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Victorian reflections on a walk through the ancient village of Bolney

Updated: Oct 18, 2020

Mid Sussex Times - Tuesday 13 September 1887



That BoIney was a very ancient settlement in the depths of the great forest there is not a doubt, for it is spoken of in the Doomsday Book, the oldest survey of which we are possessed, but what it was called before the Norman family De Bolne gave it a name is not recorded, but being so snugly situated and sheltered it is probable that a tribe of the ancient Britons might have settled there, it being at a convenient distance from the Downs, where, at Wolstonbury, they had a stronghold, and afforded safe retreat should an invasion of the continental marauders on the coast below take place, an event in those times of no rare occurrence.

But when Julius Caesar or some subsequent leader of the Roman legions came over and settled on or under the hills, which they seem to have done at Wolstonbury and Danny, they found them out and routed them, taking possession of their domiciles under the role long established among themselves, that—

He may take who has the power.

And he may keep who can.

But I don't suppose they had much trouble, for one of their historians tells they did not calculate the whole Island contained more than million of inhabitants, and finding water all round it and no land visible beyond it they concluded they had discovered the limits of the world and settled down comfortably, having no fear of being molested.

But in the process of time they too got “kicked out," and another set of bandits took possession and held it until “Billy the Norman, that very great warman,” came over and sent the intruders to the rightabout. Now it appears that this marauding worthy not having legitimate claim to a single acre of land in his native country determined to invade the country over the sea, that he had heard described as a “A right little tight little island." and make himself master of it.

Therefore, mustering an army of all the ragamuffins and loafers he could pick up, he came over, and by luck was successful. No man is so generous as he who has the chance of giving away what does not belong to him, but which by a stroke of fortune has come into his possession; therefore this lucky and enterprising lord of the land, to secure their fealty, after keeping the lion’s share to himself and family, bestowed on such of his followers as he could depend on the remainder, who without any compunction ousted the previous owners; but after all it was nothing more than one thief robbing another.

But I am not sufficiently versed in antiquarian lore to give the history of Bolney from so ancient a date, or determine whether the founder of the family that are said to have named it after them came over with him and had tract of forest land bestowed on him for his services, the first of the Becheleys of Cuckfield is said to have had, but shall merely describe it it was some three score years since, it being at that time a little world within itself.

Very little alteration has been made during that period in the outside appearance of the village. Old Tom Attree's smithy stands in the same convenient spot as it did then, with the pent-house opposite the old Eight Bells public-house, into which it was mighty convenient when "the groom ushered in with a horse to be shod," or the farm labourer with broken traces to be mended, or the ploughshare re-laid, for them to step in on a cold day and have a wet.

Eight Bells in Bolney

The old hostelry has had several changes of landlords, but there is the old high-backed settle and the cast-iron fire back in the kitchen, the latter bearing the coat of arms in alto, and well finished, of families now extinct, but formerly of great influence in the district, and the snuggery adjoining the bar is still the resort, as it has been for ages, of the choice spirits of the neighbourhood.

And opposite, across the narrow road, is the flight of old stone steps up which the lasses lightly trip on a Sabbath morning, and many a generation been bene to borne to be “laid in the churchyard mould” and there stands the church with its sun dial, useless on a cloudy day and no clock to tell the hour, having in its square tower the most musical ring of bells to be found in the county.

Bolney was formerly famous for its set of change-ringers, of whom the veteran Cook, the champion in his day at the ploughing matches, was the chief. The bells ring on merrily now, and sound sweetly in the woods and dells around, over the waters of the mill pond below, as they ever did, but the old veteran will no more compose a course of changes for new year to correspond with the date, for he and his comrades are at rest beneath the sod, and younger hands take their place in the belfry.

The old shop, a regular emporium for supplying the wants of the villagers, and where the farmers’ wives disposed of their butter and eggs, and purchased their grocery, is still there; but we miss the portly form and smiling face that formerly served it. Poor old Arnold, fond of hunting, and shooting, and - but hold hard, the old man is gone to that bourne from which no traveller returns, and so is Isted, the old shoemaker at the corner of the Common, who used to hobble round with a crutch, who as a maker of durable bob-nailed half-boots was not equalled by any snob for miles around.

As to other trades, Bolney, before the road was opened from Ansty Cross to West Grinstead and beyond, was not deficient, with a little assistance, in its isolation. Morley, from Cowfold, and Brigden. from Cuckfield, came over once a week and cobbled their harness, and the butchers from these places paid them similar visits; and then they had Picknell on the Common, who did a little in the butchering line, but who turned Mormon, was baptised in a puddle at the bottom of his garden, and going off with his rum friends was heard of no more.

Old Cripps, who lived by the stream at the bottom of Bolney Wood made their hay rakes and prong staves. His son came into a fortune in a singular way and built the little brewery in the lane below, but by some means got reduced below par and became, before his death, very low in the world They had also a windmill and water mill, and were beholden to their neighbours in no shape.

Bolney Place

Bolney Place, formerly the residence of the families owning the main portion of the parish, was at the time alluded to an antiquated barnlike-looking house, but has since changed into a genteel mansion, now occupied by one of the best and most experienced agriculturists around; and Garstons, a fine old house on the same estate, by meadows, and with a view of the valley below bounded by the Downs, is now inhabited by workpeople.

It is now a favourite spot with the staghounds for uncarting the deer, the country below, although looking fair enough, being difficult to cross and trying to the tyros, who are certain to be shaken off by the time the first flight of horsemen get settled to their work.

I dare say those who in remote ages went to church in their coach-and-four did so at Bolney, but there is only one record of a four-in-hand being seen in the street. When the Hickstead road was at the height of its popularity numberless stage coaches, carriages, post chaises were constantly rattling past, and one morning, Callow, driver of the Sovereign coach, with a few bloods on the box and roof with him, turned off at the Crossways, pulling up at “the Eight Bells," and drove through the narrow street and over the common, back into the main road by the windmill, highly enjoying the lark, Callow being one of the neatest and most accomplished whips on the road.

In former days, a century and half since, when the Sussex roads were almost impassable for driving stock, one of the largest winter cattle fairs was held on the Common on the 11th December, but about the middle of the last century, the country being more open, it was transferred to East Grinstead and became obsolete. In those times the licensed houses for the sale of liquors were not so numerous as now. but pop-shops more so, and at fair times "bough houses" i.e, houses having an oak bough nailed to the door post, were allowed to supply the public with beer, ostensibly, while the fair lasted, but the beverage they furnished was not confined to malt liquor; and the Excise had no business to interfere!

And now I must cry halt.



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