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1906: 20mph or faster out of Cuckfield!

The road out of Cuckfield

The following extract from The Brighton road speed, sport, and history on the classic highway to the south by Charles Harper was written in 1906. It neatly sums up Cuckfield and its chosen path to shun the railway, and expresses concern for urban development sprawl and traffic pollution. Little has changed!


The pleasant old town of Cuckfield stands on no railway, and has no manufactures or industries of any kind; and since the locomotive ran the coaches off the road has been a veritable Sleepy Hollow. It was not always thus, for in those centuries - from the fourteenth until the early part of the eighteenth - when the heels of Sussex iron-ore were worked and smelted on the spot, the neighbourhood of Cuckfield was a Black Country, given over to the manufacture of ironware, from cannon to firebacks.

All this was so long ago that nature has healed the scars made by that busy time. Wooded hills replace the uplands made bare by the smelters, the cinder-heaps and mounds of slag are hidden under pastures, the “hammer-ponds” of the smelteries and foundries have become the resorts of artists seeking the picturesque, and the descendants of the old ironmasters, the Burrells and the Sergisons, have for generations past been numbered among the county families.

Cuckfield very narrowly escaped being directly on the route of the Brighton railway, but it pleased the engineers to bring their line no nearer than Hayward’s Heath, some two miles distant. They built a station there, on the lone heath, “for Cuckfield,” with the result, sixty years later, that the sometime solitude is a town and still growing, while Cuckfield declines.

Hayward’s Heath, curiously enough, is, or was until December, 1894, in the parish of Cuckfield, but the time is at hand when the two will be joined by the spread of that railway upstart ; and then will be the psychological moment for abolishing the name of Hayward’s Heath - which is a shocking stumbling- block for the aitchless - and adopting that of the parental “Cookfield.”

Meanwhile, I shall drop no sentimental tears over the chance that Cuckfield lost, sixty years ago, of becoming a railway junction and a modern town. Of junctions and mushroom towns we have a sufficiency, but of surviving sweet old country townlets very few.

To see Cuckfield thoroughly demands some little leisure, for although it is small one must needs have time to assimilate the atmosphere of the place, if it is to be appreciated at its worth; from the grey old church with its tall shingled spire and its monuments of Burrells and Sergisons of Cuckfield Place, to the staid old houses in the quiet streets, and those two fine old coaching inns, the “Talbot” and the “King’s Head.” Rowlandson made a picture of the town in 1789, and it is not wholly unlike that, even now, but where is that Fair we see in progress in his spirited rendering ?

Gone, together with the smart fellow driving the curricle, and all the other figures of that scene, into the forgotten. There, in one corner, you see the Recruiting Sergeant and the drummer, impressing with military glory a typical smock-frocked Hodge, gaping so outrageously that he seems to be opening his face rather than merely his mouth; the artist’s idea seems to have been that, like a dolphin, he would swallow anything, either in the way of food or of stories. There are no full-blooded Sergeant Kites and gaping yokels nowadays.

Cuckfield is evidently feeling, more and more, the altered condition of affairs. Motorists, who

are supposed to bring back prosperity to the road, do nothing of the kind on the road to Brighton; for those who live at Brighton or London merely want to reach the other end as quickly as possible, and, with a legal limit up to twenty miles an hour, can cover the distance in two hours and a half, and, with an occasional illegal interval, easily in two hours.

Except in case of a breakdown, the wayside hostelries do not often see the colour of the motorists’ money, but they smell the stink, and are choked with the dust of them, and landlords and every one else concerned would be only too glad if the project for building a road between London and Brighton, exclusively for motor traffic, were likely to be realised. Then ordinary users of the highway might once more be able to discern the natural scenery of the road, at present obscured with dust-clouds.


Source: The Brighton road speed, sport, and history on the classic highway to the south, by Charles Harper, 1906.


From the above book entitled: ‘The road out of Cuckfield’

‘Cuckfield on a Fair Day’ by Thomas Rowlandson (1756-1827). The painting dates 1789 and is from a set called ‘An Excursion to Brighthelmstone’.

Contributed by Malcolm Davison.

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