HISTORIC HOUSES OF SUSSEX By VISCOUNT WOLSELEY No 13 - CUCKFIELD PLACE
(from:- The Sussex County Magazine November 1928)
In driving from the village of Cuckfield towards Anstye our attention is arrested by a fine avenue of tall lime trees in a park close to the road, and we recall Harrison Ainsworth's preface to “Rookwood” which explains the superstition connected with one of these trees. He says:-
“the supernatural occurrence, forming the ground work of one of the ballads which I have made the harbinger of doom to the house of Rookwood, is ascribed, by popular superstition, to a family resident in Sussex; upon whose estate of fatal tree (a gigantic lime, with mighty arms and huge girth of trunk, as ascribed in the song) is still carefully preserved. Cuckfield Place, to which this singular piece of timber is attached, is, I may state for the benefit of the curious, the real Rookwood Hall; for I have not drawn upon imagination, but upon memory and, in describing the seat and domains of that fated family. The general features of the venerable structure, several of its chambers, the old Garden, and, in particular the noble Park, with its spreading prospects, the picturesque views of the hall, "like bits of Mrs Radcliffe" (as the poet Shelley once observed of the same scene), it's deep blades through which the deer come lightly tripping down, its uplands, slopes, brooks, brakes, coverts and groves, are carefully delineated.”
Let us turn in at the imposing gateway and drive towards the ancient gatehouse, built in the reign of James I, which stands at the end of one part of this avenue, for the main road now cuts the avenue in two. In doing so we shall pass the “Wizard Tree” which gives a warning sign of approaching death to the possessors of this ancient home;
“For when a bough is found I trow,
Beneath its shade to lie
Ere sun shall rise, thrice in the skies
A Rookwood sure shall die!”
The Gatehouse, which stands at some little distance from the house but immediately facing it as if barring the approach, must often have witnessed those customary midnight processions of torchbearers that always accompanied the departed member of this house when the coffin was carried to its last resting place. A picturesque but sad scene: and it is with no small feeling of relief that we turn from these thoughts to brighter days when, amidst admiring crowds of villagers, a bride of the Bowyers, the earliest owners of the house, drove to the Gatehouse in a picturesque chariot, and descending from the swaying carriage, gained access to her new home by passing on foot beneath the archway, for in those times the drive ended at the Gatehouse and from there a paved walk led through a forecourt to the front entrance.
At present this is east side of the house looks somewhat modern, and it seems that in leaving the turrets and the small ancient windows of the Gatehouse behind us, we are approaching a present day, newly built home. This impression is soon dispelled when the hall is seen, with its panelled walls of dark tone which are varied in design and littered here and there with inlaid woodwork.
The staircase with its handsome newels ascends from here in stately fashion, and we can picture it to be even now the haunt at stated times of a dame of bygone times whose rustling silk gown may be heard by some. For fear of disturbing this lady whose portrait hangs near by, we will visit first of the morning room on the left.
One of the walls of this room is formed by an ancient panelled screen taken, doubtless, from the original Elizabethan Hall. It is rich in its wide panels coffered work not unlike large nailheads, its delicately carved pilasters, its emblems of charity and justice. This wood work might have a sombre effect were is not for the touches of gilding and the coloured armorial shields that enliven it.
In examining the screen we must not allow ourselves to be deceived into thinking that the whole of it belongs to the date of 1581 that is marked upon it. The heraldic shield of the Sergison's with their dolphins, which is also bears, proves that some of the design belongs to a later date, for they owned Cuckfield Place long after Queen Elizabeth's reign. We have here therefore the work of different epochs, placed in its present position to separate the hall from the morning room. The Dutch tiles, with blue sailing vessels painted on them, line the interior of the hearth in this and in other rooms; and they have perhaps been put to commemorate the residence here of Charles Sergison who held the position of Commissioner and Clerk of the Accounts to the Navy. They are very charming, and compensate us somewhat for the removal of his collection of models of ships that once found a home here. The fire back, on the other hand, takes us back to an earlier age for, as it bears the date or 1588, it was evidently cast in the year of Henry Bowyer’s death.
The outlook from the south window of this room shows us the sloping lawn and, beyond it, in a valley far below, a rather formal shaped piece of water which is joined by a cascade to another pool of similar outline. Both are fed by a small stream which winds its way through the park. From the windows on the east side we gain a good view of the old Gatehouse. The roofs of the two turrets that stand up on either side of the archway are curiously dissimilar, for the one that houses the large-faced clock has a rounded cupola-shaped roof upon which is a weather vane, whereas the flat summit of the other turret is decorated with upright stone ornaments. Both have small round and square stonefaced Jacobean windows inserted in the brick walls. A glimpse of the lime avenue can be obtained on one side, and further south a high wall built of ancient stones, separates the lawn from a surprise flower garden, the pleasing fancy, perhaps, of the Honourable Mrs Charles Sergison, who did so much in recent times to beautify the gardens here as those of her other home at Slaugham.
As we retrace our steps through the hall in order to enter the library with its beautifully wrought Elizabethan plaster ceiling, it seems as if this is dear old house were calling out for the loving care of its own people. There is a degree of sadness in the thought that it may pass into other hands, for in the days that are past much careful consideration must have been given to the design of this ceiling alone, which with its many emblems shows us the close links that this place had with many of the leading families of Sussex. Here, besides E. R. and the royal arms, we find the Tudor Rose, pomegranate's scattering their many seeds, the fleur-de-lis and then the emblems of some of the great lords. The bull of the Nevills is here and, too, their portcullis, the oak spray of the Fitzalans, whilst the tiger sejeant represents the crest all the Bowyers. There are many devices besides, and it is to be hoped that some patriotic lover of heraldic design may place on record the meaning that lies hidden to the casual observer, within the raised shadowed outline of this rich decoration. Above the fireplace is some especially handsome inlaid panelling, and again the blue ships with their sails blown by the wind are on the hearth tiles.
The staircase leads to a small panelled passage on the right, from which access is gained to several quaint small rooms on a higher level than the rest of the ground floor, and consequently less lofty than the rooms we have seen so far. The first of these is the gun room. The view from it of the north flower garden is pleasant, and its shadow house, with a curved outline of roof, bearing Horsham slabs, conjures up pictures of its early connection with the game of bowls, for mounted up at the summit of a flight of stately stone steps it seems as if it had been placed there expressly for the onlookers of this interesting game. A raised terrace walk leads to a further summerhouse, William and Mary's reign having passed away, an attempt was made to introduce a sham Gothic design.
The boudoir comes next, its panelling being interrupted here and there by carved pilasters of oak, and above the panels is a frieze of woodwork in which labels of varied shape seem to have been intended for a motto or an inscription. A small portrait of an officer in the scarlet uniform of the fourth Dragoon guards, Francis Jefferson by name, looks well against one of the dark panels; and near to it is the likeness of Francis Sergison, who married Anna Warden and died on 4 April 1793. From these more recent records we return to Tudor times in admiring the contrasting oak and ivy sprays worked in stone that form the over mantle, dating back, together with the woodwork already alluded to, to the tenure of the Bowyers.
Opening out of this room and overlooking the garden is a small china closet; at least, its position adjacent to my ladies parlour points to its having been used as such, although, at present, Morocco bound books on the shelves. The study, another panelled room, with lozenge shaped decorations and holding books that boast the ribbon and wreath type of book plate that Francis Warden possessed, adjoins the boudoir.
Having now reached the last of the ancient rooms on this side of the house, we have to turn to the left, and passing through the northern modern wing and, we enter the long narrow, panelled dining room which is on the same side as the morning room that we first saw, but separated from it by the drawing-room. A casual examination of the house shows that at one time there was an open court in the centre, similar to the one at Glynde Place. This in recent years has been transformed into servants offices.
In the dining room we once again find a recollection of Henry Bowyer and his wife Elizabeth, for cast in marble over the hearth is a design bearing the double set of initials H.B. 1574 and H.E.B. together with the delicately executed emblems of a butterfly hovering amidst a bunch of grapes and a snail climbing towards some musical instrument of Tudor times. Amidst the family treasures in this room is a walking stick inscribed with the name of Thomas Sergison, the M. P. For Lewes, 1747, and a small portrait in a pale blue dress trimmed with lace of Prudence Sergison.
The drawing room, although long and pleasing in shape, has been modernised, but it has a delightful outlook over the valley where daffodils toss their heads on the banks of the pools below. The eye then ranges over rising parkland, almost unchanged in its glades edged with bracken since those days when, In the early part of the 18th century, Mary Sergison, the “tomboy” of the family wrote to her rather prim sister, who was in London, and told her of her country pastimes. Those were the days when she rode her “never tripping famous Black” across the park to Slaugham, making the woods echo with her “View holloa”. In her poem we learn that
“Arrived at Widow’s, tea we sup
Enrich’d with cream - a cooling cup”,
although “Uncle Mich” appears to prefer “a pot of rare October”.
For a history of Cuckfield Manor and the house we cannot better the one that is given in The Parish History of Cuckfield compiled from the papers of the Rev. Canon J. H. Cooper. We learn that Henry Bowyer built the house, and his marriage with Elizabeth, the daughter of Thomas Vaux, controller of Henry VIII's household, explains the initials that we have found in some of the decorative work. Henry died in 1589, but the place remained in his family, for his third and only surviving son Henry had it after him. He married Dorothy, the daughter of George Goring, who must have been accustomed to a nice home colour for her father was the builder of Danny. This lady survived Henry Bowyer and married as her second husband Sir John Shurley, of Isfield. At her death in 1640, without children, Sir Thomas Hendley, a nephew of Henry Bowyer, succeeded to Cuckfield Place and it remained in his family until, in 1691, the property was sold to Charles Sergison. We have already become acquainted with him as the owner at one time of some models of ships and Commissioner of the Navy, a post which he retired from in 1719. At his death the place passed to the Warden family, the members of which were relatives by marriage to the Sergisons. In the person of Thomas Warden, who succeeded in 1723, the name of Sergison was adopted by them, and Cuckfield Place has remained in their family to this day.