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1919: Country Life and Cuckfield Park

This comprehensive account of Cuckfield Park (previously Place) was featured in Country Life on 15 March 1919.

The late Canon Cooper - whose name is a household word in Cuckfield, where he was the respected vicar for a long period of years - has left an abiding legacy, for which all antiquarians owe him thanks, in his ‘History of Cuckfield’, published in the form of many papers in the ‘Collections’ of the Sussex Archaeological Society.

Cuckfield itself, its Park and the Great House, the families that have lived in the place, and the Church are all treated at considerable length in these voluminous papers, printed in Vols. XL, XLI, XLII, etc. There is also a good article by Mr MA Lower, FSA, on the Sergison family in VolXXV, with interesting illustrations.

The Park

As Canon Cooper shows, Cuckfield - originally Cucufeld, or ‘Cuckoo-field’ (there is a field in the parish where cuckoos always come in the spring) - had no certain existence before the Norman Conquest. It owes its origin to the powerful Earl William de Warenne, who, as builder of the great castle of Lewes and owner of much of the land thereabouts, including Cuckfield, needed woodland handy to his Castle wherein to hunt.

The situation of Cuckfield rendered it peculiarly suitable as a centre for this purpose, and no doubt a wooden hunting - lodge, and housing for the verderers and other attendants on the lord, would soon be required, and would become the nucleus of a permanent settlement or township.

This would call for some provision in spiritual things, and a humble building of homegrown oak doubtless formed the eleventh century church, while a timber hall and some few huts of wattle and daub housed the Norman lord and his servants, the rangers and verderers. In the wide-stretching forest part of the great Andredea-weald, little altered since the days of the Romans and Britons - there was abundance of game - the deer, the wild boar, and fowl of various kinds, and hunting and hawking formed one of the chief concerns of daily life, affording occupation and a necessary moans of livelihood to both the lord and his servants.

The church

The church was served by the monks of the great Cluniac Priory of St. Pancras, Lewes, to whom it had been given by William de Warenne and Cundrada, his wife, the pious founders, but the need of a resident priest led to the building of a vicarage-house in 1250, and the old ‘Vicar’s Book’ of Cuckfield preserves a copy of the deed issued by the famous Richard de la Wych, Bishop of Chichester, known to history as St. Richard of Chichester. His special solicitude for the spiritual welfare of Cuckfield is evinced by the appointment, as the first vicar, of his ‘beloved chaplain Walter de Warmtape’.

By this deed, while Lewes Priory was to retain the tithes of corn, hay, etc., for the support of the infirm monks, also barns and two houses, they were to pay a vicar three marks half-yearly and allow him to have the small tithes. The vicar was to be free from their control, and the patronage was to be in the hands of the Bishops of Chichester.

The church had probably been rebuilt in stone, to meet the growing importance and increased population of the little town, some twenty or thirty years earlier than the building of the vicarage in 1250, but it is evident from a careful examination of the nave, arcades and tower that the work was done progressively.

The massive western tower, with its beautiful trefoiled corbel-table, and battlementing of rare Early English character, was perhaps first built on to the wooden church, then the nave and south aisle were rebuilt soon afterwards. The graceful tapering shingled spire, the north aisle and chancel are additions of the early part of the fourteenth century and extensive alterations took place in the fifteenth century.

Local families

The Earls de Warenne continued to hold sway over Cuckfield throughout the twelfth, thirteenth and part of the fourteenth centuries, and there grew up under their shadow other families of importance, who have helped to make its history.

Thus by intermarriage of heiresses the Fitzalans, the Stanleys, and Nevills came into possession, and the last-named family have left their mark on the church and the place. Edward Nevill, fourth son of the Earl of Westmoreland, was created Baron Bergavenny in 1450, and the Nevills or Bergavennys seem to have lived at Cuckfield or held sway there down to 1573.

A letter remains from Edward, Lord Bergavenny, to the Chaplain at Lewes, dated ‘at Cokefeld, 1st. Oct., 8 Edw. IV’. (1467-8). The badges of the Nevills - the rose, the bull, and the crossed staples, are carved on the wooden bosses of the nave roof of Cuckfield Church, and also in the spandrels of the tie-beam against the tower.

But there is almost nothing except the name to connect the present house with these powerful families, or with mediaeval England. Practically all that might tell of that phase of its existence has passed away. The church which they helped to build and enrich alone preserves a link here and there with them, and the existing house is identified rather with the Bowyers, Hendley and Sergisons.

Construction of the house

The earlier house we may assume to have been chiefly, if not entirely, of timber, but it was rebuilt in stone in 1574 - the date upon the dining-room fireplace - and 1581, when the fine oak screen of the hall was made.

Work in those days proceeded leisurely and a house of any pretensions very commonly occupied ten years in the building and fitting up. This rebuilding took place when the Bowyers were in possession. Henry Bowyer, the son of John, a wealthy ‘ironmaister’, having acquired the park and house by purchase from Henry, fourth Lord Bergavenny, in 1564, and in 1573 a moiety of one-fourth of the manor from Henry, fourth Earl of Derby.

The Boudoir, Fireplace

Thus he seems soon to have begun the re-building of the great house in the park, he died in September, 1588, not long after the defeat of the Spanish Armada, and is commemorated by two monuments in the south chancel aisle of Cuckfield Church, with some elaborate heraldry wrought in marble, framed in which is a brass showing husband and wife kneeling at a double desk, vis-à-vis, three sons in tabards kneeling behind the father, and behind the mother two daughters.

The inscription states that: ‘Henry Bowyer had to wyfe Elizabeth Vaux, daughter and heyr of Thomas Vaux of Kater[len Hall], Clarke Controller to King Henry the Eighth, by whom he had three sons, Thomas, Francis & Henry, and two daughters Anne & Mary’. The other, upright against the east wall, shows Henry Bowyer senior in a tabard with a shield of arms right and left of his head.

Bowyer's house

The house that Henry Bowyer built was E-shaped in plan, and so remained until 1848-51, when its then owner, Mr Sergison, enclosed the open side of the E, turning the plan into a parallelogram, with a court or well in the centre.

Most of the old windows were altered at the same time, two-storeyed bow windows were introduced, conservatories were built on, chimneys and gables rebuilt, and the whole house much modernised inside and out. The entrance front, to the east, with its quaint dormers and Horsham slab roof, preserves most of the old.

A historic avenue of tall lime trees leads from the high road to the house, or rather to the quaint entrance gateway of James I’s reign - a relic of the days of fortified houses, when an Englishman’s house was his castle.

This gateway, which is of brick, partially coated with bull plaster, forms the entrance to a courtyard in front of the house, originally paved and flanked by high walls right and left, so that people arriving in coaches or carriages had to alight at the gate and ring for admission; but the walls have been removed, so that the gateway stands free, with a road on either side.

Head of the staircase

It is shown on a map of the estate, still preserved in the house, which is dated 1681, and three of the four octagon turrets that flank the central archway (in which is some charming old ironwork) appear then, as now, to have been flat-topped, with some balusters or obelisks at the angles; while the other terminates in a lead cupola and displays a clock, from which the structure takes its name of the clockhouse.

Burial at midnight

It seems to have been the custom in the Sergison family, who came into possession towards the close of the seventeenth century, to bury their dead at midnight, by torchlight, and the cortege would set forth from the house as the hour was tolled on the old clock. In this connection it is worth while mentioning the legend of the Doom Tree - one of the limes in the great avenue - which is supposed to lose a branch when the death of a direct heir to the property takes place.

Harrison Ainsworth, who describes Cuckfield Park under the disguise of Rookwood’, in the novel of that name, is probably the author of this legend. He says: ‘one tree of which, larger than all the rest-a huge piece of timber with broad spreading branches - is in some mysterious manner connected with the family of Rookwood, and immediately previous to the death of one of that line, a branch is sure to be shed from the parent stem, prognosticating his doom’. This story seems to be the invention of the novelist.

Ainsworth’s description of the view from the house (which in the novel is transferred to Yorkshire) is true to the facts and true to Sussex. ‘Below the lawn there was another terrace, commanding a lovely view of park, water, and woodland, high-hanging woods waved in the foreground, and an extensive sweep of flat Champaign country stretched out to meet a line of blue, hazy hills bounding the distant horizon’.

The neighbourhood, indeed, abounds in beautiful views - there is a notably fine prospect from the churchyard, which stands higher than the park -and the sylvan beauty of these views is enhanced by the little river Adur, which has one of its sources on the outskirts of the Park, in passing through which it feeds two romantically beautiful lakes, abounding in fat carp.

The Park from the earliest times has been noted for its deer, whose ancestry doubtless goes back to the days when they roamed wild in the great mid-Sussex forest, of which the Park is one of the many relics hereabouts.

The interior

To return to the House. The interior retains some good Elizabethan features, such as the oak panelling of the hall, the oak staircase, with massive newels, balusters and hand-rails, and the fine hall-screen, the best side of which is within the morning-room. There has evidently been some alteration with regard to the position and surroundings of this screen, and the present morning-room ceiling appears to have robbed it of its cornice; nevertheless, even in its present state, it is a noteworthy piece of Elizabethan joiner’s work.

It is divided by fluted columns with Corinthian capitals standing on square pedestals into five unequal bays, the central and outside spaces being filled with wide panels of coffered work resembling huge nail-heads, seven in height and four in width, under an elliptical arch with a sort of shell head, the centre of which is a dolphin.

The two intermediate and wider bays contain segmental-arched openings with a running cuspated ornament on the soffit, and filled with doors, which are later than the: screen and appear to have been introduced in the eighteenth century, while the Sergisons were in occupation.

The Hall and Dining Room

Above these is a frieze of tinted work with a lion’s head over each capital, and a cornice ; and this supports a deep entablature, divided at intervals by caryatids answering to the columns, the interspaces being occupied by coats of arms and oval cartouches, the central one of which bearing the date 1581.

The oak panelling in the dining-room was brought from Leigh Manor, an ancient house in the parish, which has been held with Cuckfield Park. The carving on the fireplace here, which bears the date 1574 in the stonework, is very fine, snails, butterflies and flowers being introduced into the festoons of the oak overmantel. There are some fine old pieces of furniture in this room -a chair, tables and presses.

In what is now the boudoir the initials H. B., for Henry Bowyer, are carved over the fireplace. There is a break in the floor here which points to the shifting of a particular wall.

Indeed, the way in which the fine panelling, cornices, etc., of the different rooms have been cut about and rearranged points to wholesale alterations, both vertically and horizontally, in the formation of passages and general recasting of the internal arrangements during the long tenure of the Sergisons, or of their predecessors, the Warden family, with whom they were allied by marriage.

These alterations may be assigned chiefly to the end of the seventeenth or early part of the eighteenth century, and to 1848-51, as above stated.

Philip M. Johnston.

Source: Country Life, 15 March 1919 P278

Sadly the quality of the reproduction of the magazine has led to a deterioration in the picture quality.

Contributed by Malcolm Davison.


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