Cuckfield owed much of its wealth and prominence through its importance as stopping place for coaches. The road was improved - and the coaches later rerouted to the current A23 route.
The story of the growth of the route is told in the book ‘The Road to Brighton’ by Charles Harper in 1906:
The road to Brighton - the main route, preeminently the road - is measured from the south side of Westminster Bridge to the Aquarium. It goes by Croydon, Redhill, Horley, Crawley, and Cuckfield, and is (or is supposed to be) 51.5 miles in length. Of this prime route - the classic way - there are several longer or shorter variations, of which the way through Clapham, Mitcham, Sutton, and Reigate, to Bovey Cross is the chief. The modern ‘record’ route is the first of these two, so far as Hand Cross, where it branches off and, instead of going through Cuckfield, proceeds to Brighton by way of Hickstead and Bolney, avoiding Clayton Hill and rejoining the initial route at Pyecombe.
The oldest road to Brighton is now but little used. It is not to be indicated in few words, but may be taken as the line of road from London Bridge, along the Kennington Road, to Brixton, Croydon, Godstone Green, Tilburstow Hill, Blindley Heath, East Grinstead, Maresfield, Uckfield, and Lewes; some fifty-nine miles. This is without doubt the most picturesque route. A circuitous way, travelled by some coaches was by Ewell, Leatherhead, Dorking, Horsham, and Mockbridge (doubtless, bearing in mind the ancient mires of Sussex, originally 'Muckbridge'), and was 57.5 miles in length. An extension of this route lay from Horsham through Steyning, bringing up the total mileage to sixty-one miles three furlongs.
This multiplicity of ways meant that, in the variety of winding lanes which led to the Sussex coast, long before the fisher village of Brighthelmstone became that fashionable resort, Brighton, there were places on the way quite as important to the old waggoners and carriers as anything at the end of the journey. They set out the direction, and roads, when they began to be improved, were often merely the old routes widened, straightened, and metalled. They were kept very largely to the old lines, and it was not until quite late in the history of Brighton that the present ‘record’ route in its entirety existed at all.
Among the many isolated roads made or improved, which did not in the beginning contemplate getting to Brighton, the pride of place certainly belongs to the ten miles between Reigate and Crawley, originally made as a causeway for horsemen, and guarded by posts, so that wheeled traffic could not pass. This was constructed under the ‘Act 8th William III, 1696', and was the first new road made in Surrey since the time of the Romans.
It remained as a causeway until 1755, when it was widened and thrown open to all traffic, on paying toll. It was not only the first road to he made, but the last to maintain toll-gates on the way to Brighton, the Reigate Turnpike Trust expiring on the midnight of October 31st, 1881’, from which time the Brighton Road became free throughout.
Meanwhile, the road from London to Croydon was repaired in 1718; and at the same time the road from London to Sutton was declared to be ‘dangerous to all persons, horses, and other cattle’, and almost impassable during five months of the year, and was therefore repaired, and tollgates set up along it.
Between 1739 and 1749 Westminster Bridge was building, and the roads in South London, including the Westminster Bridge Road and the Kennington Road, were being made. In 1755 the road (about ten miles) across the heaths and downs from Sutton to Reigate, was authorised, and in 1770 the Act was passed for widening and repairing the lanes from Povey Cross to County Oak and Brighthelmstone, by Cuckfield. By this time, it will be seen, Brighton had begun to be the goal of these improvements.
In 1813 the Bolney and Hickstead road, between Hand Cross and Pyecombe, was opened, and in 1816 the sliproad, avoiding Reigate, through Redhill, to Povev Cross. Finally, sixty yards were saved on the Reigate route by the cutting of the tunnel under Reigate Castle, in 1823. In this way the Brighton road, on its several branches, grew to he what it is now.
Add on notes: The principal reason that the Brighton road was rerouted away from Cuckfield was explained by Hubert Bates in a 1931 Mid Sussex Times article:
'The Hickstead road to Brighton was opened to enable the Prince of Wales to use the Pavilion at Brighton as his residence when king: for in those days an Act of Parliament was in force requiring the royal residence to be within 50 miles of Westminster, and through Cuckfield the distance was fifty-four.'
The daughter of Daniel Dench, landlord of the Kings Head added, ‘My father left the King’s Head soon after this and took the Castle Inn on the Hickstead road. So poor Cuckfield lost her kings and queens.’
Sources: ‘The Road to Brighton’ by Charles Harper in 1906.
The Old King’s Head, Cuckfield - Peeps Into The Past, Mid Sussex Times, 10 March 1931
Photo and route map from 'Road to Brighton'
Contributed by Malcolm Davison.