Highways and Byways in Sussex/Chapter 32
CROWBOROUGH AND MAYFIELD
Crowborough the suburban—Rotherfield's three rivers—The extra ribs—Wild flowers and railway companies—The perfect hill—An arid district—St. Dunstan and the Devil—Why Tunbridge Wells waters are chalybeate—St. Dunstan's feats—An unencouraging memento mori—Mayfield church—Mayfield street—The diary of Mr. Walter ale, schoolmaster.
In the spring of this year (1903) the walls and fences of Crowborough were covered with the placards of a firm of estate agents describing the neighbourhood (in the manner of the great George Robins) as "Scotland in Sussex." The simile may be true of the Ashdown Forest side of the Beacon (although involving an unnecessary confusion of terms), but "Hampstead in Sussex" would be a more accurate description of Crowborough proper. Never was a fine remote hill so be-villa'd. The east slope is all scaffold-poles and heaps of bricks, new churches and chapels are sprouting, and the many hoardings announce that Follies, Pierrots, or conjurors are continually imminent. Crowborough itself has shops that would not disgrace Croydon, and a hotel where a Lord Mayor might feel at home. Houses in their own grounds are commoner than cottages, and near the summit the pegs of surveyors and the name-boards of avenues yet to be built testify to the charms which our Saxon Caledonia has already exerted.
But to say this is not to say all. Crowborough may be populous and over-built; but it is still a glorious eminence, the healthiest and most bracing inland village in the county, and the key to its best moorland country. Since Crowborough's normal visitor either plays golf or is contented with a very modest radius, the more adventurous walker may quickly be in the solitudes.
In the little stone house below the forge Richard Jefferies lived for some months at the end of his life.
Crowborough is crowned by a red hotel which can never pass into the landscape; Rotherfield, its companion hill on the east, on the other side of the Jarvis Brook valley, is surmounted by a beautiful church with a tall shingled spire, that must have belonged to the scene from the first. This spire darts up from the edge of the forest ridge like a Pharos for the Weald of Kent. The church was dedicated to St. Denis of Paris by a Saxon chieftain who was cured of his ills by a pilgrimage to the Saint's monastery. That was in 792. In the present church, which retains the dedication, is an ancient mural painting representing the martyrdom of St. Lawrence. There is also a Burne-Jones window.
Were it not for Rotherfield both Sussex and Kent would lack some of their waterways, for the Rother and the Ouse rise here, and also the Medway. A local saying credits the women of Rotherfield with two ribs more than the men, to account for their superior height.
Under a hedge half-way between Rotherfield and Jarvis Brook grow the largest cowslips in Sussex, as large as cowslips may be without changing their sex. But this is all cowslip country—from the field of Rother to the field of Uck. And it is the land of the purple orchis too, the finest blooms of which are to be found on the road between Rotherfield and Mayfield; but you must scale a fence to get them, because (like all the best wild flowers) they belong to the railway.
Between Rotherfield and Mayfield is a little hill, trim and conical as though Miss Greenaway had designed it, and perfect in deportment, for it has (as all little conical hills should have) a white windmill on its top. Around the mill is a circular track for carts, which runs nearer the sails than any track I remember ever to have dared to walk on. Standing by this mill one opens many miles of Kent and Surrey: due north the range of chalk Downs on which is the Pilgrim's Way, between Merstham and Westerham, and in front of that Toy's Hill and Ide Hill and their sandy companions, on the north edge of the Weald.
Mayfield is a city on a hill on the skirts of the hot hop district of which Burwash is the Sussex centre. To walk about it even in April is no exhilaration; but in August one thinks of Sahara. I lived in Mayfield one August and could barely keep awake; and we used to look across at the rolling chalk Downs in the south, between Ditchling and Lewes, and long for their cool, wind-swept heights. They can be hot too, but chalk is never so hot as sand, and a steady climb to a summit, over turf odorous of wild thyme, is restful beside the eternal hills and valleys of the hop district.
Mayfield has the best street and the best architecture of any of these highland villages. Also it has the distinction of having done most for mankind, since without Mayfield there would have been no water to cure jaded London ladies and gentlemen at Tunbridge Wells. According to Eadmer, who wrote one of the lives of Dunstan, that Saint, when Archbishop of Canterbury, built a wooden church at Mayfield and lived in a cell hard by. St. Dunstan, who was an expert goldsmith, was one day making a chalice (or, as another version of the legend says, a horseshoe) when the Devil appeared before him. Instantly recognising his enemy, and being aware that with such a foe prompt measures alone are useful, St. Dunstan at once pulled his nose with the tongs, which chanced happily to be red hot. Wrenching himself free, the Devil leaped at one bound from Mayfield to Tunbridge Wells, where, plunging his nose into the spring at the foot of the Pantiles, he "imparted to the water its chalybeate qualities," and thus made the fortune of the town as a health resort. To St. Dunstan therefore, indirectly, are all drinkers of these wells indebted. For other drinkers he introduced or invented the practice of fixing pins in the sides of drinking cups, in order that a thirsty man might see how he was progressing and a bibulous man be checked.
When consecrating his little church at Mayfield St. Dunstan discovered it to be a little out of the true position, east and west. He therefore applied his shoulder and rectified the error.
The remains of Mayfield Palace, the old abode of the Archbishops of Canterbury, join the church. After it had passed into the hands of the crown—for Cranmer made a bargain with the King by which Mayfield was exchanged for other property—Sir Thomas Gresham lived here, and Queen Elizabeth has dined under its roof. The Palace is to be seen only occasionally, for it is now a convent, Mayfield being another of the county's many Roman Catholic outposts. In the great dining-room are the tongs which St. Dunstan used.
The church, dedicated to Mayfield's heroic saint, has one of the broader shingled spires of Sussex, as distinguished from the slender spires of which Rotherfield is a good example. Standing high, it may be seen from long distances. The tower is the original Early English structure. Four more of the old Sussex iron tomb slabs may be seen at Mayfield. In the churchyard, says Mr. Lower, was once an inscription with this uncomplimentary first line:—
O reader, if that thou canst read,
Look down upon this stone;
Death is the man, do you what you can,
That never spareth none!
In Mayfield's street even the new houses have caught comeliness from their venerable neighbours. It undulates from gable to gable, and has two good inns. The old timbered house in the middle of the east side is that to which Richard Jefferies refers without enthusiasm in the passage which I quote in a later chapter from his essay on Buckhurst Park. In Louis Jennings' Field Paths and Green Lanes the house comes in for eulogy.
Vicar of Mayfield in 1361 and following years was John Wickliffe, who has too often been confused with his great contemporary and namesake, the reformer. And the village claims as a son Thomas May (1595-1650), playwright, translator of Lucan's "Pharsalia," secretary to Parliament and friend of Ben Jonson.
In the Sussex Archæological Collections is printed the journal of Walter Gale, schoolmaster at Mayfield in the latter half of the eighteenth century, from which a few extracts may be given:
"1750. I found the greatest part of the school in a flow, by reason of the snow and rain coming through the leads. The following extempore verse I set for a copy:—
Abandon every evil thought
For they to judgment will be brought.
In passing the Star I met with Mr. Eastwood; we went in and spent 2d. apiece.
"I went to Mr. Sawyer's.... One of his daughters said that she expected a change in the weather as she had last night dreamt of a deceased person." The editor remarks that this superstition still lingers (or did fifty years ago) in the Weald of Sussex. Walter Gale adds:—"I told them in discourse that on Thursday last the town clock was heard to strike 3 in the afternoon twice, once before the chimes went, and a 2nd time pretty nearly a 1/4 of an hour after.... The strikes at the 2nd striking seemed to sound very dull and mournfully; this, together with the crickets coming to the house at Laughton just at our coming away, I look upon to be sure presages of my sister's death."
A year later:—"My mother, to my great unhappiness, died in the 83rd year of her age, agreeable to the testimony I had of a death in our family on the 10th of May last."
"Mr. Rogers came to the school, and brought with him the four volumes of Pamela, for which I paed him 4s. 6d., and bespoke Duck's Poems for Mr. Kine, and a Caution to Swearers for myself.
"Sunday. I went to church at Hothley. Text from St. Matthew 'Take no thought, saying, What shall we eat, and what shall we drink, or wherewithal shall we be clothed,' and I went to Jones', where I spent 2d., and there came Thomas Cornwall, and treated me with a pint of twopenny.
"Mr. James Kine came; we smoaked a pipe together and we went and took a survey of the fair; we went to a legerdemain show, which we saw with tolerable approbation.
"May 28th. Gave attendance at a cricket-match, played between the gamesters at Burwash and Mayfield to the advantage of the latter."
A series of quarrels with old Kent occupy much of the diary. Old Kent, it seems, used to enter the school house and vilify the master, not, I imagine, without cause. Thus:—"He again called me upstart, runagate, beggarly dog, clinched his fist in my face, and made a motion to strike me, and declared he would break my head. He did not strike me, but withdrew in a wonderful heat, and ended all with his general maxim, 'The greater scholler, the greater rogue!'"
Mr. Gale was removed from the school in 1771 for neglecting his duties.