Highways and Byways in Sussex/Chapter 38

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Highways and Byways in Sussex by Edward Verrall Lucas
Winchelsea and Rye

CHAPTER XXXVIII


WINCHELSEA AND RYE


Medieval Sussex—The suddenness of Rye—The approach by night—Cities of the plain—Old Winchelsea—The freakish sea—New Winchelsea—The eternal French problem—Modern Winchelsea—The Alard tombs—Denis Duval and the Westons—John Wesley—Old Rye—John Fletcher—The Jeakes'—An unknown poet—Rye church—The eight bells—Rye's streets—Rye ancient and modern—A Rye ceramist—Pett—Icklesham's accounts—A complacent epitaph—Iden and Playden—Udimore's church—Brede Place—The Oxenbridges—Dean Swift as a baby.


In the opinion of many good judges Sussex has nothing to offer so fascinating as Winchelsea and Rye; and in certain reposeful moods, when the past seems to be more than the present or future, I can agree with them. We have seen many ancient towns in our progress through the county—Chichester around her cathedral spire, Arundel beneath her grey castle, Lewes among her hills—but all have modern blood in their veins. Winchelsea and Rye seem wholly of the past. Nothing can modernise them.

Rye approached from the east is the suddenest thing in the world. The traveller leaves Ashford, in a South Eastern train, amid all the circumstances of ordinary travel; he passes through the ordinary scenery of Kent; the porters call Rye, and in a moment he is in the middle ages.

Rye is only a few yards from its station: Winchelsea, on the other hand, is a mile from the line, and one has time on the road to understand one's surroundings. It is important that the traveller who wishes to experience the right medieval thrill should come to Winchelsea either at dusk or at night. To make acquaintance with any new town by night is to double one's pleasure; for there is a first joy in the curious half-seen strangeness of the streets and houses, and a further joy in correcting by the morrow's light the distorted impressions gathered in the dark.

The Landgate, Rye.png

The Landgate, Rye.

To come for the first time upon Winchelsea at dusk, whether from the station or from Rye, is to receive an impression almost if not quite unique in England; since there is no other town throned like this upon a green hill, to be gained only through massive gateways. From the station one would enter at the Pipewell Gate; from Rye, by the Strand Gate. The Strand approach is perhaps a shade finer and more romantically unreal.

Winchelsea and Rye are remarkable in being not only perched each upon a solitary hillock in a vast level or marsh, but in being hillocks in themselves. In the case of Winchelsea there are trees and green spaces to boot, but Rye and its hillock are one; every inch is given over to red brick and grey stone. They are true cities of the plain. Between them are three miles of flat meadow, where, among thousands of sheep, stands the grey rotundity of Camber Castle. All this land is polder, as the Dutch call it, yet not reclaimed from the sea by any feat of engineering, as about the Helder, but presented by Neptune as a free and not too welcome gift to these ancient boroughs—possibly to equalise his theft of acres of good park at Selsey. Once a Cinque Port of the first magnitude, Winchelsea is now an inland resort of the antiquary and the artist. Where fishermen once dropped their nets, shepherds now watch their sheep; where the marauding French were wont to rush in with sword and torch, tourists now toil with camera and guide-book.

The light above the sheep levels changes continually: at one hour Rye seems but a stone's throw from Winchelsea; at another she is miles distant; at a third she looms twice her size through the haze, and Camber is seen as a fortress of old romance.

Rye stands where it always stood: but the original Winchelsea is no more. It was built two miles south-south-east of Rye, on a spot since covered by the sea but now again dry land. At Old Winchelsea William the Conqueror landed in 1067 after a visit to Normandy; in 1138 Henry II. landed there, while the French landed often, sometimes disastrously and sometimes not. In those days Winchelsea had seven hundred householders and fifty inns. In 1250, however, began her downfall. Holinshed writes:—"On the first day of October (1250), the moon, upon her change, appearing exceeding red and swelled, began to show tokens of the great tempest of wind that followed, which was so huge and mightie, both by land and sea, that the like had not been lightlie knowne, and seldome, or rather never heard of by men then alive. The sea forced contrarie to his natural course, flowed twice without ebbing, yeelding such a rooring that the same was heard (not without great woonder) a farre distance from the shore. Moreover, the same sea appeared in the darke of the night to burne, as it had been on fire, and the waves to strive and fight togither after a marvellous sort, so that the mariners could not devise how to save their ships where they laie at anchor, by no cunning or shift which they could devise. At Hert-burne three tall-ships perished without recoverie, besides other smaller vessels. At Winchelsey, besides other hurte that was doone, in bridges, milles, breakes, and banks, there were 300 houses and some churches drowned with the high rising of the water course."

The Winchelsea people, however, did not abandon their town. In 1264 Henry III. was there on his way to the Battle of Lewes, and later, Eleanor, wife of Henry's conqueror, de Montfort, was there too, and encouraged by her kindness to them the Winchelsea men took to active sea piracy, which de Montfort encouraged. In 1266, however, Prince Edward, who disliked piracy, descended upon the town and chastised it bloodily; while on February 4, 1287, a greater punishment came, for during another storm the town was practically drowned, all the flat land between Pett and Hythe being inundated. New Winchelsea, the Winchelsea of to-day, was forthwith begun under royal patronage on a rock near Icklesham, the north and east sides of which were washed by the sea. A castle was set there, and gates, of which three still stand—Pipewell, Strand and New—rose from the earth. The Grey Friars monastery and other religious houses were reproduced as at Old Winchelsea, and a prosperous town quickly existed.

New Winchelsea was soon busy. In 1350 a battle between the English and Spanish fleets was waged off the town, an exciting spectacle for the Court, who watched from the high ground. Edward III., the English king, when victory was his, rode to Etchingham for the night. In 1359, 3,000 Frenchmen entered Winchelsea and set fire to it; while in 1360 the Cinque Ports navy sailed from Winchelsea and burned Luce. Such were the reprisals of those days. In 1376 the French came again and were repulsed by the Abbot of Battle, but in 1378 the Abbot had to run. In 1448 the French came for the last time, the sea having become very shallow; and a little later the sea receded altogether, Henry VIII. suppressed the religious houses, and Winchelsea's heyday was over.

She is now a quiet, aloof settlement of pleasant houses and gardens, prosperous and idle. Rye might be called a city of trade, Winchelsea of repose. She spreads her hands to the sun and is content.

Winchelsea's church stands, as a church should, in the midst of its green acre, fully visible from every side—the very antipodes of Rye. Large as it now is, it was once far larger, for only the chancel and side aisles remain. The glory of the church is the canopied tomb of Gervase Alard, Admiral of the Cinque Ports, and that of his grandson Stephen Alard, also Admiral, both curiously carved with grotesque heads. The roof beams of the church, timber from wrecked or broken ships, are of an integrity so thorough that a village carpenter who recently climbed up to test them blunted all his tools in the enterprise.

All that remains of the Grey Friars monastery may now be seen (on Mondays only) in the estate called The Friars: the shell of the chapel's choir, prettily covered with ivy. Here once lived, in the odour of perfect respectability, the brothers Weston, who, country gentlemen of quiet habit at home, for several years ravaged the coach roads elsewhere as highwaymen, and were eventually hanged at Tyburn. Their place in literature is, of course, Denis Duval, which Thackeray wrote in a house on the north of the churchyard, and which is all of Winchelsea and Rye compact, as the author's letters to Mr. Greenwood, editor of Cornhill, detailing the plot (in the person of Denis himself) go to show. Thus:—

Sedilia and Tombs of Gervase and Stephen Alard, Winchelsea.png

Sedilia and Tombs of Gervase and Stephen Alard, Winchelsea.

"I was born in the year 1764, at Winchelsea, where my father was a grocer and clerk of the church. Everybody in the place was a good deal connected with smuggling.

"There used to come to our house a very noble French gentleman, called the Count de la Motte, and with him a German, the Baron de Lütterloh. My father used to take packages to Ostend and Calais for these two gentlemen, and perhaps I went to Paris once, and saw the French Queen.

"The squire of our town was Squire Weston of the Priory, who, with his brother, kept one of the genteelest houses in the country. He was churchwarden of our church, and much respected. Yes, but if you read the Annual Register of 1781, you will find that on the 13th July the sheriffs attended at the Tower of London to receive custody of a De la Motte, a prisoner charged with high treason. The fact is, this Alsatian nobleman being in difficulties in his own country (where he had commanded the Regiment Soubise), came to London, and under pretence of sending prints to France and Ostend, supplied the French Ministers with accounts of the movements of the English fleets and troops. His go-between was Lütterloh, a Brunswicker, who had been a crimping-agent, then a servant, who was a spy of France and Mr. Franklin, and who turned king's evidence on La Motte, and hanged him.

"This Lütterloh, who had been a crimping-agent for German troops during the American war, then a servant in London during the Gordon riots, then an agent for a spy, then a spy over a spy, I suspect to have been a consummate scoundrel, and doubly odious from speaking English with a German accent.

"What if he wanted to marry THAT CHARMING GIRL, who lived with Mr. Weston at Winchelsea? Ha! I see a mystery here.

"What if this scoundrel, going to receive his pay from the English Admiral, with whom he was in communication at Portsmouth, happened to go on board the Royal George the day she went down?

"As for George and Joseph Weston, of the Priory, I am sorry to say they were rascals too. They were tried for robbing the Bristol mail in 1780; and being acquitted for want of evidence, were tried immediately after on another indictment for forgery—Joseph was acquitted, but George was capitally convicted. But this did not help poor Joseph. Before their trials, they and some others broke out of Newgate, and Joseph fired at, and wounded, a porter who tried to stop him, on Snow Hill. For this he was tried and found guilty on the Black Act, and hung along with his brother.

"Now, if I was an innocent participator in De la Motte's treasons, and the Westons' forgeries and robberies, what pretty scrapes I must have been in.

"I married the young woman, whom the brutal Lütterloh would have had for himself, and lived happy ever after."

And again:—

"My grandfather's name was Duval; he was a barber and perruquier by trade, and elder of the French Protestant church at Winchelsea. I was sent to board with his correspondent, a Methodist grocer, at Rye.

"These two kept a fishing-boat, but the fish they caught was many and many a barrel of Nantz brandy, which we landed—never mind where—at a place to us well known. In the innocence of my heart, I—a child—got leave to go out fishing. We used to go out at night and meet ships from the French coast.

"I learned to scuttle a marlinspike,
 reef a lee-scupper,
 keelhaul a bowsprit

as well as the best of them. How well I remember the jabbering of the Frenchmen the first night as they handed the kegs over to us! One night we were fired into by his Majesty's revenue cutter Lynx. I asked what those balls were fizzing in the water, etc.

"I wouldn't go on with the smuggling; being converted by Mr. Wesley, who came to preach to us at Rye—but that is neither here nor there. …"

The Ypres Tower, Rye.png

The Ypres Tower, Rye.

It was under the large tree of the west wall of the churchyard that in 1790 John Wesley preached his last outdoor sermon, afterwards walking through "that poor skeleton of ancient Winchelsea," as he called it.

Rye, like Winchelsea, has had a richer history than I can cope with. She was an important seaport from the earliest times; and among other of our enemies who knew her value were the Danes, two hundred and fifty of whose vessels entered the harbour in the year 893. Later the French continually menaced her, hardly less than her sister Cinque Port, but Rye bore so little malice that during the persecutions in France in the sixteenth century she received hundreds of Huguenot refugees, whose descendants still live in the town. Many monarchs have come hither, among them Queen Elizabeth, in 1573, dubbing Rye "Rye Royal" and Winchelsea "Little London."

Rye has had at least one notable son, John Fletcher the dramatist, associate of Francis Beaumont and perhaps of Shakespeare, and author of "The Faithful Shepherdess." Fletcher's father was vicar of Rye. The town also gave birth to a curious father, son, and grandson, all named Samuel Jeake. The first, born in 1623, the author of "The Charters of the Cinque Ports," 1728, was a lawyer, a bold Nonconformist, a preacher, an astrologer and an alchemist, whose library contained works in fifteen languages but no copy of Shakespeare or Milton. He left a treatise on the Elixir of Life. The second, at the age of nineteen, was "somewhat acquainted with the Latin, Greek, and Hebrew, rhetoric, logic, poetry, natural philosophy, arithmetic, geometry, cosmography, astronomy, astrology, geography, theology, physics, dialling, navigation, caligraphy, stenography, drawing, heraldry and history." He also drew horoscopes, wrote treatises on astrology and other sciences, suffered, like his father, for his religion, and when he was twenty-nine married Elizabeth Hartshorne, aged thirteen and a half. They had six children. The third Samuel Jeake was famous for constructing a flying machine, which refused to fly, and nearly killed him.

Rye also possessed an unknown poet. On a blank leaf in an old book in the town's archives is written this poem, in the hand of Henry VIII.'s time:—

What greater gryffe may hape
Trew lovers to anoye,
Then absente for to sepratte them
From ther desiered joye?

What comforte reste them then
To ease them of ther smarte,
But for to thincke and myndful bee
Of them they love in harte?

And eicke that they assured bee
Etche toe another in harte,
That nothinge shall them seperate
Untylle deathe doe them parte?

And thoughe the dystance of the place
Doe severe us in twayne,
Yet shall my harte thy harte imbrace
Tyll we doe meete agayne.

The church, the largest in Sussex, dominates Rye from every point, and so tightly are the houses compressed that from the plain the spire seems to be the completion not only of the church but of the town too. The building stands in what is perhaps the quietest and quaintest church square in England, possessing beyond all question the discreetest of pawnbroker's shops, marked by three brass balls that positively have charm. The church is cool and spacious, with noble plain windows (and one very pretty little one by Burne-Jones), and some very interesting architectural features. Too little care seems, however, to have been spent upon it at some previous time. The verger shows with a pride little short of proprietary a mahogany altar said to have been taken from one of the vessels of the Armada (and therefore oddly inappropriate for a Church of England service), and the tomb of one Alan Grebell, who, happening one night in 1742 to be wearing the cloak of his brother-in-law the Mayor, was killed in mistake for him by a "sanguinary butcher" named Breeds. Breeds, who was hanged in chains for his crime, remains perhaps the most famous figure in the history of Rye.

Externally Rye church is magnificent, but the pity of it is that its encroaching square deprives one of the power to study it as a whole. Among the details, however, are two admirable flying buttresses. The clock over the beautiful north window, which is said to have been given to the town by Queen Elizabeth, is remarkable for the two golden cherubs that strike the hours, and the pendulum that swings in the central tower of the church, very nigh the preacher's head.

Rye's eight bells bear the following inscription:—

To honour both of God and King
Our voices shall in concert ring.

May heaven increase their bounteous store
And bless their souls for evermore.

Whilst thus we join in joyful sound
May love and loyalty abound.

Ye people all who hear me ring
Be faithful to your God and King.

Such wondrous power to music's given
It elevates the soul to heaven.

If you have a judicious ear
You'll own my voice is sweet and clear.

Our voices shall with joyful sound
Make hills and valleys echo round.

In wedlock bands all ye who join,
  With hands your hearts unite;
So shall our tuneful tongues combine
  To laud the nuptial rite.

Ye ringers, all who prize
  Your health and happiness,
Be sober, merry, wise,
  And you'll the same possess.

Hardly less interesting than the church are the by-streets of Rye, so old and simple and quiet and right; particularly perhaps Mermaid Street, with its beautiful hospital. In the High Street, which is busier, is the George Inn, the rare possessor of a large assembly room with a musicians' gallery. One only of Rye's gates is standing—the Landgate; but on the south rampart of the town is the Ypres Tower (called Wipers by the prosaic inhabitants), a relic of the twelfth century, guarding Rye once from perils by sea and now from perils by land. Standing by the tower one may hear below shipbuilders busy at work and observe all the low-pulsed life of the river. A mile or so away is Rye Harbour, and beyond it the sea; across the intervening space runs a little train with its freight of golf players. In the east stretches Romney Marsh to the hills of Folkestone.

Extremes meet in Rye. When I was last there the passage of the Landgate was made perilous by an approaching Panhard; the monastery of the Augustine friars on Conduit Hill had become a Salvation Army barracks; and in the doorway of the little fourteenth-century chapel of the Carmelites, now a private house, in the church square, a perambulator waited. Moreover, in the stately red house at the head of Mermaid Street the author of The Awkward Age prosecutes his fascinating analyses of twentieth-century temperaments.

Among the industries of Rye is the production of an ingenious variety of pottery achieved by affixing to ordinary vessels of earthenware a veneer of broken pieces of china—usually fragments of cups and saucers—in definite patterns that sometimes reach a magnificence almost Persian. For the most part the result is not perhaps beautiful, but it is always gay, and the Rye potter who practises the art deserves encouragement. I saw last summer a piece of similar ware in a cottage on the banks of the Ettrick, but whether it had travelled thither from Rye, or whether Scotch artists work in the same medium, I do not know. Mr. Gasson, the artificer (the dominating name of Gasson is to Rye what that of Seiler is to Zermatt), charges a penny for the inspection of the four rooms of his house in which his pottery, his stuffed birds and other curiosities are collected. The visit must be epoch-making in any life. Never again will a broken tea-cup be to any of Mr. Gasson's patrons merely a broken tea-cup. Previously it may have been that and nothing more; henceforward it is valuable material which, having completed one stage of existence, is, like the good Buddhist, entering upon another of increased radiance. More, broken china may even become the symbol of Rye.

Court Lodge, Udimore.png

Court Lodge, Udimore.

Between Hastings and Winchelsea are the villages of Guestling, Pett, and Icklesham, the last two on the edge of the Level. Of these, Icklesham is the most interesting, Guestling having recently lost its church by fire, and Pett church being new. Pett stands in a pleasant position at the end of the high ground, with nothing in the east but Pett Level, and the sea only a mile away. At very low tide the remains of a submerged forest were once discernible, and may still be.

Icklesham also stands on the ridge further north, overlooking the Level and the sea, with Winchelsea not two miles distant in the east. The church is a very fine one, with a most interesting Norman tower in its midst. The churchwardens accounts contain some quaint entries:

1732. Paid for ye Stokes [stocks] £4 10s. 8-3/4d.

1735. January ye13 pd for a pint of wine and for eight pound of mutton for Good[man] Row and Good[man] Winch and Goody Sutors for their being with Goody in her fitts 3s.

1744. Fevery ye29 paid Gudy Tayler for going to Winshelse for to give her Arthor Davy [affidavit] 1s. 6d.

1746. April 26 gave the Ringers for Rejoycing when yeRebels was beat 15s. (This refers to Culloden. There are two sides in every battle; how do Burns's lines run?—

Drumossie moor—Drumossie day—
A waefu' day it was to me!
For there I lost my father dear,
My father dear, and brethren three.)

One of the Icklesham gravestones, standing over the grave of James King, who died aged seventeen, has this complacent couplet:

God takes the good—too good on earth to stay,
And leaves the bad—too bad to take away.

Two miles to the west of Icklesham, at Snaylham, close to the present railway, once stood the home of the Cheyneys, a family that maintained for many years a fierce feud with the Oxenbridges of Brede, whither we soon shall come. A party of Cheyneys once succeeded in catching an Oxenbridge asleep in his bed, and killed him. Old Place farm, a little north of Icklesham, between the village and the line, marks the site of Old Place, the mansion of the Fynches, earls of Winchelsea.

The mainland proper begins hard by Rye, on the other side of the railway, where Rye Hill carries the London road out of sight. This way lie Playden, Iden, and Peasmarsh: Playden, with a slender spire, of a grace not excelled in a county notable, as we have seen, for graceful spires, but a little overweighted perhaps by its cross, within whose church is the tomb of a Flemish brewer, named Zoctmanns, calling for prayers for his soul; Iden, with a square tower and a stair turret, a village taking its name from that family of which Alexander Iden,

Udimore Church.png

Udimore Church

slayer of Jack Cade, was a member, its home being at Mote, now non-existent; and Peasmarsh, whose long modest church, crowned by a squat spire, may be again seen, like the swan upon St. Mary's Lake, in the water at the foot of the churchyard. At Peasmarsh was born a poor artificial poet
Brede Place.png

Brede Place.

named William Pattison, in whose works I have failed to find anything of interest.

The two most interesting spots in the hilly country immediately north of the Brede valley (north of Winchelsea) are Udimore and Brede. Concerning Udimore church, which externally has a family resemblance to that of Steyning, it is told that it was originally planned to rise on the other side of the little river Ree. The builders began their work, but every night saw the supernatural removal of the stones to the present site, while a mysterious voice uttered the words "O'er the mere! O'er the mere!" Hence, says the legend, the present position of the fane, and the beautiful name Udimore, or "O'er the mere," which, of course, becomes Uddymer among the villagers.

From Udimore one reaches Brede by turning off the high road about two miles to the east. But it is worth while to keep to the road a little longer, and entering Gilly Wood (on the right) explore as wild and beautiful a ravine as any in the county. And, on the Brede by-road, it is worth while also to turn aside again in order to see Brede Place. This house, like all the old mansions (it is of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries), is set in a hollow, and is sufficiently gloomy in appearance and surroundings to lend colour to the rumour that would have it haunted—a rumour originally spread by the smugglers who for some years made the house their headquarters. An underground passage is said to lead from Brede Place to the church, a good part of a mile distant; but as is usual with underground passages, the legend has been held so dear that no one seems to have ventured upon the risk of disproving it. Amid these medieval surroundings the late Stephen Crane, the American writer, conceived some of his curiously modern stories.

One of the original owners (the Oxenbridges) like Col. Lunsford of East Hoathly was credited by the country people with an appetite for children. Nothing could compass his death but a wooden saw, with which after a drunken bout the villagers severed him in Stubb's Lane, by Groaning Bridge. Not all the family, however, were bloodthirsty, for at least two John Oxenbridges of the sixteenth century were divines, one a Canon of Windsor, the other a "grave and reverent preacher."

The present vicar of Brede, the village on the hill above Brede Place, has added to the natural antiquities of his church several alien curiosities, chief among them being the cradle in which Dean Swift was rocked. It is worth a visit to Brede church to be persuaded that that matured Irishman ever was a baby.

Brede Place, from the South.png

Brede Place, from the South.