Highways and Byways in Sussex/Chapter 12
The Causeway, Horsham
Horsham stone—Horsham and history—Pressing to death—Juvenile hostility to statues—Horsham's love of pleasure—Percy Bysshe Shelley's boyhood—a letter of invitation—Sedition in Sussex—a Slinfold epitaph—Rudgwick's cricket poet—Warnham pond—Stane Street—Cobbett at Billingshurst—The new Christ's Hospital.
Horsham is the capital of West Sussex: a busy agricultural town with horse dealers in its streets, a core of old houses, and too many that are new. There is in England no more peaceful and prosperous row of venerable homes than the Causeway, joining Carfax and the church, with its pollarded limes and chestnuts in line on the pavement's edge, its graceful gables, jutting eaves, and glimpses of green gardens through the doors and windows. The sweetest part of Horsham is there. Elsewhere the town bustles. (I should, however, mention the very picturesque house—now cottages—on the left of the road as one leaves the station: as fine a mass of timbers, gables, and oblique lines as one could wish, making an effect such as time alone can give. The days of such relics are numbered.)
Horsham not only has beautiful old houses of its own, but it has been the cause of beautiful old houses all over the county; since nothing so adds to the charm of a building as a roof of Horsham stone, those large grey flat slabs on which the weather works like a great artist in harmonies of moss, lichen, and stain. No roofing so combines dignity and homeliness, and no roofing except possibly thatch (which, however, is short-lived) so surely passes into the landscape. But Horsham stone is no longer used. It is to be obtained for a new house only by the demolition of an old; and few new houses have rafters sufficiently stable to bear so great a weight. Our ancestors built for posterity: we build for ourselves. Our ancestors used Sussex oak where we use fir.
Not only is Horsham stone on the roofs of the neighbourhood: it is also on the paths, so that one may step from flag to flag for miles, dryshod, or at least without mud.
Horsham's place in history is unimportant: but indirectly it played its part in the fourteenth century, by supplying the War Office of that era with bolts for cross bows, excellent for slaying Scots and Frenchmen. The town was famous also for its horseshoes. In the days of Cromwell we find Horsham to have been principally Royalist; one engagement with Parliamentarians is recorded in which it lost three warriors to Cromwell's one. In the reign of William III. a young man claiming to be the Duke of Monmouth, and travelling with a little court who addressed him as "Your Grace," turned the heads of the women in many an English town—his good looks convincing them at once, as the chronicler says, that he was the true prince. Justices sitting at Horsham, however, having less susceptibility to the testimony of handsome features, found him to be the son of an innkeeper named Savage, and imprisoned him as a vagrant and swindler.
Horsham was the last place in which pressing to death was practised. The year was 1735, and the victim a man unknown, who on being charged with murder and robbery refused to speak. Witnesses having been called to prove him no mute, this old and horrible sentence, proper (as the law considered) to his offence and obstinacy, was passed upon him. The executioner, the story goes, while conveying the body in a wheelbarrow to burial, turned it out in the roadway at the place where the King's Head now stands, and then putting it in again, passed on. Not long afterwards he fell dead at this spot.
The church of St. Mary, which rises majestically at the end of the Causeway, has a slender shingled spire that reaches a great height—not altogether, however, without indecision. There is probably an altitude beyond which shingles are a mistake: they are better suited to the more modest spire of the small village. The church is remarkable also for length of roof (well covered with Horsham stone), and it is altogether a singularly commanding structure. Within is an imposing plainness. The stone effigy of a knight in armour reclines just to the south of the altar: son of a branch of the Braose family—of Chesworth, hard by, now in ruins—of whose parent stock we shall hear more when we reach Bramber. The knight, Thomas, Lord Braose, died in 1395. The youth of Horsham, hostile invincibly, like all boys, to the stone nose, have reduced that feature to the level of the face; or was it the work of the Puritans, who are known to have shared in the nasal objection? South of the churchyard is the river, from the banks of which the church would seem to be all Horsham, so effectually is the town behind it blotted out by its broad back. On the edge of the churchyard is perhaps the smallest house in Sussex: certainly the smallest to combine Gothic windows with the sale of ginger-beer.
Horsham seems always to have been fond of pleasure. Within iron railings in the Carfax, in a trim little enclosure of turf and geraniums, is the ancient iron ring used in the bull-baiting which the inhabitants indulged in and loved until as recently as 1814. That the town is still disposed to entertainment, although of a quieter kind, its walls testify; for the hoardings are covered with the promise of circus or conjuror, minstrels or athletic sports, drama or lecture. In July, when I was there last, Horsham was anticipating a fête, in which a mock bull-fight and a battle of confetti were mere details; while it was actually in the throes of a fair. The booths filled an open space to the west of the town known as the Jew's Meadow, and among the attractions was Professor Adams with his "school of undefeated champions." The plural is in the grand manner, giving the lie to Cashel Byron's pathetic plaint:—
It is a lonely thing to be a champion.
Avoiding Professor Adams, and walking due west, one comes after a couple of miles to Broadbridge Heath, where is Field Place, the birthplace of the greatest of Sussex poets, and perhaps the greatest of the county's sons—Percy Bysshe Shelley. The author of Adonais was born in a little bedroom with a south aspect on August 4, 1792. His father's mother, née Michell, was the daughter of a late vicar of Horsham and member of an old Sussex family; another Horsham cleric, the Rev. Thomas Edwards, gave the boy his first lessons. Field Place is still very much what it was in Shelley's early days—the only days it was a home to him. It stands low, in a situation darkened by the surrounding trees, a rambling house neither as old as one would wish for æsthetic reasons nor as new as comfort might dictate. There is no view. In the garden one may in fancy see again the little boy, like all poetic children, "deep in his unknown day's employ." Indeed, like all children, might be said, for is not every child a poet for a little while? In the Life of Shelley by his cousin Thomas Medwin is printed the following letter to a friend at Horsham, written when he was nine, which I quote not for any particular intrinsic merit, but because it helps to bring him before us in his Field Place days, of which too little is known:—
"Monday, July 18, 1803.
"Dear Kate,—We have proposed a day at the pond next Wednesday, and if you will come to-morrow morning I would be much obliged to you, and if you could any how bring Tom over to stay all the night, I would thank you. We are to have a cold dinner over at the pond, and come home to eat a bit of roast chicken and peas at about nine o'clock. Mama depends upon your bringing Tom over to-morrow, and if you don't we shall be very much disappointed. Tell the bearer not to forget to bring me a fairing, which is some ginger-bread, sweetmeat, hunting-nuts, and a pocket-book. Now I end.
"I am not
"Your obedient servant,
"P. B. SHELLEY.
We are proud to call Shelley the Sussex poet, but he wrote no Sussex poems, and a singularly uncongenial father (for the cursing of whom and the King the boy was famous at Eton) made him glad to avoid the county when he was older. It was, however, to a Sussex lady, Miss Hitchener of Hurstpierpoint, that Shelley, when in Ireland in 1812, forwarded the box of inflammatory matter which the Custom House officers confiscated—copies of his pamphlet on Ireland and his "Declaration of Rights" broadside, which Miss Hitchener was to distribute among Sussex farmers who would display them on their walls. These were the same documents that Shelley used to put in bottles and throw out to sea, greatly to the perplexity of the spectators and not a little to the annoyance of the Government. Miss Hitchener, as well as the revolutionary, was kept under surveillance, as we learn from the letter from the General of the day, Lord Chichester:—"I return the pamphlet declaration. The writer of the first is son of Mr. Shelley, member for the Rape of Bramber, and is by all accounts a most extraordinary man. I hear he has married a servant, or some person of very low birth; he has been in Ireland for some time, and I heard of his speaking at the Catholic Convention. Miss Hitchener, of Hurstpierpoint, keeps a School there, and is well spoken of; her Father keeps a Publick House in the Neighbourhood, he was originally a Smuggler and changed his name from Yorke to Hitchener before he took the Public House. I shall have a watch upon the daughter and discover whether there is any Connection between her and Shelley."
There Shelley's connection with Sussex may be said to end. Yet a poet, whether he will or no, is shaped by his early surroundings. In some verses by Mr. C. W. Dalmon called "The Sussex Muse," I find the influence of Shelley's surroundings on his mind happily recorded:—
"When Shelley's soul was carried through the air
Toward the manor house where he was born,
I danced along the avenue at Denne,
And praised the grace of Heaven, and the morn
Which numbered with the sons of Sussex men
A genius so rare!
So high an honour and so dear a birth,
That, though the Horsham folk may little care
To laud the favour of his birthplace there,
My name is bless'd for it throughout the earth.
I taught the child to love, and dream, and sing
Of witch, hobgoblin, folk and flower lore;
And often led him by the hand away
Into St. Leonard's Forest, where of yore
The hermit fought the dragon—to this day,
The children, ev'ry Spring,
Find lilies of the valley blowing where
The fights took place. Alas! they quickly drove
My darling from my bosom and my love,
And snatched my crown of laurel from his hair.
Cottages at Slinfold.
Teach them to praise that God with grateful mind
For babes that yet may come, for one still left behind.
A quarter of a mile west is Stane Street, striking London-wards from Billingshurst, and we may follow it for a while on our way to Rudgwick, near the county's border. We leave the Roman road (which once ran as straight as might be as far as Billingsgate, but is now diverted and lost in many spots) at the drive to Dedisham, on the left, and thus save a considerable corner. Dedisham, in its hollow, is an ancient agricultural settlement: a farm and feudatory cottages in perfect completeness, an isolated self-sufficing community, lacking nothing—not even the yellow ferret in the cage. The footpath beyond the homestead crosses a field where we find the Arun once again—here a stream winding between steep banks, sure home of kingfisher and water-rats.
Rudgwick, which is three miles farther west along the hard high road, is a small village on a hill, with the most comfortable looking church-tower in Sussex hiding behind the inn and the general shop. In the churchyard lies a Frusannah—a name new to me.
Rudgwick was the birthplace, in 1717, of Reynell Cotton, destined to be the author of the best song in praise of cricket. He entered Winchester College in 1730, took orders and became master of Hyde Abbey school in the same city, and died in 1779. Nyren prints his song in full. This is the heart of it:—
The wickets are pitch'd now, and measur'd the ground,
Then they form a large ring, and stand gazing around,
Since Ajax fought Hector, in sight of all Troy,
No contest was seen with such fear and such joy.
Ye bowlers, take heed, to my precepts attend,
On you the whole fate of the game must depend;
Spare your vigour at first, nor exert all your strength,
But measure each step, and be sure pitch a length.
Ye fieldsmen, look sharp, lest your pains ye beguile;
Move close, like an army, in rank and in file,
When the ball is return'd, back it sure, for I trow
Whole states have been ruin'd by one overthrow.
Ye strikers, observe when the foe shall draw nigh,
Mark the bowler advancing with vigilant eye:
Your skill all depends upon distance and sight,
Stand firm to your scratch, let your bat be upright.
Further west is Loxwood, on the edge of a little-known tract of country, untroubled by railways, the most unfamiliar village in which is perhaps Plaistow. Plaistow is on the road to nowhere and has not its equal for quietude in England. It is a dependency of Kirdford, whence comes the Petworth marble which we see in many Sussex churches. Shillinglee Park, the seat of the Earl of Winterton, is hard by.
From these remote parts one may return to Horsham by way of Warnham, on whose pond Shelley as a boy used to sail his little boat, and where perhaps he gained that love of navigation which never left him and brought about his death. Warnham, always a cricketing village, until lately supplied the Sussex eleven with dashing Lucases; but it does so no more.
Before passing to the east of Horsham, something ought to be said of one at least of the villages of the south-west, namely, Billingshurst, on Stane Street, once an important station between Regnum and Londinum, or Chichester and London, as we should now say. It has been conjectured that Stane Street (which we first saw at Chichester under the name of East Street, and again as it descended Bignor hill in the guise of a bostel) was constructed by Belinus, a Roman engineer, who gave to the woods through which he had to cut his way in this part of Sussex the name, Billingshurst, and to the gate by which London was entered, Billingsgate.
Billingshurst's place in literature was made by William Cobbett, for it was here that he met the boy in a smock frock who recalled to his mind so many of his deeds of Quixotry. The incident is described in the Rural Rides:—
"This village is seven miles from Horsham, and I got here to breakfast about seven o'clock. A very pretty village, and a very nice breakfast, in a very neat little parlour of a very decent public-house. The landlady sent her son to get me some cream, and he was just such a chap as I was at his age, and dressed just in the same sort of way, his main garment being a blue smock-frock, faded from wear, and mended with pieces of new stuff, and, of course, not faded. The sight of this smock-frock brought to my recollection many things very dear to me. This boy will, I daresay, perform his part at Billingshurst, or at some place not far from it. If accident had not taken me from a similar scene, how many villains and fools, who have been well teased and tormented, would have slept in peace at night, and have fearlessly swaggered about by day!
"When I look at this little chap—at his smock-frock, his nailed shoes, and his clean, plain, coarse shirt, I ask myself, will anything, I wonder, ever send this chap across the ocean to tackle the base, corrupt, perjured Republican Judges of Pennsylvania? Will this little lively, but, at the same time, simple boy, ever become the terror of villains and hypocrites across the Atlantic? What a chain of strange circumstances there must be to lead this boy to thwart a miscreant tyrant like M'keen, the Chief Justice, and afterwards Governor, of Pennsylvania, and to expose the corruptions of the band of rascals, called a 'Senate and a House of Representatives,' at Harrisburgh, in that state!"
Billingshurst church has an interesting ceiling, an early brass (to Thomas and Elizabeth Bartlet), and the record of one of those disputes over pews which add salt to village life and now and then, as we saw at Littlehampton, lead to real trouble. The verger (if he be the same) will tell the story, the best part of which describes the race which was held every Sunday for certain seats in the chancel, and the tactical "packing" of the same by the winning party. In the not very remote past a noble carved chair used to be placed in one of the galleries for the schoolmaster, and there would he sit during service surrounded by his boys.
One returns to Horsham from Billingshurst through Itchingfield, where the new Christ's Hospital has been built in the midst of green fields: a glaring red-brick settlement which the fastidiously urban ghost of Charles Lamb can now surely never visit. "Lamb's House," however, is the name of one of the buildings; and Time the Healer, who can do all things, may mellow the new school into Elian congeniality.