a party a day or so later in order to bear away the prize. Outside the shop they held a council of war. One was for bidding at the outset a small but sufficient sum for the picture, another for affecting to want something else and leading round to the picture, and so forth; but in the discussion of tactics they raised their voices too high, so that a visitor of the widow, sitting in the room over the shop, heard something of the matter. Suspecting danger, but wholly unconscious of its nature, she hurried downstairs and warned her friend of a predatory gang outside who were not to be supplied on any account with anything they asked for. The widow obeyed blindly. They asked for tea—she refused to sell it; they asked for biscuits—she set her hand firmly on the lid; they mentioned the picture—she was a rock. Baffled, they withdrew; and the widow, now on the right scent, took the next train to Brighton to lay the whole matter before her landlord. He took it up, consulted an expert, and the picture was found to be a portrait of Mrs. Jordan, the work either of Romney or Lawrence.

Furniture is the usual prey of the dealer who lounges casually through old villages in the guise of a tourist, asking for food or water at old cottages and farmhouses, and using his eyes to some purpose the while. Pictures are rare. The search for chests, turned bed-posts, fire-backs, Chippendale chairs, warming pans, grandfather's clocks, and other indigenous articles of the old simple homestead which are thought so decorative in the sophisticated villa and establish the artistic credit and taste of their new owner, has been prosecuted in Sussex with as much energy as elsewhere—not only by the professional dealer, but by amateurs no less unwilling to give an ignorant peasant fifteen shillings for an article which they know to be worth as many pounds. But suspicion of the plausible furniture collector has, I am glad to say, begun to spread, and the palmiest days of the spoliation of the country are probably over. It must not, however, be thought that the peasant is always the under dog, the amateur the upper. A London dealer informs me that the planting of spurious antiques in old cottages has become a recognised form of fraud among less scrupulous members of the trade. An oak chest bearing every superficial mark of age that a clever workman can give it (and the profession of wormholer, is now, I believe, recognised) is deposited in a tumble-down, half-timbered home in a country village, whose occupant is willing to take a share in the game; a ticket marked "Ginger-beer; sold Here" is placed in the window, and the trap is ready. It is almost beyond question that everyone who bids for this chest, which has, of course, been in the family for generations, is hoping to get it at a figure much lower than is just; it is quite certain that whatever is paid for it will be too much. Ugly as the situation is, I like to think of this biting of the biter.