by OSBERT LANCASTER
FEW towns in England can boast so long a continuous history as Drayneflete. From the earliest times human habitations of one sort or another have clustered along the north bank of the River Drayne at the highest point, where this shallow but treacherous stream is easily fordable. Or perhaps even earlier, for it is conceivable, though admittedly there is little to suggest it, that primitive man dwelt here before even there was a river at all, at a time when France and England were joined by a land bridge and vast mammoths and saber-toothed tigers prowled through the tropical undergrowth where now stands Marks and Spencers.
However that may be, we do know that early in the Bronze Age Drayneflete was already an important settlement on the great trackway from the Thames to the coast that has been known at various times as Wiggling Way, the Via Hernia, and A 999, Interesting evidence of the high level of “the Drayneflete culture" (as it has come to be known) was afforded by the discovery some years ago, during the rebuilding of the Fever Hospital on Drayncflete Down, of a long barrow. Workmen, little realizing the importance of their treasure-trove, unearthed some broken pots, a string of beads, and a quantity of clay cylinders of undetermined purpose, all lying mingled with a quantity of human bones. The find was immediately recorded (see the Proceedings of the Drayneflete Archaeological Society, Volume XXXII, pp. 85-97), but it was not until the various objects had been submitted to the expert analysis of Professor Spiggot of London University and Dr. Flackenbacker of Yale that their full significance was realized.
The occupant of the grave was, it appears, a local chieftain, middle-aged, five foot seven in height and markedly dolichocephalic. He was married, but not happy in his home life, suffered from stomach ulcers and an impacted wisdom tooth, and died as a result of a sharp blow over the left ear. He had probably fallen on his head as a child and was certainly devoted to his dog, a crossbred mastiff, eight hands in height with a badly damaged tail.
The pottery was hand-turned of a fairly common type indicative of cultural contacts with the lower Meuse and probably did not hold water. The beads were imported from the Baltic and subject to a heavy purchase tax which indicates that the Drayneflete community was comparatively wealthy. The clay cylinders of very peculiar shape were at one time thought to be primitive lace-bobbins, but as there is no evidence of lacemaking at this early date Professor Flackenbacker is probably correct in saying that they played an important part in some fertility rite.
The development of Drayncflete during the Middle Ages was inseparably bound up with that of the institutions of the Church, and the most prominent remaining monuments of this age are all, as elsewhere, ecclesiastical. At the time of the Conquest there already existed a stone-built church, dedicated, curiously enough, to St. Sorbo, a saint of whom virtually nothing is known, but whose name has been thought by some to indicate a Celtic origin, while others have attempted to identify him (or her) with St. Sambo, a holy man alleged to have been popular in Asia Minor in the fifth century and traditionally held to have been the Ethiopian eunuch baptized by St. Philip. This church, which had replaced one built by Filthfroth the Brisling (probably destroyed in Viking raids), was itself superseded by a new structure in the Norman style erected towards the end of the eleventh century. All that now remains of the pre-Conquest shrine is the base of the west tower and one Saxon window of two lights of rude and primitive workmanship. The Norman church consisted of a single aisle and a chancel with a rounded apse.
At the very end of the thirteenth century a further rebuilding took place: the south wall was pierced to form an arcade of pointed arches rising on clustered shafts giving on to the new aisle, and the chancel was rebuilt in its present form with an east window of three pointed lancets. A little more than a century later new windows in a style midway between Decorated and Perpendicular were inserted in the south aisle and shortly afterwards two stories were added to the lower which, when completed, with an openwork balustrade and pinnacles in the Perpendicular style, must have made a very striking addition to all views of the town. Unfortunately “Lord Littlehampton’s Stump,” as it was popularly called locally, did not long sun ive, being totally destroyed in live great storm of 1608. After the close of the Middle Ages an addition was made to the church in the shape of the north aisle erected by Sir Pompey Fidgett to accommodate his family tombs in the degraded Gothic of the early seventeenth century.
The parish church, however, was neither the sole nor the most prominent ecclesiastical building in the town. Late in the thirteenth century a house of Augustinian Canons was established on the banks of the Drayne, just outside the North Gate, which continued to flourish and expand up to the time of the Dissolution, Today, alas, all that remains is the exquisite Gateway at the northeast corner of the Market Place known as Prior Blood wort’s Lodging, with its great paneled solar above the archway, now occupied by the offices of the Regional Petroleum Officer.
Prior Bloodwort, of whom a lifelike statue, now in the Museum, stood in the niche to the west of the arch until if was removed to make way for the present traffic lights in 19o/i, played a prominent role in the local history. On traditionally bad terms with the townsmen, he gained their undying haired by appropriating, in addition to the rights of ullage, socage, and jus prnnar nactis (exercised, naturally, in a lay deputy), the lolls on the bridge over the River Drayne. Against ihis unwarrantable extension of the Church’s claims the townspeople long protested in vain, and it was not until they were in a position to inform against him to the High Sheriff that he was eventually undone. Unfortunately for him he was unable to answer charges that he had illegally suppressed a prosecution for short-weight baking against a local firm in return for a consideration, and although it was never proved that he received any more than a pork pasty and half a bottle of sack, he was removed from his office by the Chancellor of the Diocese.
Prior Bloodwort’s Lodging, although the sole architectural, is not the only remaining treasure of Drayneflete Abbey. Better known, by far, is the delightful Drayneflete Carol, which was composed by an anonymous member of the community in the early fourteenth century and is now preserved in the British Museum (Drayneflete MSS. No. 6089-10-11) and was first sung on the occasion of a Yuletide visil to Drayneflete of the young Richard II. Although it has already been the subject of twenty-one talks in the Third Program by Professor Harpsbaum, I print it here in full for the benefit of readers who may still be unacquainted with this exquisite gem of Middle English prosody.
Praysos to our yonge Kyng
Sonic syng sherpe and some syng flat
Alma Mater Exeat.
Maken loude melodic
With saeklmt, organ, pipe and drum
Ad Tcrrorcm Omnium.
Alack, they cannot svng at alle
Ne cock ne henne of either sexe
De Minimis Non Curat Lex.1
Of the secular remains of medieval Drayneflete virtually nothing remains. Gone is the exquisite old Custard Cross where the market price of custards (or costards) was regularly fixed by the master of the Custard Makers’ Guild, and the memory of it survives only in a few rare seventeenth-century engravings; gone is the beautiful old Moot Hall, wantonly destroyed at the end of the seventeenth century to make way for a heavy and ill-proportioned building in the Renaissance style; gone the fine fourteenth-century hall of the Worshipful Company of Drumstretchers.
Of all the treasures of medieval Drayneflete, that of which the disappearance is to be, perhaps, most deeply regretted is the old Fidget. House, a miracle of half-timbering and curved newel posts which stood, until well into the eighteenth century, up against the Prior’s Lodging.
The remarkable family of Fidget, or ffigett, can boast a longer connection with the town than any other. The first Figet (or Fidget) of whom we have any record is Master Humfrey Figet, whose effigy in brass lies in the south aisle of the Parish Church. The old theory that he was the son of a pawnbroker and “contact man” for Prior Bloodvvort has long since been disproved by the researches of the late Miss Dracula Parsley-ffigett, who has conclusively shown that he came of a very ancient Welsh family of gentle birth. By the middle of the fifteenth century he was already the most prominent local citizen, being Master of the Custard Makers, twice Mayor, and finally for a short time High Sheriff of the County. However, the great days of the family date from the time of the Dissolution of the Monasteries, when Master Humfrey’s grandson Sir Jonas Fidget received a grant of Drayneflete Priory from the King.
The most important result of the reform of religion in Drayneflete was the disappearance of the Priory and the erection on its site (and with much of its materials) of the magnificent Tudor mansion of the Fidgets, happily still standing on the banks of the Drayne. A sincere friend of the reformed faith, except for a short period under Queen Mary, Sir Jonas Fidget played no small role in the glorious history of his times. Although he took no active part in the many voyages and explorations which rendered memorable the reign of the Virgin Queen, by financing, at a very reasonable rate of interest, numerous contemporary expeditions, he is entitled to a full share in the triumphs and glories of this great period of English history. Dying at a very advanced age, “from a surfeit of apricocks” according to the chronicler of the time, he was succeeded by his son, Sir Pompey Fidget.
Sir Pompey, the first baronet, had a distinguished military career in the Low Countries, where he trailed a pike in the Field Security Police, and was responsible for the apprehension of many dangerous characters in our own ranks suspected of halfhearted acceptance of the Thirty-nine Articles or of communicating with Jesuits. For his loyal services he was created a baronet and privileged to entertain his Sovereign at Fidget Priory, an honor which cost him almost as much as he had made out of the confiscations imposed on the traitors whom he had denounced. He was four times married, and lies beneath a handsome monument in the chapel which he added to the Parish Church.
This effigy, which is a very fine example of contemporary sculpture, gains added interest from the presence of his faithful hound, a feature which Mrs. Esdaile regards as almost unique at this period and which makes the monument very popular with visitors, many of whom have signed their names in indelible pencil on the animal’s hindquarters.
Of his numerous offspring the most notable was his third son, Hezekiah, who left his native country during the last part of King James’s reign, after a series of financial reverses, for the New World, where he founded the town of Drayneflete, New Hampshire, and where his family is today worthily represented by Senator Wilbur P. Fidgett V.
Of the other Drayneflete worthies of the seventeenth century the most illustrious was probably that strange character, Dr. Ezekiel Peppercorn, who is today best remembered for his discovery of the medicinal properties of the lesser bindweed, anti his ingenious, though never realized, project for a silent flush. In his own day his fame largely rested on his great work, Hydrophilic or the Properties of the Fourth Element Explained, to which is appended an exact account of the marvellous great l mvy in King Solomon’s Temple. He it was who was responsible for the notorious Drayneflete Water Riots in 1632. On this occasion a handsome new pump, the gift to the town of Sir Jeremy Fidget, who had long been anxious to provide his fellow citizens with a purer supply of drinking water than that afforded by the River Drayne, was totally demolished by an angry mob inflamed by the eloquence of Dr. Peppercorn, who had preached for two and a half hours on the text “Are not Abana and Pharpar, rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel?" This remarkable character, who lived for fifty-six years in a house still standing, in Pump Court, finally died of a dropsy in his eightieth year and was buried in the church. In 1925 a memorial plaque was placed on No. 2 Pump Court by the Municipality and unveiled by the Chairman of the Metropolitan Water Board.
The most remarkable of the existing buildings of the seventeenth century is the King’s Head Inn in the Market Place. It is known that an alehouse had stood on this site from very early times, but no part of the present structure, which has undergone numerous alterations in the intervening years, is older than the mid-seventeenth century. Of the distinguished travelers who have from time to time lain beneath its hospitable roof the name is legion. Although there is no mention of it in his diary, there is a firm tradition that Samuel Pepys frequently stopped here on his way to Dover, and one of the bedrooms still bears his name. Likewise it has long been believed that it was at the King’s Head that General Wolfe spent his last night in England, and a copy of Gray’s Elegy which he is said to have left behind is still preserved in the Smoking Room. (Albeit as it is the 1810 edition it is just possible that the general’s own copy may perhaps have been purloined at some period and a substitution effected.)
Of considerable importance to the life and development of the town at this date was the arrival of the fourth Lord Littlehampton at Drayneflete Castle. This massive pile, which had been erected on the bank of the Drayne shortly after the Conquest, had remained in the possession of the de Cowgumber family until the extinction of the male line on the execution of Sir Thomas de Cowgumber, his cousin Lord Cowgumber, and his five brothers on Tower Hill in 1533. It then passed through the female line into the family of Lord Littlehampton, who continued, however, to reside on their old Sussex estate at Courantsdair.
In 1672, however, the then Lord Littlehampton (the “Wicked Lord”) decided to leave his castle at Courantsdair and reside at Drayneflete, whence he could more easily reach his town house in Covent Garden. He at once set about improving his property and planned a mansion that was to rival in size Castle Howard or Seaton Delaval. Unfortunately funds ran out and only the central block was ever finished — which must, adjacent to the medieval ruins, have presented a very bizarre appearance.
The eighteenth century at Drayneflete was a time of rapid expansion during which the appearance of the town was considerably modified. Many of the splendid old timber houses were ruthlessly torn down and replaced by the square brick boxes which were the century’s principal contribution to domestic architecture. Among the more important survivals from this period should be noted the Corn Exchange in Market Street, half of which is still fortunately standing alongside Messrs. Pixol’s new showrooms; the old Rectory, a fine red-brick mansion in the style of Sir Christopher Wren just behind the Church, which now houses the Drayneflete Museum and Art Gallery (Open every day from ten till four. Entrance 6d., special terms for schools); and an equestrian statue of William of Orange removed in 1897, to make way for the statue of Queen Victoria, to a new site behind the Town Hall.
The greatest of the many illustrious figures connected with Drayneflete during the period was undoubtedly Alexander, second Earl and eleventh Baron Littlehampton, the grandson of the “Wicked Lord. A man of wide culture and great sensibility, he devoted himself throughout a long life to the promotion of literature and the arts. The splendid collection of pictures that he formed has rendered his name familiar to all lovers of painting, and his enlightened patronage supported numerous poets, architects, and landscape gardeners during their struggling years, and in some cases long after they had ceased to struggle.
In his lifetime Drayneflete Castle was twice completely rebuilt, first in the Palladian and then in the Gothic style. He it was who was responsible for Lord Littlehampton’s Folly,” an architectural curiosity expressly designed to display correct examples of all the five great schools of architecture. On ground level was a square pavilion from the façades of which projected classical porticoes, in the Ionic, Doric, Corinthian, and Tuscan orders respectively, adorned with numerous busts of Vitruvius, Palladio, Inigo Jones, and other worthies. On this rested a Gothic octagon, pierced with traceried windows and sustained bv flying buttresses, supporting a three-storied Chinese pagoda that terminated in a cupola in the Hindu taste. Under the whole structure was an Egyptian crypt. Completed in 1799, this curious freak remained intact until the night of its noble builder’s death, when the Oriental or uppermost sections were struck by lightning at the very hour when Lord Littlehampton was breathing his last. The Gothic octagon survived until 1923, when it was removed as being unsafe; while the classical pavilion on the ground floor remained comparatively intact until it was taken over by an AA battery as living quarters for the ATS in 1941. Today all that remains is the Egyptian crypt, which rendered yeoman service as an air-raid shelter for the inmates of the County Lunatic Asylum throughout the “blitz.”
At the beginning of the nineteenth century the main road to the coast was practically unflanked by buildings after it crossed the river by the old bridge, and a ten-minute walk from the Market Place in this direction was sufficient to take the traveler into virgin country. A little more than a mile from the bridge there was a crossroads at which stood a single poor inn opposite ihe recently completed walls of Lord Littlehampton’s great park. The second Earl, “Sensibility Littlehampton” as he was known, at the time of the second rebuilding of Dravneflete Castle conceived the kindly idea of building a small Gothic Lodge at this corner of his estate for his friend and protégé, the poet Jeremy Tipple. It was the long residence of this celebrated bard in this villa which first gained for the crossroads the appellation “Poet’s Corner,”and it was here that he wrote his immortal The Contemplative Shepherd, a poem of some fifteen thousand lines of which I can, alas, only quote a small selection. The passage chosen is of particular topographical interest as the landscape described is today almost entirely covered by the municipal sewage farm.
The gentle windings of the limpid Drayne
Full oft have seen me, wandering at dawn
As birds awaken and the startled fawn
Leaps from her mossy bed with easy grace
On catching sight of my indulgent face.
Deep in some crystal pool th’enamoured trout
Frolics and wantons up a lichened spout
By which the stream, in many a sparkling rill,
Is made by art to turn a water-mill.
At last the sluggard Phoebus quits his bed
And bares the glory of his fiery head;
Now all the world assumes an aspect new
And Nature blushes neath the mantling dew.
E’en yonder mossy walls and em’rald sward
The home of Littlehampton’s puissant lord,
The ancient fastness of a warrior race
Regards these marches with a kindlier face. . . .
By 1820 both the poet and his patron were dead. Owing to the slump at the end of the Napoleonic Wars, coupled with a bad run of luck at Crockfords, the nephew and successor of the second Earl (“Sensibility Littlehampton” had never married) had been forced to sell land for development, and a row of gentlemen’s villas to the design of Mr. Papworth had been erected alongside Poet’s Corner, while a bailiff’s cottage in the Rustic style was erected on the further side of the inn some years later.
The Gothic Villa itself was now in the possession of Miss Amelia de Vere, the only child of the poet’s married sister, Sophonisba, who had long kept house for her brother. Along with the house, Miss Amelia had inherited much of her uncle’s poetic gift, although at first this was only revealed to a small circle of intimate friends. After, however, the anonvmous publication of her Lines on the Late M assart ( at Chios, which sounded like a tocsin throughout Liberal Europe, her fame was assured. It is not, alas, possible, nor indeed is it probably necessary, to quote this celebrated work in full, but the two opening stanzas will serve to demonstrate both the fearless realism of the gentle poetess and her exceptional command of local color, a command the more extraordinary in that she never, save for a brief visit to Tunbridge Wells, traveled more than ten miles from Drayneflete in all her life.
Of the mother who casts a last lingering look
At her infant aloft, understandably crying,
Impaled on the spear of a Jiashi hazoolb
As the scimitars flash and the yataghans thud
On innocent victims, vainly appealing
To dreaded Janissaries lusting for blood.
However, although Miss de Vere may have never, save in imagination, set eyes on distant parts, she was afforded many a complete change of scene on her own doorstep in the course of an extraordinarily long life.
On the death of Miss de Vere, Poet’s Corner passed to her nephew, Mr. Casimir de Vere Tipple, in whom the poetic gift, so constant in this remarkable family, burned, if not with renewed vigor, certainly with a “ hard gem-like Flame.” His contributions appeared regularly in The Yellow Book, and were published in a slim volume by the Bordley Head under the title Samphire and Sardonyx. Unfortunately he did not long enjoy his property as he was forced, for private reasons, to live abroad from 1895 onwards and thenceforth resided on Capri in a charming villa where his great social gifts and exquisite hospitality will still be remembered by many visitors.
After the departure of Mr. de Vere Tipple the Poet’s Corner was let on a long lease to a firm of monumental masons. A further great change in the appearance of the neighborhood occurred when, shortly before the 1914 war, Messrs. Pinks, the drapers, entirely rebuilt their premises and a confectioner’s occupied the space between them and the Poet’s Corner.
The secluded quiet of this once shady nook was further interrupted by the substitution of trams for horse buses at the turn of the century , and the subsequent increase in traffic due to the coming of the internal-combustion engine.
However, the poetic tradition of the locality was not even yet extinct. On his death in 1929 Mr. de Vere Tipple left this valuable corner site to his favorite nephew, then at Oxford, Guillaume de Vere Tipple, who had already made a name for himself by the publication of Feux d’artifice (Duckworth, 1927), a collection of verse astonishing in its maturity, of which we quote a single poem, Aeneas on the Saxophone.
AENEAS ON THE SAXOPHONE
(ses bains de mer, ses plages Henries,
And Dido on her lilo à sa proie attachée)
And shall we stroll along the front
Chatting of this and that and listening to the band?
The plumed and tufted sea responds
Obliquely to the trombone’s call
The lecherous seaweed’s phallic fronds
Gently postulate the Fall.
But between the pebble and the beach rises the doubt, . . . Delenda
Between the seaside and the sea the summons, . . . est
Between the wagon and the lit the implication. . . . Carthago.
In the years between the wars the whole character of the district was still further altered.
Today Poet’s Corner is up for sale: its owner, Bill Tipple, who on the outbreak of war had been a conscientious objector, but who, on hearing the news of the invasion of Russia, experienced a complete change of heart and immediately joined the Drayneflete section of the National Fire Service, is absent for long periods abroad in his capacity of organizing secretary of the World Congress of International Poets in Defense of Peace.
The long Littlehampton connection with the town is now a thing of the past; the great race of Flidgetts is extinct. But their spirit lives on and their successors on the Borough Council are determined that the Drayneflete tradition shall at all costs be maintained. But whatever the future may hold in store let the visitor reflect, as he goes round the Museum, as he inspects the magnificent collection of Ffidget t portraits in the Art Gallery (bequeathed to the town in 1948 by the late Miss Dracula Parsley-ffigett), as he wanders in the oldworld Market Place, as he paces the banks of the “limpid Drayne” — let him reflect on the men and women who through the ages have all played their part in making Drayneflete what it is today, and see to it that we, their heirs, shall prove ourselves worthy of so goodly a heritage.
- The earliest known tune attached to this carol is generally attributed to Myrffyn np Hwdda, who was beaten to death with a lyre by a rival competitor at a late sixteenth-century Eisteddfod.↩