Highways and Byways in Sussex/Chapter 36
The ravening sea—Hastings and history—Titus Oates—Sir Cloudesley Shovel—A stalwart Nestor—Edward Capel—An old Sussex harvest custom—A poetical mayor—Picturesque Hastings—Hastings castle—Hollington Rural and Charles Lamb—Fairlight Glen and the Lover's Seat—Bexhill
Brighton, as we have seen, was made by Dr. Russell. It was Dr. Baillie, some years later, who discovered the salubrious qualities of Hastings. In 1806, when the Duke of Wellington (then Major-General Wellesley) was in command of twelve thousand soldiers encamped in the neighbourhood, and was himself living at Hastings House, the population of the town was less than four thousand; to-day, with St. Leonard's and dependant suburbs, Hastings covers several square miles. With the exception of the little red and grey region known as Old Hastings, between Castle Hill and East Hill, the same charge of a lack of what is interesting can be brought against Hastings as against Brighton; but whereas Brighton has the Downs to offer, Hastings is backed by country of far less charm. Perhaps her greatest merit is her proximity to Winchelsea and Rye.
Hastings, once one of the proudest of the Cinque Ports, has no longer even a harbour, its pleasure yachts, which carry excursionists on brief Channel voyages, having to be beached just like rowing boats. The ravages of the sea, which have so transformed the coast line of Sussex, have completely changed this town; and from a stately seaport she has become a democratic watering place. Beneath the waves lie the remains of an old Priory and possibly of not a few churches.
Hastings has been very nigh to history more than once, but she has escaped the actual making of it. Even the great battle that takes its name from the town was fought seven miles away, while the Duke of Normandy, as we have seen, landed as far distant as Pevensey, ten miles in the west. But he used Hastings as a victualling centre. Again and again, in its time, Hastings has been threatened with invasion by the French, who did actually land in 1138 and burned the town. And one Sunday morning in 1643, Colonel Morley of Glynde, the Parliamentarian, marched in with his men and confiscated all arms. But considering its warlike mien, Hastings has done little.
Nor can the seaport claim any very illustrious son. Titus Oates, it is true, was curate of All Saints church in 1674, his father being vicar; and among the inhabitants of the old town was the mother of Sir Cloudesley Shovel, the admiral. A charming account of a visit paid to her by her son is given in De la Prynne's diary: "I heard a gentleman say, who was in the ship with him about six years ago, that as they were sailing over against the town, of Hastings, in Sussex, Sir Cloudesley called out, 'Pilot, put near; I have a little business on shore.' So he put near, and Sir Cloudesley and this gentleman went to shore in a small boat, and having walked about half a mile, Sir Cloudesley came to a little house [in All Saints Street], 'Come,' says he, 'my business is here; I came on purpose to see the good woman of this house.' Upon this they knocked at the door, and out came a poor old woman, upon which Sir Cloudesley kissed her, and then falling down on his knees, begged her blessing, and calling her mother (who had removed out of Yorkshire hither). He was mightily kind to her, and she to him, and after that he had made his visit, he left her ten guineas, and took his leave with tears in his eyes and departed to his ship."
Hastings had a famous rector at the beginning of the last century, in the person of the Rev. Webster Whistler, who combined with the eastern benefice that of Newtimber, near Hurstpierpoint, and managed to serve both to a great age. He lived to be eighty-four and died full of vigour in 1831. In 1817, following upon a quarrel with the squire, the Newtimber living was put up for auction in London. Mr. Whistler decided to be present, but anonymous. The auctioneer mentioned in his introduction the various charms of the benefice, ending with the superlative advantage that it was held by an aged and infirm clergyman with one foot in the grave. At this point the proceedings were interrupted by a large and powerful figure in clerical costume springing on the table and crying out to the company: "Now, gentlemen, do I look like a man tottering on the brink of the grave? My left leg gives me no sign of weakness, and as for the other, Mr. Auctioneer, if you repeat your remarks you will find it very much at your service." The living found no purchaser.
Mr. Whistler had a Chinese indifference to the necessary end of all things, which prompted him to use an aged yew tree in his garden, that had long given him shade but must now be felled, as material for his coffin. This coffin he placed at the foot of his bed as a chest for clothes until its proper purpose was fulfilled.
Hastings was also the home of Edward Capel, a Shakespeare-editor of the eighteenth century. Capel, who is said to have copied out in his own hand the entire works of the poet no fewer than ten times, was the designer of his own house, which seems to have been a miracle of discomfort. He was an eccentric of the most determined character, so much so that he gradually lost all friends. According to Horsfield, "The spirit of nicety and refinement prevailed in it [his house] so much during his lifetime, that when a friend (a baronet) called upon him on a tour, he was desired to leave his cane in the vestibule, lest he should either dirt the floor with it, or soil the carpet."
One does not think naturally of old Sussex customs in connection with this town, so thoroughly urban as it now is and so largely populated by visitors, but I find in the Sussex Archæological Collections the following interesting account, by a Hastings alderman, of an old harvest ceremony in the neighbourhood:—"At the head of the table one of the men occupied the position of chairman; in front of him stood a pail—clean as wooden staves and iron hoops could be made by human labour. At his right sat four or five men who led the singing, grave as judges were they; indeed, the appearance of the whole assembly was one of the greatest solemnity, except for a moment or two when some unlucky wight failed to 'turn the cup over,' and was compelled to undergo the penalty in that case made and provided. This done, all went on as solemnly as before.
"The ceremony, if I may call it so, was this: The leader, or chairman, standing behind the pail with a tall horn cup in his hand, filled it with beer from the pail. The man next to him on the left stood up, and holding a hat with both hands by the brim, crown upwards, received the cup from the chairman, on the crown of the hat, not touching it with either hand. He then lifted the cup to his lips by raising the hat, and slowly drank off the contents. As soon as he began to drink, the chorus struck up this chant:
I've bin to Plymouth and I've bin to Dover.
I have bin rambling, boys, all the wurld over—
Over and over and over and over,
Drink up yur liquor and turn yur cup over;
Over and over and over and over,
The liquor's drink'd up and the cup is turned over.
"The man drinking was expected to time his draught so as to empty his cup at the end of the fourth line of the chant; he was then to return the hat to the perpendicular, still holding the hat by the brim, then to throw the cup into the air, and reversing the hat, to catch the cup in it as it fell. If he failed to perform this operation, the fellow workmen who were closely watching him, made an important alteration in the last line of their chant, which in that case ran thus:
The liquor's drink'd up and the cup aint turned over.
"The cup was then refilled and the unfortunate drinker was compelled to go through the same ceremony again. Every one at the table took the cup and 'turned it over' in succession, the chief shepherd keeping the pail constantly supplied with beer. The parlour guests were of course invited to turn the cup over with the guests of the kitchen, and went through the ordeal with more or less of success. For my own part, I confess that I failed to catch the cup in the hat at the first trial and had to try again; the chairman, however, mercifully gave me only a small quantity of beer the second time."
The civic life of Hastings would seem to encourage literature, for I find also in one of the Archæological Society's volumes, the following pretty lines by John Collier—Mayor of Hastings in 1719, 22, 30, 37, and 41—on his little boy's death:
Ah, my poor son! Ah my tender child,
My unblown flower and now appearing sweet,
If yet your gentle soul flys in the air
And is not fixt in doom perpetual,
Hover about me with your airy wings
And hear your Father's lamentation.
Hastings has two advantages over both Brighton and Eastbourne: it can produce a genuine piece of antiquity, and seen from the sea it has a picturesque quality that neither of those towns possesses. Indeed, under certain conditions of light, Hastings is magnificent, with the craggy Castle Hill in its midst surmounted by its imposing ruin. The smoke of the town, rising and spreading, shrouds the modernity of the sea front, and the castle on its commanding height seems to be brooding over the shores of old romance. Brighton has no such effect as this.
Of the Castle little is known. It was probably built on the site of Roman fortifications, by the Comte d'Eu, who came over with the Conqueror. The first tournament in England is said to have been held there, with Adela, daughter of the Conqueror, as Queen of Beauty. After the castle had ceased to be of any use as a stronghold it was still maintained as a religious house. It is now a pleasure resort. The ordinary visitor to Hastings is, however, more interested by the caves in the hill below, originally made by diggers of sand and afterwards used by smugglers.
Before branching out from Hastings into the country proper I might mention two neighbouring points of pilgrimage. One is Hollington Rural church, on the hill behind the town, whither sooner or later every one walks. It is a small church in the midst of a crowded burial ground, and it is difficult to understand its attraction unless by the poverty of other objectives. I should not mention it, but that it is probably the church to which Charles Lamb, bored by Hastings itself, wended his way one day in 1825. He describes it, in terms more fitting to, say, Lullington church near Alfriston, or St. Olave's at Chichester, in no fewer than three of his letters. This is the best passage, revelling in a kind of inverted exaggeration, as written to John Bates Dibdin, at Hastings, in 1826:—"Let me hear that you have clamber'd up to Lover's Seat; it is as fine in that neighbourhood as Juan Fernandez, as lonely too, when the Fishing boats are not out; I have sat for hours, staring upon the shipless sea. The salt sea is never so grand as when it is left to itself. One cock-boat spoils it. A sea mew or two improves it. And go to the little church, which is a very protestant Loretto, and seems dropt by some angel for the use of a hermit, who was at once parishioner and a whole parish. It is not too big. Go in the night, bring it away in your portmanteau, and I will plant it in my garden. It must have been erected in the very infancy of British Christianity, for the two or three first converts; yet hath it all the appertances of a church of the first magnitude, its pulpit, its pews, its baptismal font; a cathedral in a nutshell. Seven people would crowd it like a Caledonian Chapel. The minister that divides the word there, must give lumping pennyworths. It is built to the text of two or three assembled in my name. It reminds me of the grain of mustard seed. If the glebe land is proportionate, it may yield two potatoes. Tythes out of it could be no more split than a hair. Its First fruits must be its Last, for 'twould never produce a couple. It is truly the strait and narrow way, and few there be (of London visitants) that find it. The still small voice is surely to be found there, if any where. A sounding board is merely there for ceremony. It is secure from earthquakes, not more from sanctity than size, for 'twould feel a mountain thrown upon it no more than a taper-worm would. Go and see, but not without your spectacles."
The Lover's Seat, mentioned in the first sentence of the above passage, is at Fairlight, about two miles east of Hastings. The seat is very prettily situated high in a ledge in Fairlight Glen. Horsfield shall tell the story that gave the spot its fascinating name:—
"A beautiful girl at Rye gained the affections of Captain ——, then in command of a cutter in that station. Her parents disapproved the connection and removed her to a farm house near the Lover's Seat, called the Warren-house. Hence she contrived to absent herself night after night, when she sought this spot, and by means of a light made known her presence to her lover, who was cruising off in expectation of her arrival. The difficulties thus thrown in their way increased the ardour of their attachment and marriage was determined upon at all hazards. Hollington Church was and is the place most sought for on these occasions in this part of the country; it has a romantic air about it which is doubtless peculiarly impressive. There are, too, some other reasons why so many matches are solemnized here; and all combined to make this the place selected by this pair. It was expected that the lady's flight would be discovered and her object suspected; but in order to prevent a rescue, the cutter's crew positively volunteered and acted as guards on the narrow paths leading through the woods to the church. However, the marriage ceremony was completed before any unwelcome visitors arrived, and reconciliation soon followed."
Bexhill has now become so exceedingly accessible by conveyance from Hastings that it might perhaps be mentioned here as a contiguous place of interest; but of Bexhill, till lately a village, or Bexhill-on-Sea, watering place, with everything handsome about it, there is little to say. Both the tide of the Channel and of popularity seem to be receding. Inland there is some pretty country.