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1981: A delightful summary of Cuckfield's past and a snapshot of contemporary life in the old town

How Prinny caused a stir in Cuckfield

Vida Herbison and photographer Roy Vandyke visit Cuckfield - favoured for Inns by the Prince Regent as he journeyed to Brighton

Early one July morning in 1784, before the dew had had time to dry on the grass, the residents of the sleepy little market town of Cuckfield were awakened by a great commotion of dogs barking, horses galloping and hunting horns blaring.

An early riser, who visited London regularly, recognised the then still good-looking fair haired, young man who led the cavalcade.

Cuckfield High Street then (circa 1900)
Cuckfield High Street 'now' (1981)

It was the Prince of Wales (later George IV), and behind him rode the notorious Colonel Hanger, and the equally notorious Lord Barrymore and, with him, his two brothers, the trio being nicknamed respectively, 'Hellgate', 'Cripplegate' and 'Newgate', followed by a retinue of other friends of the prince.

His Royal Highness had laid a bet that he could ride from Brighthelmstone, via Cuckfield, to London and back in a day, using relays of good, fast horses. The journey is said to have taken him 4 1/2 hours there, and 5 1/2 hours back – no mean going, for the major improvements of the Turnpike Road had then not yet taken place.

But the prince liked Brighthelmstone and soon it became the most popular and fashionable watering place in the south and, accordingly, the roads were soon to be improved.

The development of the first direct route from Brighton to London via Cuckfield had taken place in 1761; earlier, coaches had gone via East Grinstead and Lewes and the Cuckfield road saved some 8 miles. With the prince converting a large farmhouse he bought in Brighton, Cuckfield grew and flourished with the trade that a busy coaching stop brought.

But the story of Cuckfield began centuries before in Norman times and, indeed, even before that. The name is thought to be derived from the old English, ‘cucku’, the sound the bird makes and ‘felde’ - the open clearing which it frequented.

In about 1095, William de Warrenne gave the land of Cuckfield to the monks of the Cluniac Priory at Lewes and they built a chapel there, and in about 1250 the Priory ceded it to Richard De Wych, bishop of Chichester. He encouraged his chaplain, Walter de Warnecamp, to rebuild, enlarging the original church. In the 15th century it was re-roofed and the aisle walls raised.

Carvings incorporated in the ceiling indicate that this may have been erected by Edward Neville, Lord Abergavenny, grandson of John of Gaunt. The later painting on the ceiling is the work of C. E. Kempe, 1864.

Through the centuries, as was the case with most ancient churches, there were changes from time to time in the interior, as seating was added or changed, and galleries constructed by the local landowners or well-to-do clergy.

The church clock was put up in 1667 and according to the church accounts of 1670, materials were purchased for shingling the steeple. In 1702 more money was spent on the steeple, which through the centuries has needed considerable attention. The last time it caught fire was in 1980 and it is being replaced yet again.

Cuckfield did not completely escape the Civil War, for a skirmish took place to the east towards Haywards Heath. It is said that the 14th century font was damaged when it was kicked by one of the roundhead’s horses.

Outside in the beautifully kept churchyard I met the Sexton, Cuckfield born Gordon Stewart, who takes a keen interest in the memorials and headstones.

He showed me several interesting memorials, including one of the writer Henry Kingsley, brother of Charles and one to Sir Harry Preston, the Brighton sportsman and hotelier who had a house at Anstye. The most interesting, which Miss Maisie Wright was to bring to my notice when I visited her later, were the graves of members of the Fitz Clarence family, including those of the second and third earls of Munster, the descendants of the Duke of Clarence, later William IV, and Mrs Jordan before her marriage to Adelaide.

Notable past and contemporary images of Cuckfield

To the north-east just outside the churchyard are some attractive old cottages. These were once an inn where those who came a long distance to church and who stayed all day might obtain refreshment and meet their friends between matins and evensong. As I walked back along the path to the church car park I was delighted to see that the facade of the early schools building dating from 1632 to the west of what is the National Church School, has been preserved.

As early as 1521, Edmund Flower, a wealthy merchant and Master of the Merchant Taylors left it in his will that the free Grammar School he founded some years previously should be maintained and, in 1529, the Reverend William Spicer, was named the second founder.

From here I went to call on Miss Wright, who lives in a cottage with one of the most admired doorways in Cuckfield.

In 1971 she wrote a most lively and interesting book, Cuckfield – an old Sussex town. Although there is still a demand for such a book, it is now out of print and Maisie Wright would very much like to add to it the information she has collected over the past decade. She also told me that the Cuckfield Museum Trust has started a small museum at the Queens Hall (built in 1897), and would greatly welcome gifts or loans of exhibits. The curator, Mrs Smith, may be contacted at Sekhams House Lindfield.

Alas, there is not the space to write here of the old families or houses which were within the parish before the coming of the railway and the development of Haywards Heath, when it covered a much larger area. But now, two of the more notable houses are Cuckfield Park and Ockenden Manor.

In 1573, the Iron master Henry Bowyer bought Cuckfield Park Estate from the Earl of Derby and used the material from the mediaeval manor house, then to the south of the church, into the building of his new one. Henry and his wife Elizabeth's initials with the date 1574 are carved on the stone chimney in the dining room. On Henry's death the Manor passed through his daughter to the Hendley family and to his grandson, Walter Hendley. In 1691, his daughter Mary Clark, sold the estate to Charles Sergison who had succeeded Samuel Pepys as Commissioner of the Navy.

His niece, Prudence, who married Thomas Warden, inherited the estate and from their son Michael it continued through the female line and eventually passed to Anne, the wife of the Reverend Prichard, who took the Sergison name in 1812. The novelist Harrison Ainsworth stayed at Cuckfield Park in the 1830s and wrote of the house in Rookwood. The house was restored and enlarged by Warden Sergison, after a fire in 1880.

Troops were camped and trained in the Park in the First World War and, during the last war, Canadian troops were stationed there. The old Hylands workhouse infirmary (1845) was converted by the Canadian Army medical authorities into what was to become the Cuckfield hospital of today. In 1947, Cuckfield Park became internationally known as a girls’ finishing school until it was sold in 1968.

The Reverend Gerald Burrell was the first member of the family to settle in Cuckfield in 1446 and his nephew, Ralph, was the great grandfather of the iron master Walter, who bought Ockenden from the Michel family. He built much of it about 1658 as it is today.

The fifth of Walter’s nine sons, Timothy (1664-1717), a London Lawyer, lived at Ockenden. He was a kindly, charitable man with a keen sense of humour and through his diaries from 1683-1714 he left a vivid picture of what life in Cuckfield was like. His granddaughter Elizabeth married the third Duke of Marlborough, Sir Walter Wyndham Burrell, who live there from 1862-1876, added a new wing and stables.

Today it is a hotel and Mr Donald Wells who has always been greatly interested in ancient buildings has preserved the country house atmosphere, which makes it a delightful place at which to stay or eat.

Before the prosperous, bustling days of the coaching era, Cuckfield had made its livelihood from farming, quarrying (at Whitemans Green), tanning, fulling, milling, and rope making, to say nothing of the cattle sheep and corn market. Cuckfield became a chartered market town as early as 1255.

But, with the coaching era, came three blacksmiths, a coach builders and a busy saddlery trade and there were at least 24 shops of all kinds, many manufacturing their own wares, such as boots and shoes.

The two main inns in Cuckfield were the Kings Head and the Talbot, and as ‘Prinny’ visited the Pavilion at Brighton more and more he liked to stop at the Kings Head. In those days it was an ancient rambling old place which stood about where the post office and some of the adjoining shops are now, with stabling for 30 to 40 pairs of horses in the large stables in Ockenden Lane where the art gallery and houses are.

The popular and prosperous landlord at this time was Daniel Dench and in later years his daughter wrote of those days.

The prince was always most friendly with her father, but he didn't approve of many of the prince’s outriders who were not good horseman and to whom, when the horses were changed, he had to give his best mounts which were sometimes spoilt in consequence.

The London – Brighton route was shortened via Hickstead in 1810 so that the Prince as Regent might be within the specified 50 miles of Westminster when he was at Brighton. The old route was still favoured by the gentry and often by the Prince himself but, in 1817, to keep his more fashionable customers, Dench moved to the Castle at Hickstead.

On the other side of the road the Talbot, originally called the hound, was quite a large hotel which took up the whole of the row of what have been turned into shops.

It was comfortable and well run and many people of note stayed there, including Dr Gideon Mantell between 1821 to 1830, the palaeontologist who discovered the famous fossils in the quarries of Whitemans Green.

The Magistrates Court was held in the large room, also the assembly room where dances and all kinds of meetings and social functions were held.

Today the Talbot is only a quarter of its original size but it still has a warmth of atmosphere of the old days. The court and assembly room is now an antiques Gallery.

Mr S. Wildman who took over the old Kings Head in about 1840 and engineers working on the new London – Brighton railway stayed there.

The old inn was demolished when the brewer Mr Best built shops and a small brewery on most of the site in 1858. At the north of the town the Ship, and the Rose and Crown were also very busy and so was the White Harte, the oldest remaining pub of all. It is said to have been the haunt of smugglers and it's still the haunt of Cuckfield cricketers, for the town has long been noted for its cricket.

Shops of all kinds are returning to Cuckfield and one that never disappeared is that of the saddler.

Frank and Ralph Penfold took over from their father who came to Cuckfield in 1922. The saddlery had been established in 1855. The Penfolds still make their flax or hemp thread in the traditional manner and riders of all ages come to them from miles around.

Cuckfield once had a fair which was held with the cattle market in the street, now it has an annual fete in aid of charity and for some years, Cuckfield has elected a mayor. What some people do not realise is that this is just done in fun and purely to help to raise money for charity, for their friends can buy votes for the candidates. The candidates can even buy as many votes as they like for themselves.

The new mayor is pulled by donkeys in procession through the town and a day of fun is enjoyed by all.

Who knows, perhaps one day another Prince of Wales will take a fancy to Brighton, race up to London through Cuckfield and it will become world-famous once again.

From: Sussex Life - March 1981

Thank you to Sussex Life and Cuckfield Museum for the photographs


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