Highways and Byways in Sussex/Chapter 21
Stanmer Park and Dr. Johnson—The Roman way down Ditchling Beacon—Sussex folk in London—Jacob's Post—The virtues of gibbets—Mr. John Burgess's diary.
Another good walk from Brighton begins with a short railway journey to Falmer on the Lewes line. Then strike into Stanmer Park, the seat of the Earl of Chichester, a descendant of the famous Sussex Pelhams, with the church and the little village of Stanmer on the far edge of it, and so up through the hollows and valleys to Ditchling Beacon. Dr. Johnson's saying of the Downs about Brighton, that "it was a country so truly desolate that if one had a mind to hang oneself for desperation at being obliged to live there, it would be difficult to find a tree on which to fasten a rope," proves beyond question that his horse never took him Stanmer way, for the park is richly wooded.
On Ditchling Beacon, one of the noblest of the Sussex hills and the second if not the first in height of all the range (the surveys differ, one giving the palm to Duncton) the Romans had a camp, and the village of Ditchling may still be gained by the half-subterranean path that our conquerors dug, so devised that a regiment might descend into the Weald unseen.
Ditchling is a quiet little village on high ground, where Alfred the Great once had a park. The church is a very interesting and graceful specimen of early English architecture, dating from the 13th century. A hundred and more years ago water from a chalybeate spring on the common was drunk by Sussex people for rheumatism and other ills; but the spring has lost its fame. The village could not well be more out of the movement, yet an old lady living in the neighbourhood who, when about to visit London for the first time, was asked what she expected to find, replied, "Well, I can't exactly tell, but I suppose something like the more bustling part of Ditchling." A kindred story is told of a Sussex man who, finding himself in London for the first time, exclaimed with astonishment—"What a queer large place! Why, it ain't like Newick and it ain't like Chailey."
Old House at Ditchling.
On Ditchling Common are the protected remains of a stake known as Jacob's Post. A stranger requested to supply this piece of wood with the origin of its label would probably adventure long before hitting upon the right tack; for Jacob, whose name has in this familiar connection a popular and almost an endearing sound, was Jacob Harris, a Jew pedlar of astonishing turpitude, who, after murdering three persons at an inn on Ditchling Common and plundering their house, was hanged at Horsham in the year 1734, and afterwards suspended, as a lesson, to the gibbet, of which this post—Jacob's Post—is the surviving relic.
All gibbets, it is said, are "good" for something, and a piece of Jacob's Post carried on the person is sovran against toothache. A Sussex archæologist tells of an old lady, a resident on Ditchling Common for more than eighty years, whose belief in the Post was so sound that her pocket contained a splinter of it long after all her teeth had departed.
From extracts from the diary of Mr. John Burgess, tailor, sexton and Particular Baptist, of Ditchling, which are given in the Sussex Archæological Collections, I quote here and there:—
"August 1st, 1785. There was a cricket match at Lingfield Common between Lingfield in Surrey and all the county of Sussex, supposed to be upwards of 2,000 people.
"June 29th, 1786. Went to Lewes with some wool to Mr. Chatfield, fine wool at 8-5-0 per pack. Went to dinner with Mr. Chatfield. Had boiled Beef, Leg of Lamb and plum Pudden. Stopped there all the afternoon. Mr. Pullin was there; Mr. Trimby and the Curyer, &c., was there. We had a good deal of religious conversation, particularly Mr. Trimby.
"June 11th, 1787. Spent 3 or 4 hours with some friends in Conversation upon Moral and religious Subjects; the inquiry was the most easy and natural evedences of ye existence and attributes of ye supream Being—in discussing upon the Subject we was nearly agreed and propose meeting again every first monday after the fool Moon to meet at 4 and break-up at 8.
"March 14th, 1788. Went to Fryersoake to a Bull Bait to Sell My dog. I seld him for 1 guineay upon condition he was Hurt, but as he received no Hurt I took him back again at the same price. We had a good dinner; a round of Beef Boiled, a good piece roasted, a Lag of Mutton and Ham of Pork and plum pudden, plenty of wine and punch.
"At Brightelmstone:—washed in ye sea."