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Historic Scenes along the Brighton Road

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The road to Brighton is at once the shortest and the most travelled of our historic highways. But which is the Brighton Road; for there certainly are five well-travelled routes. The oldest of ways to Brighton brings us up against a paradox. It was the road to Lewes, before there was a Brighton to which anyone wanted to travel. From Lewes it goes eight and a quarter miles to Brighton, through Palmer. The route from London was in old times over London Bridge, for until 1749 there was no bridge across the Thames between that and Putney. Thence it went by Kennington to Croydon, to the left at Purley, through Caterham and down to Godstone, where the picturesque old White Hart or Clayton Arms remains: thence up Til-burstow Hill and down past Blindley Heath, East Grinstead, Maresfield and Uckfield. At East Grinstead you have that ancient inn the Dorset Arms, and the picturesque almshouses founded by the Sackvilles, once Dukes of Dorset. This is the most picturesque route to Brighton, which, by the way, always was called "Brighton," even in those days when the name was spelled "Brighthelmstone." It is fifty-nine miles in length, against the shortest route fifty-one and a half miles.

By this old and once only way went the earliest of the coaches and the first of the fashionables. It was Dr. Richard Russel (with one "l"), a fashionable physician midway in the eighteenth century, who first brought the fisher-village of Brighthelmstone into notice. He recommended the hitherto unheard - of practice of sea-bathing, and the first visitors travelled to it in 1750. Thus there was the beginning of a seaside resort even when George, Prince of Wales, afterwards the Prince Regent and George the Fourth, first came here in 1782. As we all know, he it was who made the fortunes of the town, and incidentally brought about much road-making to it.

To-day the Brighton Road is measured from the south side of Westminster Bridge. Along the Westminster Bridge Road and the Kennington Park Road it goes, to Kennington Church. Here the Brighton Road, pre-eminently the Brighton Road, the classic road, the record-making route, goes along the Brixton Road for Croydon. One of the very favourite alternatives is that which bears to the right and proceeds along the Clapham Road, for Mitcham, Beddington and Sutton, and so past Tadworth Heath, suddenly descending the North Downs at Reigate Hill. You will notice, on descending this long and steep hill into Reigate town, not only the lovely views over the Weald, but also, soon after the road dips to the. descent, a light suspension bridge crossing over it. This was made when a road-cutting was constructed in 1820. The cutting went through the ancient: Pilgrims' Way to Canterbury and thus abolished the continuity of that track; and so, to keep due record of it, the suspension bridge was provided. It serves little other purpose.

When we reach the foot of Reigate Hill we are confronted with the hill on which Reigate Castle stood. The hill was tunnelled for the direct passage of the road about 1820, and was the only available way until about 1916, when a by-pass was made, going round to the left. So do we come, over the cross - roads in midst of the staid old red - brick town of Reigate, and rise to Hookwood Common; rejoining the classic route at Povey Cross. This way it was that the first motor cars (they generally then were styled "horseless carriages") came on that historic Motor Car Day, November 14, 1896-the day when first they were legalised on the roads-for the great run to Brighton. This was considered a great occasion, and not less a great adventure. Those who thought so were right. On that adventurous day of wild weather some thirty-three of the fifty - four cars entered did actually start from the Hotel Metropole in Northumberland Avenue. No man knows exactly how many reached Brighton; some say twenty-two; others thirteen.

Now to resume the main route, through Brixton and past Streatham, whose beautiful common preserves it from becoming an undistinguished London suburb. Streatham, of course, in times not remote, had its medicinal spa, to which not merely invalids but also some fashionable persons resorted. We may yet see the old Pump House, in Valley Road, turning off the Common and, if we will, may take there a glass of the water which is still delivered to connoisseurs in this sulphate of magnesia spring. The Pump House is a stucco-faced Early Victorian villa. A bust of AEsculapius peers from a niche in front.

Norbury and Thornton Heath lead us into Croydon -unless we like to take the by-pass road to the right at the pond at Thornton Heath and so avoid the tram-lines and Croydon altogether, rejoining the main road at Purley Corner. If we proceed direct through the narrow and crowded streets of Croydon town, we shall at least see there at North End, on the left hand, the early seventeenth century Whitgift Hospital. "Hospital" in this case means "alms-house." The excellent Whitgift, Archbishop of Canterbury, founded the institution. The connexion of the Archbishops with Croydon was for long a close one. The quiet grassy quadrangle, the Chapel, and the Warden's rooms are worth seeing. The extensive remains of the ancient Palace of the Archbishops are away to the right, hard by the noble parish church, in which Whitgift lies. The Long Gallery of the Palace, the Guard Room and the Chapel remain; and in the Chapel is to be seen the curious gallery called "Queen Elizabeth's Pew."

Coming to Purley Corner, the road rises to Smitham Bottom. As "Smitham" this place, which many recollect as lonely, has become almost a suburb. Thence, past Coulsdon, we come up to the hamlet of Hooley. For long stretches of the road, down to Merstham, there still may be seen on the left the remains of a singular pre-locomotive railway, with its deep cuttings overgrown with trees and bushes. This was the "Surrey Iron Railway," worked from 1805 until about 1840. It was constructed chiefly for the purpose of conveying coal, bricks, timber, and other heavy goods between the Thames at Wands-worth and Croydon; and was extended to Merstham, where quarries of limestone and beds of fuller's earth are situated. The trucks were drawn by horses.

Down goes the road into Merstham village. To the right is Gatton Park, seat of Sir Jeremiah Colman. Until the Reform Act of 1832, Gatton was a Parliamentary borough, returning two members, although it had but six houses and one freeholder; the freeholder being the owner of Gatton Park himself. Lord Monson in 1830, in order to secure its valuable patronage, gave 100,000 for Gatton, but reforms two years later deprived him of it. The cynical peer erected in front of his mansion a little temple-like building which he called a "town hall"- a town hall for a non-existent town. It is still there.

On an urn under its roof is the presumably sarcastic inscription "Salus populi suprema lex esto."

Redhill, to which we now come, is a town of a very short history indeed, as you might guess by the look of it. Before 1845 there were no buildings to be seen, and the land belonged to the Countess of Warwick of that day. It was at first proposed to call it "Warwick Town," but better counsels prevailed, and eventually it took its present name from the red gravel of the hill up which we shall now proceed.

Reaching the crest of this not altogether moderate height, a part of the North Downs, we have before us another beautiful view over the Surrey and Sussex Weald. This is Earlswood Common, and for nearly three miles the road is undulating, in the nature of a switchback. Presently it brings us into Horley, at the old Chequers coaching inn, long in receipt of much custom of that sort, being practically the half-way house to Brighton. Horley old village lies off to the left, where the tall shingled spire of the church neighbours the old Six Bells inn.

At the branching roads of Horley one goes off to left for yet another, and very pretty, rural way to Brighton, which route makes a total distance of only fifty-two and a quarter miles. We pass the prehistoric moat of Thunderfield Castle in the grounds of a house named Harrowslea, and thence among the coppice-woods to Balcombe where there is a steepish descent to the Ouse valley, and then sharp undulations to Hay wards Heath. This is a lovely route, of heather and open commons; and at Wivelsfield, two miles beyond Haywards Heath, we come to the widespreading commons of Ditchling and Wivelsfield. Here is the Royal Oak inn, scene in 1734 of an atrocious murder by a Jew pedlar, one Jacob Harris, who murdered the landlord, landlady and a maid. He was duly hanged at Horsham, and his body, as was usual, duly gibbeted by the scene of the crime. The remains of the gibbet-post, called locally "Jacob's Post," are still on the common, crested with an iron rooster like a weather-cock, and pierced with the date. At Clayton, farther on from Ditchling, the route at last joins the main road.

Again resuming that road we come past Lowfield Heath and, crossing the Surrey border, come into Sussex and into the little town, or large village, of Crawley, picturesque with its old George inn, on whose gallows sign, stretching across the road, is the statement that the inn was established in 1615. Leaving Crawley, over the railway station level crossing, the road enters the wooded country of St. Leonard's Forest and, passing by Tilgate and Forest Row, comes to Handcross, where the old Red Lion inn stands at the fork of roads. Here the old main road goes slightly to the left; the once new road (made in 1816) bending to the right, steeply descending Handcross Hill and, going through Bolney and Albourne, rising up through the woods past the moated house of Newtimber, rejoins the main road at Pyecombe. This is part of the route used by the record makers and breakers.

Regaining for the last time the main road at Handcross, we descend to Staplefield Common and, going past Slough Green and Whiteman's Green, with the great Ouse Valley viaduct of the Brighton Railway off to the left, looking like some huge Roman viaduct, we come into the quiet old town of Cuckfield, once very busy in the coaching way. Its very life-blood was drained away when the railway was made two miles east, and a station built at what then was the lonely Haywards Heath, now a prosperous township.

Cucktield is stately in its quiet old age. At the farther end of it is the romantic park of Cuckfield Place, seat of the Sergisons. Harrison Ainsworth had it in mind for the model of Rookwood in his blood-boltered novel of that name. Notice on the right, at the end of the old lime avenue leading to the mansion, the impressive old gatehouse. This was brought from the dismantled house of Slaugham Place, built in the seventeenth century by the Covert family, near Slaugham.

Passing Anstly Cross, the road comes to the twin modern townlets of St. John's Common and Burgess Hill, built on what were commons until about 1840. From hence the grey misty line of the South Downs opens out gloriously, and we come past Friar's Oak inn and Stonepound to Hassocks, another modern settlement at the spot where a turnpike-gate, Hassocks Gate, once stood. Hassocks, in Sussex phrase, means scrub-woods, or coppices. From this point the ascent of Clayton Hill begins, with the little church of Clayton on the left and the grim castellated entrance to Clayton Tunnel to the right. From the crest of this eminence we descend the southern slope of the South Downs, and come into the country of the "deans," the grassy valleys stretching between this and the coast. Through Pyecombe and Patcham the road comes to its destination by Withdean and Preston. Brighton is entered along the Old Steyne, in full view of the Pavilion, that marine palace created by George IV, the "First Gentleman of Europe."

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Pictures for Historic Scenes along the Brighton Road

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