Blaker Family of Sussex - Reminiscences



IT would be difficult, or almost impossible, for people living in the early part of the twentieth century, and accustomed to the luxurious and rapid travelling, with all the means and appliances for comfort of the present day, to realise that in the forties, and even the fifties, of the nineteenth century the ordinary rate of travelling was only from about six to ten, or at most, twelve miles an hour; that the roads, except the large thorough-fares along which coaches frequently ran, were so narrow that two vehicles could only pass with considerable care, that they were mended with flints coarsely broken, if broken at all, and that these were put on in the autumn, and were ground in by the wheels of carts and other vehicles during the next winter, and that, if put on too late, or if the winter happened to be unusually dry, they remained loose all the next summer. Horses with broken knees were very common objects and the jolting of the vehicles, even with the best springs, was very tiring; a journey of any considerable distance was a matter of some importance, and preparations were made days beforehand. There was a common saying : "A man must go to London once or else he will die a fool," and going to London was looked on as a great event. My father used to relate that he started on his first visit to London from Selmeston, close to Berwick Station, with his father very early in the morning on horseback, dressed in a new suit of clothes and new top-boots. I can well recollect Queen Victoria coming from London to Brighton by road, and seeing her in her carriage with her escort round her pass through Pyecombe; and I also recollect the coaches with their teams of splendid horses running between London and Brighton, and presenting a most imposing appear-ance, especially at night when their approach was announced by the bugle and they were lighted up with a number of lamps, and seeming to bear down upon you like a big ball of fire. Horses on the road were frequently frightened of them, and I well remember, when I was taken to Pyecombe to see my relations, being kept awake till 10 p.m. or later, because my father was afraid to start on his road home till the last coach had passed. I can also recollect seeing the horses in the windlasses drawing up the chalk from the entrance of Patcham tunnel for the new London and Brighton Railway, which was then being constructed and was looked upon almost as one of the wonders of the world. Owing to the bad condition of the roads, by far the greater part of travelling was done on horse-back (the pillion had only just given way to wheeled conveyances for women) and the horse, especially the hackney, was a most useful and necessary animal, and among men, formed the usual and most interesting topic of conversation :

" Of the good horse that bore him best,
   His shoulder, hoof, and arching crest."

Riding on a good horse through the beautiful lanes of Sussex, rough though they were, on a fine day was most enjoyable, and seemed to give a feeling of freedom and independence which was most exhilarating; and a fine ride on a summer night was, perhaps, even a greater pleasure. Horses always went well at night and seldom shied or stumbled, and to walk along with the rein loose on his neck in those lanes, overshadowed by trees, with all nature at rest, the stillness only broken by the flight and note of a night bird, the barking of a fox in the woods, the tinkling of a sheep-bell or some other occasional country sound, was almost heavenly. But there was another side to the picture at times and to ride home ten or twelve miles on a night when it was almost pitch dark and raining hard and the wind blowing in your face, was quite another matter. To those who lived on, or in the country north of, the South Downs, when coming from Brighton or any place along the coast, it was sometimes convenient or almost necessary, in order to save distance, to ride across the Downs at any hour of the night, which was very pleasant on a fine light night, but when the night was very dark it was not always an easy matter and required a good deal of experience and judgement. It was easy enough to ride towards any lights, such as the Brighton lamps, but quite impossible to make any use of such light when riding in the opposite direction, or in hazy weather, when no lights of any sort could be seen; but by noting the direction of the wind, and keep-ing a current of air on a particular part of your face, by noting also the position of any familiar object, by a knowledge of the outline of the surrounding hills, and the fact that there is almost always a fringe of light on the edge of the hills, looking on to the Weald, and so defining their outline, it was not difficult to make out the direction in which you were going and to find the way, but on a very dark night, or a thick foggy atmosphere, it was most difficult to steer correctly. Your own ideas of locality seemed entirely to have left you, and if by chance you came across a familiar object, you either did not at first recognise it or it seemed, to your distorted imagina-tion, not to be in its right position. If, for instance, you came to a familiar house or barn, it seemed to face in the wrong direction and to use the expression of the late Mr. Ralph Verrall, who knew the Sussex Downs by day or night better than most men, "you must turn it round before you know where you are." It has been my lot on two or three occasions, to have had some difficulty in finding my way. On one occasion I started from my father's house at Albourne early in the morning for a day's shooting at Portslade. As was customary in those days, I rode on horseback, and carried my gun, and had my setter dog with me. We shot all day and afterwards dined there. At about 9 p.m. I started to ride home, intending to come off the hill by a road called the Wickhurst Bostel, a little to the west of the Dyke, which at that time, was entirely unenclosed. It was a lovely moonlight night in September, and I thoroughly enjoyed the ride, till I got nearly to the Dyke, when I was suddenly enveloped in a dense fog. I could see nothing and so left it to my horse, a particularly good and sensible animal at night. He immediately altered his course and I soon found I was going down a very steep place, and I soon discovered that this steep place was the Dyke itself, and also that the horse had chosen the best and easiest and safest route. When I got to the bottom, the appearance was very curious. It was, of course, rather dark, but where I was the air was quite clear and free from fog, which I could see as a dense canopy several feet above me. I at last got home quite easily and safely. On another occasion I started from Lewes at about 7 p.m. for Albourne, and the point I was making for was the Windmills at Clayton. When I got on Lewes Race Course, I found the light was peculiar, that is, it is what used to be called "ground dark," which means that you could see above but with difficulty distinguish things on the ground, and I nearly rode over a low chain on the race-course. When I got farther on the hill, near Mount Harry, I suddenly found myself enveloped in a thunder-storm, which seemed to come up from two different directions, and the lightning was so vivid that for one moment I could see almost every blade of grass, and the next I was in almost total darkness. My mare seemed a little frightened, and I had some difficulty in keeping her moving, but fortunately I had spurs. I steered by keeping close to the edge of the hill, till I found a rough road down which I rode as fast as I dared, and got to the "Half Moon," at Plumpton, just as the first drops of a most terrific rain came down.

I have often been astonished at the difference in the behaviour of horses at night. Some would roam about aimlessly in any direction if left to themselves, while others would show the greatest sense and judgement, and carry you home safely in the darkest night and in the worst weather. I must, however, confess that an examination of the horse's footprints next morning has shown that you have ridden over places in the dark you would have hesitated to face in daylight. It is impossible to describe your sensations when you first find yourself lost on the Downs, in, perhaps, the middle of a dark or foggy night, and feel that it is possible you will not find your way home till morning, though I never heard of this actually happening. It was not a feeling of fear, but one of utter loneliness and helplessness, and it required all your firmness and determination to combat the strange ideas which came into your mind in spite of yourself. My late friend, Mr. R. R. Verrall, who lived for many years at New Hall, near Hen-field, told me that about once a fortnight or three weeks he used to start from his father's house at Swanborough, near Lewes, about 10 p.m., and ride twelve or fifteen miles across the Downs by Stan-mer Park, the Dyke and Toddington to his home.

I have enlarged a good deal upon these night rides because they are so absolutely things of the past. Motors have rendered the roads unsafe for horsemen, and wire netting and wire fences have made riding on the Downs at night dangerous or impossible. One cannot doubt that horses and dogs, and perhaps cats, possess a sense of locality and localization which we do not possess and cannot understand. I cannot help relating an anecdote which the late Mr. T. Martin, a patient of mine who lived at Preston, and had been in his younger days one of the early settlers in Australia, told me. He once bought ten horses at 60 a piece in one part of Australia and took them several hundred miles to another part, a consider-able part of the journey being by rail. One of these horses suddenly disappeared in the night and was lost. About 12 months after this Mr. Martin had occasion to go to the place where he bought the horses and saw the man who sold them to him. The man said, much to Mr. Martin's surprise, "I owe you 60. One of those horses came back here two or three months after I sold them to you." This horse must have travelled alone all the distance, nearly a thousand miles, through the Australian Bush.

A gentleman and lady living at 88, Marine Parade, Brighton, next door to my own house, had a niece who lived at Surbiton. This niece came on a visit to 88, Marine Parade, and brought with her a Skye or Yorkshire Terrier, with short legs and long hair almost to the ground. One after-noon, a day or so after he was brought to Brighton, the dog disappeared. Every effort was made to find him he was valuable as well as a great pet. The day following he made his appearance at Surbiton. It is difficult to understand how he found his road and how he got there, but to those who have spent their lives in the country there is so much evidence of animals having the faculty of finding their way to their homes, under almost any circumstances, that it cannot be disputed.

Towards the close of the Russian war, some time in the early fifties, in the month of October, I received an invitation for a day's shooting at the Rookery Farm, Haywards Heath, which then belonged to Mr. Thomas Renshaw, and my uncle Mr. George Blaker, was to go with me. The place is now called Sandrocks, and belongs to Mr. W. C. Renshaw. We had a very nice morning's shoot-ing and came in to lunch in the middle of the day. Soon after we sat down a gentleman from London came to see Mr. Renshaw on business, and brought the news, which, however, proved to be false, that Sebastopol had been taken. This caused a good deal of delay, as much had to be talked about and several toasts had to be drunk. About 5 p.m. we started on our journey home; my uncle was in his gig and I was in a cart. It was getting dark and I knew nothing of the road, so it was arranged that I should follow my uncle's cigar as far as we were going on the same road. At Burgess Hill our roads parted, my uncle went by Clayton to Pangdean, and I turned to the west, intending to go to my father's house at Albourne by the College and Hurst. It was now dark, and at a place where two roads meet at a very sharp angle, I took the wrong turning, and continued driving about the network of dark roads, often with high hedges, between Hurstpierpoint and Cuckfield, for about a couple of hours. At last I saw a light in a window, and as I could not leave my horse, I called as loud as I could. An old man came out and I asked him where I was. He said, "This is Cuckfield." I asked him to tell me the road to Albourne. He replied "I can't do that, I could not make you understand, but I have two son's living at Sayer's Common; I rather want to see them, and it don't matter where I sleep, so if you will let me ride with you, I'll sleep at their house." We reached Sayer's Common safely, and I had then only about a mile of a straight road to get home, where I arrived at about 9 or 10 p.m. Genuine unselfishness and kindness is found as often in a cottage as a palace. The old gentleman's name was Hole, and his descendants are now occupying prominent positions in the agricultural world in this neighbourhood.

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