Highways and Byways in Sussex/Chapter 20

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Highways and Byways in Sussex by Edward Verrall Lucas
The Devil's Dyke and Hurstpierpoint

CHAPTER XX


THE DEVIL'S DYKE AND HURSTPIERPOINT


Sussex and Leith Hill—The Dyke hill—Two recollections—Bustard hunting on the Downs—The Queen of the gipsies—The Devil in Sussex—The feeble legend of the Dyke—Poynings—Newtimber—Pyecombe and shepherds' crooks—A Patcham smuggler—Wolstonbury—Danny—An old Sussex diary—Fish-culture in the past—Thomas Marchant's Sunday head-aches—Albourne and Bishop Juxon—Twineham and Squire Stapley—Zoological remedies—How to make oatmeal pudding.


Had the hill above the Devil's Dyke—for the Dyke itself wins only a passing glance—been never popularised, thousands of Londoners, and many of the people of Brighton, would probably never have seen the Weald from any eminence at all. The view is bounded north and west only by hills: on the north by the North Downs, with Leith Hill standing forward, as if advancing to meet a southern champion, and in the west, Blackdown, Hind Head and the Hog's Back. The patchwork of the Weald is between. The view from the Dyke Hill, looking north, is comparable to that from Leith Hill, looking south; and every day in fine weather there are tourists on both of these altitudes gazing towards each other. The worst slight that Sussex ever had to endure, so far as my reading goes, is in Hughson's London ... and its Neighbourhood, 1808, where the view from Leith Hill is described. After stating that the curious stranger on the summit "feels sensations as we may suppose Adam to have felt when he instantaneously burst into existence and the beauties of Eden struck his all-wondering eyes," Mr. Hughson describes the prospect. "It
Poynings, from the Devil's Dyke.png

Poynings, from the Devil's Dyke.

commands a view of the county of Surrey, part of Hampshire, Berkshire, Nettlebed in Oxfordshire, some parts of Bucks, Hertfordshire, Middlesex, Kent and Essex; and, by the help of a glass, Wiltshire." Not a word of Sussex.

The wisest course for the non-gregarious traveller is to leave the Dyke on the right, and, crossing the Ladies' Golf Links, gain Fulking Hill, from which the view is equally fine (save for lacking a little in the east) and where there is peace and isolation. I remember sitting one Sunday morning on Fulking Hill when a white mist like a sea filled the Weald, washing the turf slopes twenty feet or so below me. In the depths of this ocean, as it were, could be heard faintly the noises of the farms and the chime of submerged bells. Suddenly a hawk shot up and disappeared again, like a leaping fish.

The same spot was on another occasion the scene of a superb effort of courageous tenacity. I met a large hare steadily breasting the hill. Turning neither to the right nor left it was soon out of sight over the crest. Five or more minutes later there appeared in view, on the hare's trail, a very tired little fox terrier not much more than half the size of the hare. He also turned aside neither to the right nor the left, but panted wearily yet bravely past me, and so on, over the crest, after his prey. I waited for some time but the terrier never came back. Such was the purpose depicted on his countenance that I can believe he is following still.

On these Downs, near the Dyke, less than a century ago the Great Bustard used to be hunted with greyhounds. Mr. Borrer tells us in the Birds of Sussex that his grandfather (who died in 1844) sometimes would take five or six in a morning. They fought savagely and more than once injured the hounds.

Enterprise has of late been at work at the Dyke. A cable railway crosses the gully at a dizzy height, a lift brings travellers from the Weald, a wooden cannon of exceptional calibre threatens the landscape, and pictorial advertisements of the Devil and his domain may be seen at most of the Sussex stations. Ladies also play golf where, when first I knew it, one could walk unharmed. A change that is to be regretted is the exile to the unromantic neighbourhood of the Dyke Station of the Queen of the Gipsies, a swarthy ringletted lady of peculiarly comfortable exterior who, splendid (yet a little sinister) in a scarlet shawl and ponderous gold jewels, used once to emerge from a tent beside the Dyke inn and allot husbands fair or dark. She was an astute reader of her fellows, with an eye too searching to be deceived by the removal of tell-tale rings. A lucky shot in respect to a future ducal husband of a young lady now a duchess, of the accuracy of which she was careful to remind you, increased her reputation tenfold in recent years. Her name is Lee, and of her title of Queen of the Gipsies there is, I believe, some justification.

Sussex abounds in evidences of the Devil's whimsical handiwork, although in ordinary conversation Sussex rustics are careful not to speak his name. They say "he." Mr. Parish, in his Dictionary of the Sussex Dialect, gives an example of the avoidance of the dread name: "'In the Down there's a golden calf buried; people know very well where it is—I could show you the place any day.' 'Then why don't they dig it up? 'Oh, it's not allowed: he wouldn't let them.' 'Has any one ever tried?' 'Oh yes, but it's never there when you look; he moves it away.'" His punchbowl may be seen here, his footprints there; but the greatest of his enterprises was certainly the Dyke. His purpose was to submerge or silence the irritating churches of the Weald, by digging a ditch that should let in the sea. He began one night from the North side, at Saddlescombe, and was working very well until he caught sight of the beams of a candle which an old woman had placed in her window. Being a Devil of Sussex rather than of Miltonic invention, he was not clever, and taking the candle light for the break of dawn, he fled and never resumed the labour. That is the very infirm legend that is told and sold at the Dyke.

I might just mention that the little church which one sees from the Dyke railway, standing alone on the hill side, is Hangleton. Dr. Kenealy, who defended the Claimant, is buried there. The hamlet of Hangleton, which may be seen in the distance below, once possessed a hunting lodge of the Coverts of Slaugham, which, after being used as labourers' cottages, has now disappeared. The fine Tudor mansion of the Bellinghams', now transformed into a farm house, although it has been much altered, still retains many original features. In the kitchen, no doubt once the hall, on an oak screen, are carved the Commandments, followed by this ingenious motto, an exercise on the letter E:

Persevere, ye perfect men,
Ever keep these precepts ten.

Hangleton House.png

Hangleton House.

From the Dyke hill one is within easy walking distance of many Wealden villages. Immediately at the north end of the Dyke itself is Poynings, with its fine grey cruciform church raising an embattled tower among the trees on its mound. It has been conjectured from the similarity of this beautiful church to that of Alfriston that they may have had the same architect. Poynings (now called Punnings) was of importance in Norman times, and was the seat of William FitzRainalt, whose descendants afterwards took the name of de Ponyngs and one of whom was ennobled as Baron de Ponyngs. In the fifteenth century the direct line was merged into that of Percy. The ruins of Ponyngs Place, the baronial mansion, are still traceable.

Following the road to the west, under the hills, we come first to Fulking (where one may drink at a fountain raised by a brewer to the glory of God and in honour of John Ruskin), then to Edburton (where the leaden font, one of three in Sussex, should be noted), then to Truleigh, all little farming hamlets shadowed by the Downs, and so to Beeding and Bramber, or, striking south, to Shoreham.

If, instead of turning into Poynings, one ascends the hill on the other side of the stream, a climb of some minutes, with a natural amphitheatre on the right, brings one to the wooded northern escarpment of Saddlescombe North Hill, or Newtimber Hill, which offers a view little inferior to that of the Dyke. At Saddlescombe, by the way, lives one of the most learned Sussex ornithologists of the day, and a writer upon the natural history of the county (so cavalierly treated in this book!), for whose quick eye and descriptive hand the readers of Blackwood have reason to be grateful. Immediately beneath Newtimber Hill lies Newtimber, consisting of a house or two, a moated grange, and a little church, which, though only a few yards from the London road, is so hidden that it might be miles from everywhere. On the grass bank of the bostel descending through the hanger to Newtimber, I counted on one spring afternoon as many as a dozen adders basking in the sun. We are here, though so near Brighton, in country where the badger is still found, while the Newtimber woods are famous among collectors of moths.

If you are for the Weald it is by this bostel that you should descend, but if still for the Downs turn to the east along the summit, and you will come to Pyecombe, a straggling village on each side of the London road just at the head of Dale Hill. Pyecombe has lost its ancient fame as the home of the best shepherds' crooks, but the Pyecombe crook for many years was unapproached. The industry has left Sussex: crooks are now made in the north of England and sold over shop counters. I say "industry" wrongly, for what was truly an industry for a Pyecombe blacksmith is a mere detail in an iron factory, since the number of shepherds does not increase and one crook will serve a lifetime and more. An old shepherd at Pyecombe, talking confidentially on the subject of crooks, complained that the new weapon as sold at Lewes, although nominally on the Pyecombe pattern, is a "numb thing." The chief reason which he gave was that the maker was out of touch with the man who was to use it. His own crook (like that of Richard Jefferies' shepherd friend) had been fashioned from the barrel of an old muzzle-loader. The present generation, he added, is forgetting how to make everything: why, he had neighbours, smart young fellows, too, who could not even make their own clothes.

Pyecombe is but a few miles from Brighton, which may easily be reached from it. A short distance south of the village is the Plough Inn, the point at which the two roads to London—that by way of Clayton Hill, Friar's Oak, Cuckfield, Balcombe and Redhill, and the other (on which we are now standing) by way of Dale Hill, Bolney, Hand Cross, Crawley and Reigate—become one.

On the way to Brighton from the Plough one passes through Patcham, a dusty village that for many years has seen too many bicycles, and now is in the way of seeing too many motor cars. In the churchyard is, or was, a tomb bearing the following inscription, which may be quoted both as a reminder of the more stirring experiences to which the Patcham people were subject a hundred years ago, and also as an example of the truth which is only half a truth:

Sacred to the memory of Daniel Scales, who was unfortunately shot on Thursday Evening, Nov. 7, 1796.

Alas! swift flew the fatal lead
Which pierced through the young man's head,
He instant fell, resigned his breath,
And closed his languid eyes in death.
All ye who do this stone draw near,
Oh! pray let fall the pitying tear.
From the sad instance may we all
Prepare to meet Jehovah's call.

The facts of the case bear some likeness to the death of Mr. Bardell and Serjeant Buzfuz's reference to that catastrophe. Daniel Scales was a desperate smuggler who, when the fatal lead pierced him, was heavily laden with booty. He was shot through the head only as a means of preventing a similar fate befalling his slayer.

Just beyond Patcham, as we approach Brighton, is the narrow chalk lane on the left which leads to the Lady's Mile, the beginning of a superb stretch of turf around an amphitheatre in the hills by which one may gallop all the way to the Clayton mills. The grass ride extends to Lewes.

Preston, once a village with an independent life, is now Brighton; but nothing can harm its little English church, noticeable for a fresco of the murder of Thomas à Becket, a representation dating probably from the reign of Edward I.

This, however, is a digression, and we must return to Pyecombe in order to climb Wolstonbury—the most mountainous of the hills in this part, and indeed, although far from the highest, perhaps the noblest in mien of the whole range, by virtue of its isolation and its conical shape. The earthworks on Wolstonbury, although supposed to be of Celtic origin, were probably utilised by the Romans for military purposes. More than any of the Downs does Wolstonbury bring before one the Roman occupation of our country.

Immediately below Wolstonbury, on the edge of the Weald, is Danny, an Elizabethan house, to-day the seat of the Campions, but two hundred and more years ago the seat of Peter Courthope, to whom John Ray dedicated his A compleat collection of English proverbs:Collection of English Words not generally used, and before then the property of Sir Simon de Pierpoint. The park is small and without deer, but the house has a façade of which one can never tire. I once saw Twelfth Night performed in its gardens, and it was difficult to believe that Shakespeare had not the spot in mind when he wrote that play.

Malthouse Farm, Hurstpierpoint.png

Malthouse Farm, Hurstpierpoint.

The Danny drive brings us to Hurstpierpoint, or Hurst as it is generally called, which is now becoming a suburb of Brighton and thus somewhat losing its character, but which the hills will probably long keep sweet. James Hannington, Bishop of Equatorial East Africa, who was murdered by natives in 1885, was born here; here lived Richard Weeks, the antiquary; and here to-day is the home of Mr. Mitten, most learned of Sussex botanists.

To Hurst belongs one of the little Sussex squires to whose diligence as a diarist we are indebted for much entertaining knowledge of the past. Little Park, now the property of the Hannington family, where Thomas Marchant, the diarist in question, lived, and kept his journal between 1714 and 1728, is to the north of the main street, lying low. The original document I have not seen, but from passages printed by the Sussex Archæological Society I borrow a few extracts for the light they throw on old customs and social life.

"October 8th, 1714. Paid 4s. at Lewes for 1/4 lb., of tea; 5d.for a quire of paper; and 6d. for two mousetraps.

October 29th, 1714. Went to North Barnes near Homewood Gate to see the pond fisht. I bought all the fish of a foot long and upwards at 50s. per C. I am to give Mrs. Dabson 200 store fish, over and above the aforesaid bargain; but she is to send to me for them.

"October 30th, 1714. We fetched 244 Carps in three Dung Carts from a stew of Parson Citizen at Street; being brought thither last night out of the above pond.

"October 31st, 1714 (Sunday). I could not go to Church, being forced to stay at home to look after, and let down fresh water to, the fish; they being—as I supposed—sick, because they lay on the surface of the pond and were easily taken out. But towards night they sunk."

The Little Park ponds still exist, but the practice of breeding fish has passed. In Arthur Young's General View of the Agriculture of the County of Sussex, 1808, quoted elsewhere in this book, is a chapter on fish, wherein he writes: "A Mr. Fenn of London, has long rented, and is the sole monopolizer of, all the fish that are sold in Sussex. Carp is the chief stock; but tench and perch, eels and pike are raised. A stream should always flow through the pond; and a marley soil is the best. Mr. Milward has drawn carp from his marl-pits 25lb. a brace, and two inches of fat upon them, but then he feeds with pease. When the waters are drawn off and re-stocked, it is done with stores of a year old, which remain four years: the carp will then be 12 or 13 inches long, and if the water is good, 14 or 15. The usual season for drawing the water is either Autumn or Spring: the sale is regulated by measure, from the eye to the fork of the tail. At twelve inches, carp are worth 50s. and 3l. per hundred; at fifteen inches, 6l.; at eighteen inches, 8l.and 9l. A hundred stores will stock an acre; or 35 brace, 10 or 12 inches long, are fully sufficient for a breeding pond. The first year they will be three inches long; second year, seven; third year, eleven or twelve; fourth year, fourteen or fifteen. This year they breed."

Although fish-breeding is not what it was, many of the Sussex ponds are still regularly dragged, and the proceeds sold in advance to a London firm. Sometimes the purchaser wins in the gamble, sometimes the seller.The fish are removed alive, in large tanks, and sold as they are wanted,chiefly for Jewish tables. But we must return to Thomas Marchant:—

"January 16th (Sunday) 1715. I was not at church having a bad headache.

"January 25th, 1715. We had a trout for supper, two feet two inches long from eye to fork, and six inches broad; it weighed ten-and-a-half pounds. It was caught in the Albourne Brook, near Trussell House.... We staid very late and drank enough.

"April 15th, 1715. Paid my uncle Courtness 15d. for a small bottle of Daffey's Elixir.

"July 18th, 1715. I went to Bolney and agreed with Edw. Jenner to dig sandstone for setting up my father's tombstone, at 5s. I gave him 6d. to spend in drink that he might be more careful.

"August 7th, (Sunday) 1715. I was not at church as my head ached very much.

"November 22nd, 1716. Fisht the great pond and put 220 of the biggest carp into the new pond, and 18 of the biggest tench. Put also 358 store carp into the flat stew, and 36 tench; and also 550 very small carp into a hole in the low field.

"November 24th, 1716. Fisht the middle pond. Put 66 large carp into the new pond, and 380 store tench into the flat stew, and 12 large carp, 10 large tench, and 57 middle sized tench into the hovel field stew.

"June 12th, 1717. I was at the cricket match at Dungton Gate towards night.

"January 24th, 1718. A mountebank came to our towne to-day. He calls himself Dr. Richard Harness. Mr. Scutt and I drank tea with the tumbler. Of his tricks I am no judge: but he appears to me to play well on the fiddle.

"January 30th (Friday), 1719. King Charles' Martyrdom. I was not at church, as my head ached very much.

"February 28th, 1719. We had news of the Chevalier de St. George, the Pretender, being taken and carried into the Castle of Milan.

"September 19th, 1719. John Parsons began his year last Tuesday. He is to shave my face twice a week, and my head once a fortnight, and I am to give him 100 faggots per annum.

"September 30th, 1719. Talked to Mrs. Beard, for Allan Savage, about her horse that was seized by the officers at Brighton running brandy.

"December 5th, 1719. My Lord Treep put a ferral and pick to my stick. [My Lord Treep was a tinker named Treep who lived in Treep's Lane. My Lord Burt, who is also mentioned in the diary, was a farrier.]

"July 28th, 1721. Paid Harry Wolvin of Twineham, for killing an otter in our parish. [An otter, of course, was a serious enemy to the owner of stews and ponds.]

"February 7th, 1722. Will and Jack went to Lewes to see a prize fight between Harris and another.

"September 18th, 1727. Dined at Mr. Hazelgrove's and cheapened a tombstone."

Thomas Marchant was buried September 17, 1728.

Less than two miles west of Hurstpierpoint is Albourne, so hidden away that one might know this part of the country well and yet be continually overlooking it. The western high road between Brighton and London passes within a stone's throw of Albourne, but one never suspects the existence, close by, of this retired village, so compact and virginal and exquisitely old fashioned. It is said that after the execution of Charles I Bishop Juxon lived for a while at Albourne Place during the Civil War, and once escaped the Parliamentary soldiers by disguising himself as a bricklayer. There is a priest's hiding hole in the house.

Some three miles north of Albourne is Twineham, another village which, situated only on a by-road midway between two lines of railway, has also preserved its bloom. Here, at the end of the seventeenth and beginning of the eighteenth centuries, at Hickstead Place, a beautiful Tudor mansion that still stands, lived Richard Stapley, another of the Sussex diarists whose MSS. have been selected for publication by the Sussex Archæological Society. I quote a few passages:—

"In ye month of November, 1692, there was a trout found in ye Poyningswish, in Twineham, which was 29 inches long from ye top of ye nose to ye tip of ye taile; and John fflint had him and eat him. He was left in a low slank after a fflood, and ye water fell away from him, and he died. The fish I saw at John fflint's house ye Sunday after they had him: and at night they boiled him for supper, but could not eat one halfe of him; and there was six of them at supper; John fflint and his wife Jane, and four of their children; and ye next day they all fell on him again, and compassed him."

Here we have the spectacle of a good man struggling with accuracy:—"August 19th, 1698. Paid Mr. Stheward for Dr. Comber's paraphrase on ye Common Prayer, 20s. and 6d. for carriage. I paid it at ye end of ye kitchen table next ye chamber stairs door, and nobody in ye room but he and I. No, it was ye end of ye table next ye parlour.

"April 26th, 1709. I bought a salmon-trout of William Lindfield of Grubbs, in Bolney, which he caught ye night before in his net, by his old orchard, which was wounded by an otter. The trout weighed 11 lbs. and 1/2; and was 3 foot 2 inches long from end to end, and but 2 foot 9 inches between ye eye and ye forke." There is also a record of a salmon trout being caught at Bolney early in the last century, which weighed 22lbs. and was sent to King George IV. at Brighton.

I must quote a prescription from the diary:—"To cure the hoopingcough:—get 3 field mice, flaw them, draw them, and roast one of them, and let the party afflicted eat it; dry the other two in the oven until they crumble to a powder, and put a little of this powder in what the patient drinks at night and in the morning." Mice played, and still play in remote districts, a large part in the rural pharmacopeia. A Sussex doctor once told me that he had directed the mother of a boy at Portslade to put some ice in a bag and tie it on the boy's forehead. When, the next day, the doctor asked after his patient, the mother replied briskly:—"Oh, Tommy's better, but the mice are dead."

The Stapley family ate an oatmeal pudding made in the following manner:—

Of oats decorticated take two pound,
And of new milk enough the same to dround;
Of raisins of the sun, ston'd, ounces eight;
Of currants, cleanly picked, an equal weight;
Of suet, finely sliced, an ounce at least;
And six eggs newly taken from the nest;
Season this mixture well with salt and spice;
Twill make a pudding far exceeding nice;
And you may safely feed on it like farmers.
For the receipt is learned Dr. Harmer's.

Richard Stapley's diary was continued by his son Anthony and grandson John. The most pleasing among the printed extracts is this:—"1736, May the 21st. The white horse was buried in the saw-pit in the Laine's wood. He was aged about thirty-five years, as far as I could find of people that knew him foaled. He had been in his time as good a horse as ever man was owner of, and he was buried in his skin being a good old horse."