John Stephen delves into the history of a beautiful Sussex village - and finds he has travelled further abroad than he expected. Pictures by David Plummer.
Sussex Life June 2005
What could be more quintessentially English than the Sussex village of Cuckfield? Set high on a bridge south of Saint Leonards Forest just 2 miles west of Haywards Heath, the tall spire of its 13th century Holy Trinity Church overlooks the steep High Street lined with historic Tudor houses. The area is also surrounded by beautiful gardens and National Trust properties. So imagine my surprise when I learnt the Cuckfield was no longer a constituent of a nation and had in fact declared its independence several years ago.
I was on my way to meet its president to find out what prompted such a treasonable act. On my previous visit here I have never felt like a foreigner and as I drove through the village I looked in vain for border crossings or checkpoints.
The name (pronounced ‘cookfield’) may have derived from Cucus Feld, denoting an open space, although a more fanciful explanation is that it is derived from the Norman ‘Cucu’ and meant a clearing full of cuckoos. In the 12th century it fell within the rape of Lewes under the overlordship of the Warenne family but it was not until the 16th century that Cuckfield developed in a big way. It was a period of great prosperity and many of the fine Tudor houses in the district were built by iron masters whose wealth came from an iron industry that flourished here, helping to produce guns and cannons for the wars with Spain.
One such house is Cuckfield Park, for many years the home of the Sergison family. Another splendid property is Ockenden Manor, once the residence of the Burrells and now an elegant country house hotel.
There followed a period of decline in the 18th century when coal replaced charcoal in the smelting process and the iron industry moved north. However, fortunes changed when Cuckfield became a major staging post on the road to Brighton. The Prince Regent and his retinue would often stay at the Kings Head for rest and refreshment.
The coming of the railway saw more changes for Cuckfield; by the end of the Victorian era many of the farms and homesteads of the old iron masters were developed and enlarged by prosperous new residents. Its location near Haywards Heath and the railways has more recently made it an attractive home for commuters. But why and when the break with Britain?
Phyl Bowring carries the title of President of the Independent State of Cuckfield and her presidential Palace is a charming red tiled cottage in a tranquil location on the outskirts of the village. The sprightly leader has been arrested here since 1938 and has recently celebrated her 90th birthday.
Looking back, it seems an extraordinarily trivial accident that prompted Phyl and her colleagues to take such a drastic step as a unilateral declaration of independence. "It was the donkey Grand National”, said Phyl. “The event started in 1951 and was held every August Bank Holiday Monday on the fields at Whitemans Green. There were annually as many as 10,000 visitors and 20 bookmakers with all the money raised from stalls and sideshows given to local good causes. In 1965 the local council compulsorily purchased the fields and we politely asked them if we could continue to use the land for our Grand National. To our dismay they said no.
“We had to look for alternative sources of funding and my late husband Peter suggested we declare UDI as Ian Smith had just done in what was then Rhodesia. We issued our own passports and currency. Five Cuckoos equalled one shilling and they were legal tender in all our shops and pubs. We even had our own stamps, which came in handy during the postal strike.
“The Cuckfield Society, which is largely responsible for the preservation of the village, thought it was rather gimmicky at first and then in 1971 our bridge on the road to Ansty collapsed and the council refused to build a temporary one. The mayor of our state jokingly wrote to them with concerns over the village being cut off and to our surprise they informed us that a Bailey bridge would soon be installed. The Cuckfield Society realised we had some use after all”.
Every October there is an election to find a mayor as Phyl explains: “Anyone can vote for whom they like and for as many times as they want. It's the most corrupt election in the world. Whoever raises the most is mayor for a year and after a procession are given the keys to Cuckfield. They preside over fetes, jamborees and other fundraising activities”. Money raised has been used for new equipment for local schools, hospitals and playgrounds as well as help for local students and athletes. There has been funding for tree planting, modernisation of cottage homes and comforts for the villages pensioners such as the Christmas dinner. “We must have raised well over £200,000 over the years”, Phyl tells me.
The Independent State had a fight on its hands in 1975 when it challenged the Council over plans for a 32 acre rubbish tip on a site at Sparkes Farm, now a golf course. “The planning application was published just before Christmas in the hope nobody would notice it but we picked it up”, says Phyl. “We contacted BBC's Nationwide program and they were drawn to the idea of a tiny independent state fighting the powers that be. Three days were spent filming and we enlisted the help of the Sealed Knot, an army that re-enact the English Civil War. They marched with fixed bayonets accompanied by our national anthem, which was to the tune of Sussex by the sea. It all went out on television and we were promised a public enquiry. One evening the phone rang at home and the Council informed us they had withdrawn the application. It was the best moment of my life. I pedalled my bicycle into the village and told them to get out all the bunting. We had won”.
It's not all been campaigning on fundraising. On the occasion of the Silver Jubilee 1977 the Independent State honoured its former sovereign, the Queen, by organising a magnificent street party with splendid decorations. Its efforts were rewarded by being adjudged runner-up to Fulham in a national competition.
Phyl has obviously seen many changes in Cuckfield in her 60 years in the village. “When I came here before the war the population was just under 2000 and now it is over 4000”, she says. “Thankfully there hasn't been a sprawl around the village and most of the new building has been within Cuckfield itself. Some of the newcomers see the place as a dormitory and don't get too involved but others are keen to be part of the community.”
Finally should a British citizen choose to live in Cuckfield; given the fact we both have a similar language, culture and cuisine?
“If you love the countryside, a happy community had a bit of fun, then the Independent State of Cuckfield is the place to live”, concludes Phyl.
I discovered on my visit here that the citizens of Cuckfield, which officially remains part of the UK, are caring, generous and resourceful. Nobody embodies those virtues more than their president Phyl Bowring. She has recently been honoured with a lifelong achievement award for her services to the community and plans are afoot to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Independent State of Cuckfield next year.
Thanks to Sussex Life for this article