Cuckfield Park’s 400th Anniversary
Long before the appearance of the first man the land now known as Cuckfield Park formed part of the Delta of a great continental river, for Britain was still connected to the continent by a land bridge. The alluvial soil of the Delta was fertile and fossil traces are still found on the rich vegetable and animal life of those times. Early in the 19th century the name of Cuckfield was well known to natural scientists because of the discovery of a complete skeleton of iguanodon, a huge herbivorous saurian.
Iron played an important part in the later history of Cuckfield and the builder of the present Cuckfield Park was a successful iron master. The forest that covered so much of Sussex provided fuel for the smelting of the ore. Caesar commented on the existence of iron but the workings must have fallen into disuse during the Saxon invasion that followed the withdrawal of the Roman armies from Britain in the fifth century. There is no mention of Sussex iron in Domesday Book, which is also silent about Cuckfield. The Saxon termination ‘field’ or ‘feld’, however, suggests that in Saxon times Cuckfield was already a clearing made by felling trees in the great forest which the Saxons called “Andraedswald”.
The family of Harold owned many manors near Cuckfield and there is little doubt that men from the district fought and died at Hastings. William the Conqueror may have particularly resented the opposition of Sussex men; certainly he allowed no Saxon landowner in the country to keep his possessions. He divided Sussex into six strips called “rapes” (a word of unknown origin). Cuckfield lies in the rape of Lewes which the Conqueror gave to William de Warenne, one of his youngest generals. The Normans were great huntsman and the forest around Cuckfield would have provided good hunting for William de Warenne and Gundrada his wife. The clearing was a good site for a hunting lodge and the foresters and gamekeepers probably constituted the nucleus of the little township that grew up. The Normans were also great churchmen and William and Gundrada built a church at Cuckfield. This church was served by the monks of the Cluniac Priory of Saint Pancras at Lewes. In the British Museum is a transcript made in 1417 of the charter of 1091 or 1092 in which the second Earl of Warren confirmed his parents gifts to the Priory. The charter contains the first written mention of Cuckfield spelt as “Kukefeld”. The tithes of the district, “decimal omnium” were to go to the Priory. In 1202 the Church of Cuckfield is mentioned by the name it now bears – Holy Trinity.
In succeeding centuries the little township of Cuckfield grew in size and importance. Agriculture was supplemented by the development of industries, tanning and a recrudescence of iron working. Henry Bowyer was the son of a successful iron master. He married Elizabeth Vaux, daughter of the Controller of Henry VII's household and bought 192 acres of parkland. There he built a lovely Manor House which still stands with its twisted Elizabethan chimneys rising above the roofs of Horsham tiles. A long avenue of redwood limes, partly enclosed by solid Tudor walls, leads up to a small Gatehouse making a strange fairy like entrance to the formal house.
A strange custom of the Sergison family – the second owners – was to place their dead in the Gatehouse and at midnight, by torchlight, the cortege would leave for burial as the clock struck. The custom was discontinued in 1914, but the clock is in good order and strikes its golden chimes on the hour.
To the South East the house looks over the Sussex hills. In the valley runs the river Adur, widening into two lakes, narrowing again, forming an ever-changing picture of this countryside – beautiful in rain, snow and sun. The house is entered through a high square port. The iron-studded 16th century door is closed each night by a solid bar of iron, secured by a 6 inch long pin on a chain. The present hall is the original middle and northern rooms (once the library) thrown into one room 42 feet long. The original ceiling of the former north room is still in place. About 40 years ago the intricate plaster moulding was so faithfully copied in the remainder of the ceiling that it is difficult to distinguish original from copy. The designs are partly geometrical, partly a heraldic summary of the changing lordships of the Manor of Cuckfield – the Bull of the Nevills, the Oak spray of the Fitzalans, a knight on horseback with the the Warenne chequers and many others surrounding a central panel with the arms and initials of Queen Elizabeth I.
The fireplace is original with moulded stone jambs and a four centred arch in a square head with plain spandrels. The fireback is a wonderful example of ironwork, worthy of its iron master owner. It shows the date 1585, the initials E. R. and the royal arms of Elizabeth I. The staircase rises from the basement but is entered from the hall through a segmented arch of oak with a middle pendant post. The staircase continues up in equal flights of five steps on four sides. The open-well type of structure is unusual for such an early date. In the wall of the well opposite the entrance from the hall is an interesting stained-glass window with family coats of arms flanking the arms of Henry VIII.
The morning room lies at the south end of the hall and forms the remaining third of the front of the house facing the Gatehouse. The south wall contains a wide bay looking over the lawns, parklands and Sussex hills. At the other end of the room is an Elizabethan carved wooden screen, mentioned in the Encyclopaedia Britannica as an example of an early Renaissance screen. Of irreplaceable value, the screen, with all the other 16th century appointments, have now been put under the protection given by law to historic buildings. It is divided into five bays by detached fluted shafts with Corinthian Capitals, carrying an entablature which breaks forward over them. The frieze is fluted and beaded and on the projecting parts are carved heads of beasts. The second and fourth bays are doorways and have enriched segmental arches with circular sinkings in the spandrels. The other bays are closed and the tympans are filled with radiating fluting. In the middle of the upper cornice is an elaborate cartouche with seated allegorical figures holding swords, wing cherubs, the date 1581 and a scroll inscribed ‘Pietate Lustra'. On either side are the arms of Bowyer and of Vaux.
This morning room is a lovely, wide, light room with original oak beam floor and ceiling beams 12 and 18 inches wide. The stone fireplace contains another wrought iron fireback dated 1588 and once more carrying the royal arms. Even today one can see the loving care Henry Bowyer lavished on every meticulous detail. Between the time of the de Warennes and Bowyer the lands of Cuckfield had passed from one noble family to another by marriage and inheritance – well-known names like Arundel, Norfolk, Stanley, Neville. But from Henry Bowyer’s time Cuckfield Park has been in the possession of only three families.
In 1691, Charles Sergison, one of the Commissioners of the Navy, bought Cuckfield Park. A capable, hard-working, self-made man he had become Clerk of the Acts only a year before in 1690. This post, formally held by Samuel Pepys, made him virtually head of the civil administration of the Navy and Sergison held it for thirty years during three reigns – William and Mary, Anne and George I. “He was a gentleman of great capacity and penetration….. strict integrity”.
The Sergison papers, published in 1950 by the Navy Records Society, gives a fascinating account of his work including an interview with Dutch William in which he gave the king a forthright description of the state of the Navy and what needed to be done about it. Sergison brought with him to Cuckfield his unique collection of models of ships of war. He laid down in his Will that they should be ‘handsomely placed’ in one or two rooms of the house. In 1919 a writer described how the wonderful models gave the rooms the appearance of a museum. It is tragic that Charles Sergison’s descendants allowed these priceless heirlooms to be sold to the United States where they now lie in the Naval Museum at Annapolis. (Click here for more on this story)
The Sergisons added a noble drawing room with a Grinling Gibbons fireplace, an orangery and a billiard room. In the 19th century one of them made a purchase of lands which united once more in the possession of a single owner all the properties which had been divided in 1415 among the four for sale and sisters covariances of Thomas, 15th Earl of Arundel for. The Sergisons left their lovely surroundings early in this century and the house was let to a succession of occupiers. In 1947 it became an independent Domestic Science College, recognised and examined by the Ministry of Education and Science.
In 1969 Mrs F. D. Fairbrace became the owner of this lovely place. After returning from Northern Nigeria she had become principal in 1957. Training students in cookery, home management, needlework and dressmaking, the College has acquired an international reputation. Students come from all parts of the world, although of course the majority are from the British Isles. This year's training is invaluable and every woman and indeed every boy should be given the opportunity to learn how to organise the house, the cooking and as well, to hear and use the knowledge imparted by the lecturers, who again come from every part of the world to tell of their country and their policies and outlooks on every conceivable subject.
This year brings us to the 400th anniversary of the building of Cuckfield Park by Henry Bowyer and the Cuckfield Society is planning to celebrate the occasion in July with 10 days of song, drama, son et
lumiere, and many other features.
I have told no legends, no myths, no scandals, although by my side lies a pile of such wealth and amusement. I feel compelled to tell just one – certainly unpublished – story, told to me in a rich vernacular. Cuckfield Park in the early 1900s had good stables and the drive has seen many strings of polo ponies. The irascible head groom governed the stable boys with a hard tongue and a heavier hand. Every Saturday he took his way up to the Kings Head – returning many hours later full of liquor. One night reeling down the hill he turned from the brilliant moonlight into the shadows of the lime trees forming archways with the moon streaming through here and there. It was very still – a fox barked somewhere, two owls called each other, a night jar was disturbed. A suppressed giggle, a twig cracked and if sober the groom would have noticed these things. Something made him lift his head and he saw slowly descending, as though from heaven, a white figure with a horrible face and blazing eyes. The figure slipped and slithered towards him. Shaking and stupefied with fear he fell to his knees praying to be forgiven and then fainted. When he came to his senses some hours later, very cold, there was nothing to see but the first gleams of dawn. Now sobered, he walked slowly home and crept into bed. His subsequent visits to the Kings Head were very brief and never again was he so cruel to his stable boys. Their prank of suspending the ghostly figure between the trees and slowly lowering it had been a success.
It was passing near these lands as he escaped after the Battle of Worcester that Charles second turned to his companion and exclaimed, ‘this is a country worth fighting for!’
Thank you to 'Sussex Life' May 1971 for the article (by Anon) and photographs