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Henry Kingsley's last words on Cuckfield

Peeps Into The Past The Mid Sussex Times, 2 June 1931

The Avenue, lime trees at Cuckfield Park 1903 (colourised postcard)

No lover of Cuckfield can pass down the Church Street without giving a grateful thought to those who so carefully and faithfully restored the beautiful old houses whose ancient lineaments lead us gently into the churchyard. There lies the grey old church - calm, placid and imperturbable under its enduring stone roof; almost as unchanging as the faith it stands for centuries have scarcely fretted the stones of its great square tower. Referring to Cuckfield Church. Henry Kingsley (1830-1876), in a volume of essays written at the Attrees (Cuckfield) during the last year of his life and which was probably his last published work, says:

Henry Kingsley c1870

The church

‘The church is one of the most beautiful in England, cared for like a jewel, and the wondrous old houses abutting into it would be remarkable elsewhere. In short, there are few places like Cuckfield churchyard’.

We leave the silent old church, with its 800 years of unwritten history, cross the Place Walk, and pass into the old Spinning Field.


Memory wakes with all her busy train, and we see a baulk of timber on which is hung a huge archaic wheel. A boy is seated on low stool, ceaselessly turning, turning, and as he turns he ever reads.

Ben the ropemaker

Ben the spinner (with his short clay pipe) walks backward down the rope walk, silently and evenly paying out the hemp that will presently become well ropes, halters. etc. This is one of the old country industries which have. alas, gone for ever.

Deer fence

A cold touch of the ugly iron park fence brings us back again, and with a sigh of regret for the passing of the old oak deer fence which was beautiful with its green and grey colouring, we trespass across the Little Park, lured to the great avenue by many happy memories.

Avenue of limes

Nothing in Cuckfield at this time of the year is so strikingly beautiful or so grandly eloquent of the new life of the spring as the Park avenue of limes. We dare not appeal to Tennyson or Browning - they have been quoted so often - but if we again dip into Henry Kingsley's essay we shall find him writing “But more remarkable than church or churchyard is Cuckfield Place close by with the finest lime avenue of its length in England.”

It is not only fine but irresistibly appealing to all who cherish a love for trees. Those who have ever stood beneath the limes in this grand old avenue on a May morning, with the bright spring sun filtering through the delicate, translucent young leaves and making a soft patter of light and shade the turf and drive beneath, and with a still softer whisper in the air, must have felt thankful in their hearts to the Great Giver of nature and grateful to those who planted the trees.

The limes age?

History is silent as to who did plant the avenue, consequently we can only speculate on its age. The fact of there being another avenue of lime trees identical in size, age and variety, at Butler's Green, and that the Sergisons and Wardens of Butler’s Green were closely related, lead our thoughts in that direction. Those who are experienced in forestry, and ‘know’ trees, suggest that the probable age of the limes in both avenues is from 170 to 180 years [ie 1706-16].

Turning to the annals of the families, we find that in 1732 Thomas Warden, of Butler's Green, inherited Cuckfield Place and the estate of his great-uncle, Charles Sergison. He then assumed the name and arms of Sergison and came to live at Cuckfield Place, where he died in 1700.

Limes link to Butler's Green?

It is a tempting suggestion that, having planted or seen his people plant, the limes at Butler's Green, he determined to have a like avenue leading to his new home at Cuckfield. At all events, the ages of the trees approximate to the above dates.

The gatehouse

At the end of the avenue stands the beautiful old gatehouse, much older than the limes, and, next to the church, the most interesting historical building in Cuckfield.

There it has stood, perhaps, for 300 years with its Stuart brickwork, its gun-slit and stone-mullioned windows and although perpetual peace now pervades it. we are told it was built for defensive purposes. It has a considerable room over the gate-arch, which cold-blooded historians declare was the ‘guard room’ but we will keep the faith of our childhood, when we believed it to have been the old ‘priest’s room’. Ender one turret is the original stone fireplace. At the corresponding turret corner is a slight recess which we loved to picture as the priest's little oratory.

In those days the room was lined breast high with fine oak panelling of the period. This panelling has been taken out and fixed in the Park house, but the historic old clock is still in its own turret, ticking out the lives of the lords of the manor.

The clock

How many years it has done this is not known, but from certain features in its mechanism the clock was probably made about 1700 - that would have been in the time of the first Sergison who purchased the estate in 1691. It is a nameless clock, but the sweet though sad toned bell it strikes is more fortunate having its founder's name. Edward Dvbder’, cast on the sound bow. Where or when he lived we have never been able to discover.

The first known mention of the clock is in the will of the above Thomas Sergison, dated 1760, when he wills: “ The clock standing in the clock-house, dec., to such person as shall be entitled to possession under the settlement aforesaid.” SAC. vol. 49.

Harrison Ainsworth

We cross the rustic bridge and gain the Upper Park- or, us Harrison Ainsworth has it in ‘Rookwood’, the Chase. It is not surprising that Ainsworth chose Cuckfield Park for the scene of his great novel, “ Rookwood,” as he was a great friend of the gentleman who was Mrs Season's husband, and known as the Rev. St. Pritchard Sergison. Ainsworth, who then lived at Hurstpierpoint, was frequently at Cuckfield Park, and in company with the reverend gentleman, took long tours on the Continent.

Here, where the mighty Earl Warrenne chased the fallow deer some 800 years ago - with great groups of elm and walnut trees about us, huge beech and oak almost smothering the old deer pond, and the red trunks of the tall Scotch firs glowing in the sunlight - we may yet feel we are in a real hunting park untouched by modernity.

Owl oak

Here, too are wide lawns of young, dewy grass, green as anything that grows under heaven, and acres of bracken unfolding their brown-tinged crosiers over the little tufts of doddle grass, while the tiny yellow torment it creeps beneath. We must pay a visit to the oldest inhabitant the ‘Owl Oak’, the friend of our youth, when, as Tennyson says:

To yonder oak within the field

I spoke without restraint.

And with a larger faith appeal'd

Than Papist unto saint.

This ancient tree is said to be haunted, and figures largely in ‘Rookwood’. It is also reputed to be a thousand years old. which is doubtful, but we have personal testimony handed down from three generations of park keepers (two Tullets and a Stoner) that, for the last hundred years, it has been just as we see it now, with its trunk nothing but a shell. May it continue so for another hundred years. The wild apple is in blossom; Walks Wood is full of song; Spring is over all the Park, and if our ears are attuned, we can hear her singing

In April when the birds sing out.

And gaily praise the Lord,

For making all the bursting buds.

The green and dewy sward.

The lark sings, as he ever sang

(The birds’ own Israfel)

A chorus follows from the wood

That fills the wak'ning dell.

Across the old Earl's hunting park.

As light as springs the deer.

Miss Joan comes singing, shouting, most

‘O Spring, dear Spring, come here.

Come here and kiss my thirsting lips;

Blow roses o'er my face.’

But, ah ! another comes this way

With swifter, surer pace.

Then Joan and he of surer tread

Went bounding like the Spring.

And where the scented orchis [sic] grew

They both began to sing :

'I am your Spring - you are my Spring-

Then we are two alone:

O, Joan, you dear, do just come near -

Say can we two make one?'

* Israfel is the angel who blows into the trumpet to signal Qiyamah (the Day of Judgment)

Contributed by Malcolm Davison.


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