Highways and Byways in Sussex/Chapter 27

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Highways and Byways in Sussex by Edward Verrall Lucas
The Ouse Valley
The Ouse at Piddinghoe.png

The Ouse at Piddinghoe.


CHAPTER XXVII


THE OUSE VALLEY


The two Ouses—Three round towers—Thirsty labourers—Telscombe—The hills and the sea—Mrs. Marriott Watson's Down poem—Newhaven—A Sussex miller—Seaford's past—A politic smuggler—Electioneering ingenuity—Bishopstone.


The road from Lewes to the sea runs along the edge of the Ouse levels, just under the bare hills, passing through villages that are little more than homesteads of the sheep-farmers, albeit each has its church—Iford, Rodmell, Southease, Piddinghoe—and so to Newhaven, the county's only harbour of any importance since the sea silted up the Shoreham bar. You may be as much out of the world in one of these minute villages as anywhere twice the distance from London; and the Downs above them are practically virgin soil. The Brighton horseman or walker takes as a rule a line either to Lewes or to Newhaven, rarely adventuring in the direction of Iford Hill, Highdole Hill, or Telscombe village, which nestles three hundred feet high, over Piddinghoe. By day the waggons ply steadily between Lewes and the port, but other travellers are few. Once evening falls the world is your own, with nothing but the bleat of sheep and the roar of the French boat trains to recall life and civilisation.


The air of this valley is singularly clear, producing on fine days a blue effect that is, I believe, peculiar to the district. In the sketches of a Brighton painter in water colours, Mr. Clem Lambert, who has worked much at Rodmell, the spirit of the river valleys of Sussex is reproduced with extraordinary fidelity and the minimum loss of freshness.

Rodmell.png

Rodmell.

Horsfield, rather than have no poetical blossom to deck his page at the mention of the Lewes river, quotes a passage from "The Task":

Here Ouse, slow winding through a level plain
Of spacious meads, with cattle sprinkled o'er,
Conducts the eye along his sinuous course
Delighted.

Dr. Johnson's remark that one green field is like another green field, might, one sees, be extended to rivers, for Cowper was, of course, describing the Ouse at Olney.

The first village out of Lewes on the Newhaven road is Kingston (one of three Sussex villages of this name), on the side of the hill, once the property of Sir Philip Sidney. Next is Iford, with straw blowing free and cows in its meadows; next Rodmell, whence Whiteway Bottom and Breaky Bottom lead to the highlands above: next Southease, where the only bridge over the Ouse between Lewes and Newhaven is to be crossed: a little village famous for a round church tower, of which Sussex knows but three, one other at St. Michael's, Lewes, and one at Piddinghoe, the next village.

The Southease rustics were once of independent mind, as may be gathered from the following extract from the "Manorial Customs of Southease-with-Heighton, near Lewes," in 1623: "Every reaper must have allowed him, at the cost of the lord or his farmer, one drinkinge in the morninge of bread and cheese, and a dinner at noone consistinge of rostmeate and other good victualls, meete for men and women in harvest time; and two drinkinges in the afternoone, one in the middest of their afternoone's work and the other at the ende of their day's work, and drinke alwayes duringe their work as neede shall require."

Telscombe, the capital of these lonely Downs and as good an objective as the walker who sets out from Brighton, Rottingdean, or Lewes to climb hills can ask, is a charming little shy hamlet which nothing can harm, snugly reposing in its combe, above Piddinghoe. Piddinghoe (pronounced Pidd'nhoo) is a compact village at the foot of the hill; but it has suffered in picturesqueness and character by its proximity to the commercial enterprise of Newhaven. Hussey, in his Notes on the Churches of ... Sussex, suggests that a field north of the village was once the site of a considerable Roman villa. A local sarcasm credits Piddinghoe people with the habit of shoeing their magpies.

Piddinghoe.png

Piddinghoe.

The Downs when we saw them first, between Midhurst and Chichester, formed an inland chain parallel with the shore: here, and eastward as far as Beachy Head, where they suddenly cease, their southern slopes are washed by the Channel. This companionship of the sea lends them an additional wildness: sea mists now and then envelop them in a cloud; sea birds rise and fall above their cliffs; the roar or sigh of the waves mingles with the cries of sheep; the salt savour of the sea is borne on the wind over the crisp turf. It was, I fancy, among the Downs in this part of Sussex that Mrs. Marriott-Watson wrote the intimately understanding lines which I take the liberty of quoting:

ON THE DOWNS.

Broad and bare to the skies
The great Down-country lies,
Green in the glance of the sun,
Fresh with the clean salt air;
Screaming the gulls rise from the fresh-turned mould,
Where the round bosom of the wind-swept wold
Slopes to the valley fair.

Where the pale stubble shines with golden gleam
The silver ploughshare cleaves its hard-won way
Behind the patient team,
The slow black oxen toiling through the day
Tireless, impassive still,
From dawning dusk and chill
To twilight grey.

Far off the pearly sheep
Along the upland steep
Follow their shepherd from the wattled fold,
With tinkling bell-notes falling sweet and cold
As a stream's cadence, while a skylark sings
High in the blue, with eager outstretched wings,
Till the strong passion of his joy be told.

But when the day grows old,
And night cometh fold on fold,
Dulling the western gold,
Blackening bush and tree,
Veiling the ranks of cloud,
In their pallid pomp and proud
That hasten home from the sea,
Listen—now and again if the night be still enow,
You may hear the distant sea range to and fro
Tearing the shingly bourne of his bounden track,
Moaning with hate as he fails and falleth back;

The Downs are peopled then;
Fugitive, low-browed men
Start from the slopes around
Over the murky ground
Crouching they run with rough-wrought bow and spear,
Now seen, now hid, they rise and disappear,
Lost in the gloom again.

Soft on the dew-fall damp
Scarce sounds the measured tramp
Of bronze-mailed sentinels,
Dark on the darkened fells
Guarding the camp.

The Roman watch-fires glow
Red on the dusk; and harsh
Cries a heron flitting slow
Over the valley marsh
Where the sea-mist gathers low.

Closer, and closer yet
Draweth the night's dim net
Hiding the troubled dead:
No more to see or know
But a black waste lying below,
And a glimmering blank o'erhead.

Of Newhaven there is little to say, except that in rough weather the traveller from France is very glad to reach it, and on a fine day the traveller from England is happy to leave it behind. In the churchyard is a monument in memory of the officers and crew of the Brazen, which went down off the town in 1800, and lost all hands save one.

On the way to Seaford, which is nearly three miles east, sheltering under its white headland (a preliminary sketch, as one might say, for Beachy Head), we pass the Bishopstone tide mills, once the property of a sturdy and prosperous Sussex autocrat named William Catt, the grower of the best pears in the county, and the first to welcome Louis Philippe (whom he had advised on milling in France) when he landed at Newhaven in exile. A good story told of William Catt, by Mr. Lower, in his Worthies of Sussex, illustrates not only the character of that sagacious and kindly martinet, but also of the Sussex peasant in its mingled independence and dependence, frankness and caution. Mr. Catt, having unbent among his retainers at a harvest supper, one of them, a little emboldened perhaps by draughts of Newhaven "tipper," thus addressed his master.
Southover Grange.png

Southover Grange.

"Give us yer hand, sir, I love ye, I love ye," but, he added, "I'm danged if I beant afeared of ye, though."

There was a hermitage on the cliff at Seaford some centuries ago. In 1372 the hermit's name was Peter, and we find him receiving letters of protection for the unusual term of five years. In the vestry of the church is an old monument bearing the riddling inscription: "... Also, near this place lie two mothers, three grandmothers, four aunts, four sisters, four daughters, four grand-daughters, three cousins—but VI persons." A record in the Seaford archives runs thus: "Dec. 24, 1652. Then were all accounts taken and all made even, from the beginning of ye world, of the former Bayliffes unto the present time, and there remained ... ye sum of twelve pounds, sixteen shillings, seven pence."

Millburgh House, Seaford, was of old called Corsica Hall, having been built (originally at Wellingham, near Lewes, and then moved) by a smuggler named Whitfield, who was outlawed for illicit traffic in Corsican wine. He obtained the removal of his outlawry by presenting George II. with a selection of his choicest vintages. Another agreeable story of local corruption is told concerning Seaford's old electioneering days. It was in 1798, during the candidature of Sir Godfrey Webster of Battle Abbey. Sir Godfrey was one day addressed by Mrs. S—— (nothing but Horsfield's delicacy keeps her name from fame) in the following terms: "Mr. S——, sir, will vote, of course, as he pleases—I have nothing to do or to say about him; but there is my gardener and my coachman, both of whom will, I am sure, be entirely guided by me. Now, they are both family men, Sir Godfrey, and I wish to do the best I can to serve them. Now, I know you are in great doubt, and that two sure votes are of great value: I'll tell you what you shall do. You shall give me £200; nobody will know any thing about it; there will be no danger—no bribery, Sir Godfrey, at all. I will desire the men to go and vote for you and Colonel Tarleton, and it will all be right, and no harm done. The bargain," adds Horsfield, "was struck—the money paid—the votes given as promised; and the election over, the old lady gave the two men £30 a piece, and pocketed the rest for the good of her country."

Seaford's neighbouring village, Bishopstone, in addition to its tide mills—the only tide mills in Sussex excepting that at Sidlesham, now disused—possessed once the oldest windmill in the county. In the very charming little church is buried James Hurdis, author of The Village Curate, whom we shall meet again at Burwash. From Bishopstone we may return to Lewes either by the road through South Heighton, Tarring Neville, Itford Farm, and Beddingham, or cross the river again at Southease, and retrace our earlier steps through Rodmell and Iford. That is the quicker way. The road through Beddingham is longer, and interesting rather for the hills above it than for anything upon it. To these hills we come in the next chapter.

Near Tarring Neville.png

Near Tarring Neville.