Highways and Byways in Sussex/Chapter 40

From Wikisource
Jump to: navigation, search
Highways and Byways in Sussex by Edward Verrall Lucas
Tunbridge Wells

CHAPTER XL


TUNBRIDGE WELLS


Over the border—The beginnings of the wells—Tunbridge Wells to-day—Mr. George Meredith—The Toad and other rocks—Eridge—Trespassing in Sussex—Saxonbury—Bayham Abbey—Lamberhurst—Withyham—The Sackvilles—A domestic autocrat—"To all you ladies now on land"—Withyham church—The Sackville monument—John Waylett—Beer and bells—Parish expenses—Buckhurst and Old Buckhurst—Ashdown Forest—Hartfield and Bolebroke—A wild region.


I have made Tunbridge Wells our last centre, because it is convenient; yet as a matter of strict topography, the town is not in Sussex at all, but in Kent.

In that it is builded upon hills, Tunbridge Wells is like Rome, and in that its fashionable promenade is under the limes, like Berlin; but in other respects it is merely a provincial English inland pleasure town with a past: rather arid, and except under the bracing conditions of cold weather, very tiring in its steepnesses. No wonder the small victoria and smaller pony carriage so flourish there.

The healthful properties of Tunbridge Wells were discovered, as I record a little later, in 1606; but it was not until Henrietta Maria brought her suite hither in 1630 that the success of the new cure was assured. Afterwards came Charles II. and his Court, and Tunbridge Wells was made; and thenceforward to fail to visit the town at the proper time each year (although one had the poorest hut to live in the while) was to write one's self down a boor. A more sympathetic patron was Anne, who
The Pantiles, Tunbridge Wells.png

The Pantiles, Tunbridge Wells.

gave the first stone basin for the spring—hence "Queen's Well"—and whose subscription of £100 led to the purchase of the pantiles that paved the walk now bearing that name. Subsequently it was called the Parade, but to the older style everyone has very sensibly reverted.

Tunbridge Wells is still a health resort, but the waters no longer constitute a part of the hygienic routine. Their companion element, air, is the new recuperative. Not that the spring at the foot of the Pantiles is wholly deserted: on the contrary, the presiding old lady does quite a business in filling and cleaning the little glasses; but those visitors that descend her steps are impelled rather by curiosity than ritual, and many never try again. Nor is the trade in Tunbridge ware, inlaid work in coloured woods, what it was. A hundred years ago there was hardly a girl of any pretensions to good form but kept her pins in a Tunbridge box.

The Pantiles are still the resort of the idle, but of the anonymous rather than famous variety. Our men of mark and great Chams of Literature, who once flourished here in the season, go elsewhere for their recreation and renovation—abroad for choice. Tunbridge Wells now draws them no more than Bath. But in the eighteenth century a large print was popular containing the portraits of all the illustrious intellectuals as they lounged on the Pantiles, with Dr. Johnson and Mr. Samuel Richardson among the chief lions.

The residential districts of Tunbridge Wells—its Mounts, Pleasant, Zion and Ephraim, with their discreet and prosperous villas—suggest to me only Mr. Meredith's irreproachable Duvidney ladies. In one of these well-ordered houses must they have lived and sighed over Victor's tangled life—surrounded by laurels and laburnum; the lawn either cut yesterday or to be cut to-day; the semicircular drive a miracle of gravel unalloyed; a pan of water for Tasso beside the dazzling step. Receding a hundred years, the same author peoples Tunbridge Wells again, for it was here, in its heyday, that Chloe suffered. On Rusthall Common is the famous Toad Rock, which is to Tunbridge Wells what Thorwaldsen's lion is to Lucerne, and the Leaning Tower to Pisa. Lucerne's lion emerged from the stone under the sculptor's mallet and chisel, but the Rusthall monster was evolved by natural processes, and it is a toad only by courtesy. An inland rock is, however, to most English people so rare an object that Rusthall has almost as many pilgrims as Stonehenge. The Toad is free; the High Rocks, however, which are a mile distant, cannot be inspected by the curious for less than sixpence. One must pass through a turnstile before these wonders are accessible. Rocks in themselves having insufficient drawing power, as the dramatic critics say, a maze has been added, together with swings, a seesaw, arbours, a croquet lawn, and all the proper adjuncts of a natural phenomenon. The effect is to make the rocks appear more unreal than any rocks ever seen upon the stage. Freed from their pleasure-garden surroundings they would become beautifully wild and romantic and tropically un-English; but as it is, with their notice boards and bridges, they are disappointing, except of course to children. They are no disappointment to children; indeed, they go far to make Tunbridge Wells a children's wonderland. There is no kind of dramatic game to which the High Rocks would not make the best background. Finer rocks, because more remote and free from labels and tea rooms, are those known as Penn's Rocks, three miles in the south-west, in a beautiful valley.

Eridge, whither all visitors to Tunbridge Wells must at one time or another drive, is the seat of the Marquis of Abergavenny, whose imposing A, tied, like a dressing gown, with heavy tassels, is embossed on every cottage for miles around. In character the park resembles Ashburnham, while in extent it vies with the great parks of the south-west, Arundel, Goodwood and Petworth; but it has none of their spacious coolnesses. Yet Eridge Park has joys that these others know not of—brake fern four feet high, and the conical hill on which stands Saxonbury Tower, jealously guarded from the intruding traveller by the stern fiat of "Mr. Macbean, steward." Sussex is a paradise of notice boards (there is a little district near Forest Row where the staple industry must be the prosecuting of trespassers), and one has come ordinarily to look upon these monitions without active resentment; but when the Caledonian descends from his native heath to warn the Sussex man off Sussex ground—more, to warn the Saxon from his own bury—the situation becomes acute. By taking, however, the precaution of asking at a not too adjacent cottage for permission to ascend the hill, one may circumvent the Scottish prosecutor.

The hill is very important ground in English history, as the following passage from Sir William Burrell's MSS. in the British Museum testifies:—"In Eridge Park are the remains of a military station of the Saxon invaders of the country, which still retains the name of Saxonbury Hill. It is on the high ground to the right, as the traveller passes from Frant to Mayfield. On the summit of this hill (from whence the cliffs of Dover may be seen) are to be traced the remains of an ancient fortification; the fosse is still plainly discernible, enclosing an area of about two acres, from whence there is but one outlet. The apex of the hill within is formed of a strong compact body of stone, brought hither from a distance, on which doubtless was erected some strong military edifice. This was probably one of the stations occupied by the Saxons under Ella, their famous chief, who, at the instance of Hengist, King of Kent, invaded England towards the close of the fifth century. It is said that they settled in Sussex, whence they issued in force to attack the important British station of Anderida or Andredceaster. Antiquaries are not agreed as to the precise situation of this military station; some imagining it to have been at Newenden, on the borders of Kent; others at Pevensey, or Hastings, in Sussex. The country, from the borders of Kent to those of Hampshire, comprises what was called the Forest of Andredsweald, now commonly called the Weald, was formerly full of strong holds and fastnesses, and was consequently well calculated for the retreat of the ancient Britons from before the regular armies of the Romans, as well as for the establishment of points of attack by the succeeding invaders who coped with them on terms somewhat reversed. The attack of the Saxons on Anderida was successful, and the consequence was their permanent establishment in Sussex and Surrey, from which time they probably retained a military station on this hill.

"There is likewise within the park a place called Danes Gate. This was doubtless a part of a military way; and as it would happen that the last successful invaders would occupy the same strong posts which had been formed by their predecessors, this Danes Gate was probably the military communication between Crowborough, undoubtedly a Danish station, and Saxonbury Hill."

The view from Saxonbury extends far in each quarter, embracing both lines of Downs, North and South. The long low irregular front of Eridge Castle is two or three miles to the north-west, with its lake before it.

Queen Elizabeth stayed at Eridge for six days in 1573, on her progress to Northiam, where we saw her dining and changing her shoes. Lord Burleigh, who accompanied her, found the country hereabouts dangerous, and "worse than in the Peak." It was another of the guests at Eridge that made Tunbridge Wells; for had not Dudley, Lord North, when recuperating there in 1606, discovered that the (Devil-flavoured) chalybeate water of the neighbourhood was beneficial, the spring would not have been enclosed nor would other of London's fatigued young bloods have drunk of it.

Enough remains of Bayham Abbey, five miles south-east of Tunbridge Wells, to show that it was once a very considerable monastery. The founder was Sir Robert de Turneham, one of the knights of Richard Coeur de Lion, famous for cracking many crowns with his "fauchion," and the founder also of Combwell Abbey at Goudhurst, not far distant. Edward I. and Edward II. were both entertained at Bayham, while a fortunate visit from St. Richard, Bishop of Chichester, put the Abbey in possession of a bed (on which

Bayham Abbey.png

Bayham Abbey.

he had slept) which cured all them that afterwards lay in it. Between Bayham and Goudhurst is Lamberhurst, on the boundary. (The church and part of the street are indeed in Kent.) Lamberhurst's boast is that its furnaces were larger than any in Sussex; and that they made the biggest guns. The old iron railings around St. Paul's are said to have come from the Lamberhurst iron works—2,500 in all, each five feet six inches in height, with seven gates. The Lamberhurst cannon not only served England, but some, it is whispered, found their way to French privateers and were turned against their native land.

Sweetest of spots in the neighbourhood of Tunbridge Wells is Withyham, in the west, lying to the north of Ashdown Forest, a small and retired village, with a charming church, a good inn (the Dorset Arms), Duckings, a superb piece of old Sussex architecture, Old Buckhurst, an interesting ruin, new Buckhurst's magnificent park, and some of the best country in the county. Once the South Down district is left behind I think that Withyham is the jewel of Sussex. Moreover, the proximity of the wide high spaces of Ashdown Forest seems to have cleared the air; no longer is one conscious of the fatigue that appertains to the triangular hill district between Tunbridge Wells, Robertsbridge and Uckfield.

Withyham is notable historically for its association with the great and sumptuous Sackville family, which has held Buckhurst since Henry II., and of which the principal figure is Thomas Sackville, Lord Buckhurst, first Earl of Dorset, who was born here in 1536, Queen Elizabeth's Lord Treasurer and part author of Gorboduc. After him came Robert Sackville, second earl, who founded Sackville College at East Grinstead; and then Richard, the third earl, famous for the luxury in which he lived at Knole in Kent and Dorset House in London. Among this nobleman's retinue was a first footman rejoicing (I hope) in the superlatively suitable name of Acton Curvette: a name to write a comedy around. Richard Sackville, the fifth earl, was a more domestic peer, of whom we have some intimate and amusing glimpses in the memorandum books and diaries which he kept at Knole. Thus:—

"Hy. Mattock for scolding to extremity on Sunday 12th October 1661 without cause0 0 3 "Hy. Mattock for disposing of my Cast linnen without my order0 0 3

"Robert Verrell for giving away my money0 0 6"

Lastly we come to Charles Sackville, sixth earl, that Admirable Crichton, the friend of Charles II. and the patron of poets, who spent the night before an engagement in the Dutch war in writing the sprightly verses, "To all you ladies now on land," wherein occurs this agreeable fancy:—

Then, if we write not by each post,
  Think not we are unkind;
Nor yet conclude our ships are lost
  By Dutchmen or by wind;
Our tears we'll send a speedier way:
The tide shall bring them twice a day.

The king with wonder and surprise,
  Will swear the seas grow bold;
Because the tides will higher rise
  Than e'er they did of old:
But let him know it is our tears
Bring floods of grief to Whitehall-stairs.


Upon the sixth Earl of Dorset's monument in Withyham Church is inscribed Pope's epitaph, beginning:—

Dorset, the grace of Courts, the Muses pride,
Patron of arts, and judge of nature dy'd!
The scourge of pride, though sanctify'd or great,
Of fops in learning, and of knaves in state:
Yet soft his nature, though severe his lay,
His anger moral, and his wisdom gay.

The church is very prettily situated on a steep mound, at the western foot of which is a sheet of water; at the eastern foot, the village. So hidden by trees is it that approaching Withyham from Hartfield one is unconscious of its proximity. The glory of the church is the monument, in the Sackville Chapel, to Thomas Sackville, youngest son of the fifth Earl of Dorset. There is nothing among the many tombs which we have seen more interesting than this, although for charm it is not to be compared with, say, the Shurley monument at Isfield. The young man reclines on the tomb; at one side of him is the figure of his father, and at the other, of his mother, both life-like and life-size, dressed in their ordinary style. The attitudes being extremely natural the total effect is curiously realistic. On the sides of the tomb, in bas-relief, are the figures of the six brothers and six sisters of the youth, some quite babies. The sculptor was Caius Cibber, Colley Cibber's father. Other monuments are also to be seen in the Sackville Chapel, but that which I have described is the finest.

Had Withyham church not been destroyed by fire, in 1663, in a "tempest of thunder and lightning," it would now be second to none in Sussex in interest and the richness of its tombs; for in that fire perished in the Sackville aisle, now no more, on the northern side, other and perhaps nobler Sackville monuments. The vaults, where many Sackvilles lie, were not however injured. In the Sackville Chapel is a large window recording the genealogy of the family, which is now represented by Earl De la Warr, at the foot of which are the words in Latin, "The noble family of Sackville here awaits the Resurrection."

Withyham has three of the bells of John Waylett, an itinerant bell-founder at the beginning of the eighteenth century. His method was to call on the vicar and ask if anything were wanted; and if a bell was cracked, or if a new one was desired, he would dig a mould in a neighbouring field, build a fire, collect his metal and perform the task on the spot. Waylett's business might be called the higher tinkering. Sussex has some forty of his bells. He cast the Steyning peal in 1724, and earlier in the same year he had made a stay at Lewes, erecting a furnace there, as Benvenuto Cellini tells us he used to do, and remedying defective peals all around. Among others he recast the old treble and made a new treble for Mayfield. It seems to have been universally thirsty work: the churchwardens' papers contain an account for beer in connection with the enterprise:

£  s.  d.
For beer to the ringers when the Bell founder was here 2 6
When the bell was weighed 3 6
When the bell was loaded 2 0
In carrying ye bell to Lewes and back again 1 10 0
When the bell was waid and hung up 3 0
For beer to the officers and several others a hanging up ye bell 18 0
In beer to the ringers when ye bell was hung 6 6

The Withyham churchwardens also expended 3s. 6d. on beer when Waylett came to spread thirst abroad. I find also among the entries from the parish account-book, which Mr. Sutton, the vicar, prints in his Historical Notes on Withyham, a very interesting and informing book, the following items:

s. d.
1711. April ye 20, pd. to Goody Sweatman for Beere had at ye Books making 2 6
Aug. ye 19, pd. to Edward Groombridge for digging a grave and Ringing ye Nell for Goody Hammond 2 6
Aug. ye 26, pd. to Sweatman for beere at ye Writing of Boocks for ye window-tax 2 0
Aug. 15th, Pd. to Sweatman for beer at ye chusing of surveyor Decbr ye 5 0
1714. Pd. to good wife Sweatman for beer when ye bells were put to be cast 2 6

Buckhurst, one of the seats of Lord De la Warr, is a splendid domain, with the most perfect golf greens I ever saw, but no deer, all of them having been exiled a few years since. The previous home of the Sackvilles was Old Buckhurst in the valley to the west, of which only the husk now remains. One can see that the mansion was of enormous extent; and the walls were so strongly built that when an attempt was recently made to destroy and utilise a portion for road mending, the project had to be abandoned on account of the hardness of the mortar. One beautiful tower (out of six) still stands. An underground passage, which is said variously to lead to the large lake in Buckhurst Park, to the church, and to Bolebroke at Hartfield, has never been explored farther than the first door that blocks the way; nor have the seven cord of gold, rumoured to be buried near the house, come to light.

It was of Duckings, the beautiful timbered farmhouse of which Withyham is justly proud, that Jefferies thus wrote, in his essay on "Buckhurst Park": "Our modern architects try to make their rooms mathematically square, a series of brick boxes, one on the other like pigeon-holes in a bureau, with flat ceilings and right angles in the corners, and are said to go through a profound education before they can produce these wonderful specimens of art. If our old English folk could not get an arched roof, then they loved to have it pointed, with polished timber beams in which the eye rested as in looking upwards through a tree. Their rooms they liked of many shapes, and not at right angles in the corners, nor all on the same dead level of flooring. You had to go up a step into one, and down a step into another, and along a winding passage into a third, so that each part of the house had its individuality. To these houses life fitted itself and grew to them; they were not mere walls, but became part of existence. A man's house was not only his castle, a man's house was himself. He could not tear himself away from his house, it was like tearing up the shrieking mandrake by the root, almost death itself. Now we walk in and out of our brick boxes unconcerned whether we live in this villa or that, here or yonder. Dark beams inlaid in the walls support the gables; heavier timber, placed horizontally, forms, as it were, the foundation of the first floor. This horizontal beam has warped a little in the course of time, the alternate heat and cold of summers and winters that make centuries. Up to this beam the lower wall is built of brick set to curve of the timber, from which circumstance it would appear to be a modern insertion. The beam, we may be sure, was straight originally, and the bricks have been fitted to the curve which it subsequently took. Time, no doubt, ate away the lower work of wood, and necessitated the insertion of new materials. The slight curve of the great beam adds, I think, to the interest of the old place, for it is a curve that has grown and was not premeditated; it has grown like the bough of a tree, not from any set human design. This, too, is the character of the house. It is not large, nor overburdened with gables, not ornamental, nor what is called striking, in any way, but simply an old English house, genuine and true. The warm sunlight falls on the old red tiles, the dark beams look the darker for the glow of light, the shapely cone of the hop-oast rises at the end; there are swallows and flowers, and ricks and horses, and so it is beautiful because it is natural and honest. It is the simplicity that makes it so touching, like the words of an old ballad. Now at Mayfield there is a timber house which is something of a show place, and people go to see it, and which certainly has many more lines in its curves and woodwork, but yet did not appeal to me, because it seemed too purposely ornamental. A house designed to look well, even age has not taken from its artificiality. Neither is there any cone nor cart-horses about. Why, even a tall chanticleer makes a home look homely. I do like to see a tall proud chanticleer strutting in the yard and barely giving way as I advance, almost ready to do battle with a stranger like a mastiff. So I prefer the simple old home by Buckhurst Park."

The forest of which Ashdown Forest was a part extended once in unbroken sombre density from Kent to Hampshire, a distance of 120 miles. It was known to the Romans as Sylva Anderida, giving its name to Anderida (or Pevensey) on the edge of it; to the Saxons it was Andreaswald. Wolves, wild boar and deer then roamed its dark recesses. Our Ashdown Forest—all that now remains of this wild track—was for long a Royal hunting ground. Edward III. granted it to John of Gaunt, who, there's no doubt, often came hither for sport. It is supposed that he built a chapel near Nutley ("Chapel Wood" marks the site) where, on one occasion at least, John Wycliffe the reformer officiated. At Forest Row, as we have seen, the later lords who hunted here built their lodges and kept their retainers. There are no longer any deer in the Forest; the modern sportsman approaches it with a cleek where his forerunner carried a bow. A hundred years ago, in the smuggling days, it was a very dangerous region.

Ashdown Forest, from East Grinstead.png

Ashdown Forest, from East Grinstead.

Hartfield, the village next to Withyham in the west, is uninteresting; but it has a graceful church, and at Bolebroke, once the home of the Dalyngruges, whom we met at Bodiam, and later of the Sackvilles, are the remains of a noble brick mansion. The towered gateway still stands, and it is not difficult to reconstruct in the mind's eye the house in its best period. Of old cottage architecture Hartfield also has a pretty example in Lych-Gate Cottage, by the churchyard. "Castle field," north of the village, probably marks the site of an ancient castle, or hunting lodge, of the Barons of Pevensey. That there was good hunting in these parts the name Hartfield itself goes to prove.

Between Withyham and Hartfield in the north, and Crowborough Beacon and Wych Cross in the south, is some of the finest open country in Sussex, where one may walk for hours and meet no human creature. Here are silent desolate woods—the Five Hundred Acre Wood, under Crowborough, chief of them—and vast wastes of undulating heath, rising here and there to great heights crowned with fir trees, as at Gill's Lap. A few enclosed estates interrupt the forest's open freedom, but nothing can tame it. Sombre dark heather gives the prevailing note, but between Old Lodge and Pippinford Park I once came upon a green and luxuriant valley that would not have been out of place in Tyrol; while there is a field near Chuck Hatch where in April one may see more dancing daffodils than ever Wordsworth did.

And here we leave the county.