Highways and Byways in Sussex/Chapter 30
GLYNDE AND RINGMER
Mount Caburn—The lark's song—William Hay, the poet of Caburn—Glynde church and Glynde place—John Ellman—The South Down sheep—Arthur Young—Ringmer and William Penn—The Ringmer mud—The ballad of "The Ride to Church"—Oxen on the Hills—The old Sussex roads—Bad travelling—Ringmer and Gilbert White.
One of the pleasantest short walks from Lewes takes one over Mount Caburn to Glynde, from Glynde to Ringmer, and from Ringmer over the hills to Lewes again.
The path to Mount Caburn winds upward just beyond the turn of the road to Glynde, under the Cliffe. Caburn is not one of the highest of the Downs (a mere 490 feet, whereas Firle Beacon across the valley is upwards of 700): but it is one of the friendliest of them, for on its very summit is a deep grassy hollow (relic of ancient British fortification) where on the windiest day one may rest in that perfect peace that comes only after climbing. Caburn is not unique in this respect; there is, for example, a similar hollow in the hill above Kingly Vale; but Caburn has a deeper cavity than any other that I can recall. On the roughest day, thus cupped, one may hear, almost see, the gale go by overhead; and on such a mild spring day as that when I was last there, towards the end of April, there is no such place in which to lie and listen to the lark. If one were asked to name an employment consistent with perfect idleness it would be difficult to suggest a better than that of watching a lark melting out of sight into the sky, and then finding it again. This you may do in Caburn's hollow as nowhere else. The song of the lark thus followed by eye and ear—for song and bird become one—passes naturally into the music of the spheres: there exist in the universe only yourself and this cosmic twitter.
The Lewes golfers, of both sexes, pursue their sport some way towards Caburn, and in the valley below the volunteers fire at their butts; but I doubt if the mountain proper will ever be tamed. Picnics are held on the summit on fine summer days, but for the greater part of the year it belongs to the horseman, the shepherd and the lark.
Mount Caburn gave its title to a poem by William Hay, of Glyndebourne House, in 1730, which ends with these lines, in the manner of an epitaph, upon their author:
Here liv'd the Man, who to these fair Retreats
First drew the Muses from their ancient Seats:
Tho' low his Thought, tho' impotent his Strain,
Yet let me never of his Song complain;
For this the fruitless Labour recommends,
He lov'd his native Country, and his Friends.
William Hay (1695-1755) was author also of a curious Essay on Deformity, which Charles Lamb liked, and of several philosophical works, and was a very diligent member of Parliament.
Descending Caburn's eastern slope, and passing at the foot the mellowest barn roof in the county, beautifully yellowed by weather and time, we come to Glynde, remarkable among Sussex villages for a formal Grecian church that might have been ravished from a Surrey Thames-side village and set down here, so little resemblance has it to the indigenous Sussex House of God. As a matter of fact it was built in 1765 by the Bishop of Durham—the Bishop being Richard Trevor, of the family that then owned Glynde Place; which is hard by the church, a fine Elizabethan mansion, a little sombre, and very much in the manner of the great houses in the late S. E. Waller's pictures, the very place for a clandestine interview or midnight elopement. The present owner, a descendant of the Trevors and of the famous John Hampden, enemy of the Star Chamber and ship money, is Admiral Brand.
Glynde's most famous inhabitant was John Ellman (1753-1832) the breeder of sheep, who farmed here from 1780 to 1829 and was the village's kindly autocrat and a true father to his men. The last of the patriarchs, as he might be called, Ellman lodged all his unmarried labourers under his own roof, giving them when they married enough grassland for a pig and a cow, and a little more for cultivation. He built a school for the children of his men, and permitted no licensed house to exist in Glynde. Not that he objected to beer; on the contrary he considered it the true beverage for farm labourers; but he preferred that they should brew it at home. It was John Ellman who gave the South Down sheep its fame and brought it to perfection.
The most interesting account of South Down sheep is to be found in Arthur Young's General View of the Agriculture of the County of Sussex, which is one of those books that, beginning their lives as practical, instructive and somewhat dry manuals, mellow, as the years go by, into human documents. Taken sentence by sentence Young has no charm, but his book has in the mass quite a little of it, particularly if one loves Sussex. He studied the country carefully, with special emphasis upon the domain of the Earl of Egremont, an agricultural reformer of much influence, whom we have met as a collector of pictures and the friend of painters. For the Earl not only brought Turner into Sussex with his brushes and palette, but introduced a plough from Suffolk and devised a new light waggon. The other hero of Young's book is necessarily John Ellman, whose flock at Glynde he subjected to close examination. Thomas Ellman, of Shoreham, John's cousin, he also approved as a breeder of sheep, but it is John that stood nighest the Earl of Egremont on Young's ladder of approbation. John Ellman's sheep were considered the first of their day, equally for their meat and their wool. I will not quote from Young to any great extent, lest vegetarian readers exclaim; but the following passage from his analysis of the South Down type must be transplanted here for its pleasant carnal vigour: "The shoulders are wide; they are round and straight in the barrel; broad upon the loin and hips; shut well in the twist, which is a projection of flesh in the inner part of the thigh that gives a fulness when viewed behind, and makes a South Down leg of mutton remarkably round and short, more so than in most other breeds."
John Ellman by no means satisfied all his fellow breeders that he was right. His neighbour at Glynde, Mr. Morris, differed from him in the matter of crossing, and his cousin Thomas had other views on many points touching the flock. In the following passage Arthur Young expresses the extent to which individuality in sheep breeding may run:—"The South Down farmers breed their sheep with faces and legs of a colour, just as suits their fancy. One likes black, another sandy, a third speckled, and one and all exclaim against white. This man concludes that legs and faces with an inclination to white are infallible signs of tenderness, and do not stand against the severity of the weather with the same hardiness as the darker breed; and they allege that these sorts will fall off in their flesh. A second will set the first right, and pronounce that, in a lot of wethers, those that are soonest and most fat, are white-faced; that they prove remarkable good milkers; but that white is an indication of a tender breed. Another is of opinion that, by breeding the lambs too black, the wool is injured, and likewise apt to be tainted with black, and spotted, especially about the neck, and not saleable. A fourth breeds with legs and faces as black as it is possible; and he too is convinced that the healthiness is in proportion to blackness; whilst another says, that if the South Down sheep were suffered to run in a wild state, they would in a very few years become absolutely black. All these are the opinions of eminent breeders: in order to reconcile them, others breed for speckled faces; and it is the prevailing colour."
It is told that when the Duke of Newcastle used to pass through Glynde, on his way from Halland House, near East Hoathly, to Bishopstone, the peal of welcome was rung on ploughshares, since there was but one bell.
Ringmer, which lies about two miles north of Glynde, is not in itself a village of much beauty. Its distinction is to have provided William Penn with a wife—Gulielma Springett, daughter of Sir William Springett, a Puritan, whose bust is in the church and who died at the siege of Arundel Castle. The great Quaker thus took to wife the daughter of a soldier. When Gulielma Penn died, at the age of fifty, her husband wrote of her: "She was a Publick, as well as Private Loss; for she was not only an excellent Wife and Mother, but an Entire and Constant Friend, of a more than common Capacity, and greater Modesty and Humility; yet most equal and undaunted in Danger. Religious as well as Ingenuous, without Affectation. An easie Mistress, and Good Neighbour, especially to the Poor. Neither lavish nor penurious, but an Example of Industry as well as of other Vertues: Therefore our great Loss tho' her own Eternal Gain."
In Ringmer Church, I might add, is a monument to Mrs. Jeffray (née Mayney), wife of Francis Jeffray of South Malling, with another beautiful testimony to the character of a good wife:—
Wise, modest, more than can be marshall'd heere,
(Her many vertues would a volume fill)
For all heaven's gifts—in many single sett—
In Jeffray's Maney altogether mett.
Ringmer was long famous for its mud and bad roads. Defoe (or another) says in the Tour through Great Britain:—"I travelled through the dirtiest, but, in many respects, the richest and most profitable country in all that part of England. The timber I saw here was prodigious, as well in quantity as in bigness; and seemed in some places to be suffered to grow only because it was so far from any navigation, that it was not worth cutting down and carrying away. In dry summers, indeed, a great deal is conveyed to Maidstone and other places on the Medway; and sometimes I have seen one tree on a carriage, which they call in Sussex a tug, drawn by twenty-two oxen; and, even then, it is carried so little a way, and thrown down, and left for other tugs to take up and carry on, that sometimes it is two or three years before it gets to Chatham. For, if once the rain comes on, it stirs no more that year, and sometimes a whole summer is not dry enough to make the road passable. Here I had a sight which, indeed, I never saw in any part of England before—namely, that going to a church at a country village, not far from Lewes, I saw an ancient lady, and a lady of very good quality, I assure you, drawn to church in her coach by six oxen; nor was it done in frolick or humour, but from sheer necessity, the way being so stiff and deep that no horses could go in it." The old lady was not singular in her method of attending service, for another writer records seeing Sir Herbert Springett, father of Sir William, drawn to church by eight oxen: a determination to get to his pew at any cost that led to the composition of the following ballad, which is now printed for the first time:—
THE RIDE TO CHURCH.
"A true sonne of the Church of England."
Epitaph on Sir Herbert Springett,
Let others sing the wild career
Of leaden-coloured cloud aside.
Sir Herbert Springett, Ringmer's squire,
And lo! John Grigg in Sunday smock;
And, promptly, though 'twas sabbath tide,
Sad is the sequel, sad but true—
Oxen are now rarely seen on the Sussex roads, but on the hill sides a few of the farmers still plough with them; and may it be long before the old custom is abandoned! There is no pleasanter or more peaceful sight than—looking up—that of a wide-horned team of black oxen, smoking a little in the morning air, drawing the plough through the earth, while the ploughman whistles, and the ox-herd, goad in hand, utters his Saxon grunts of incitement or reproof. The black oxen of the hills are of Welsh stock, the true Sussex ox being red. The "kews," as their shoes are called, may still be seen on the walls of a smithy here and there. Shoeing oxen is no joke, since to protect the smith from their horns they have to be thrown down; their necks are held by a pitchfork, and their feet tied together.
Sussex roads were terrible until comparatively recent times. An old rhyme credits "Sowseks" with "dirt and myre," and Dr. Burton, the author of the Iter Sussexiensis, humorously found in it a reason why Sussex people and beasts had such long legs. "Come now, my friend," he wrote, in Greek, "I will set before you a sort of problem in Aristotle's fashion:—Why is it that the oxen, the swine, the women, and all other animals, are so long legged in Sussex? May it be from the difficulty of pulling the feet out of so much mud by the strength of the ankle, that the muscles get stretched, as it were, and the bones lengthened?"
When, in 1703, the King of Spain visited the Duke of Somerset at Petworth he had the greatest difficulty in getting here. One of his attendants has put on record the perils of the journey:—"We set out at six o'clock in the morning (at Portsmouth) to go to Petworth, and did not get out of the coaches, save only when we were overturned or stuck fast in the mire, till we arrived at our journey's end. 'Twas hard service for the prince to sit fourteen hours in the coach that day, without eating anything, and passing through the worst ways that I ever saw in my life: we were thrown but once indeed in going, but both our coach which was leading, and his highness's body coach, would have suffered very often, if the nimble boors of Sussex had not frequently poised it, or supported it with their shoulders, from Godalming almost to Petworth; and the nearer we approached the duke's, the more inaccessible it seemed to be. The last nine miles of the way cost six hours time to conquer."
To return to Ringmer, it was there that Gilbert White studied the tortoise (see Letter xiii of The Natural History of Selborne). The house where he stayed still stands, and the rookery still exists. "These rooks," wrote the naturalist, "retire every morning all the winter from this rookery, where they only call by the way, as they are going to roost in deep woods; at the dawn of day they always revisit their nest-trees, and are preceded a few minutes by a flight of daws, that act, as it were, as their harbingers." An intermediate owner of the house where Gilbert White resided, which then belonged to his aunt Rebecca Snooke, ordered all nightingales to be shot, on the ground that they kept him awake.
While at Ringmer, if a glimpse of very rich park land is needed, it would be worth while to walk three miles north to Plashetts, which combines a vast tract of wood with a small park notable at once for its trees, its brake fern, its lakes, and its water fowl. But if one would gain it by rail, Isfield is the station.