The history of East Grinstead

Sackville College with the statue of Sir Archibald

Sackville College with the statue of Sir Archibald - Credit: Duncan Hall

East Grinstead is a remarkable town with many religions choosing it as their base – including the Church of Scientology which has its European headquarters there. But what links them with pioneering plastic surgery and bare-knuckle boxing? Clive Agran found out

Whenever Tom Cruise strolls down East Grinstead High Street to admire what is thought to be the greatest uninterrupted length of timber-framed Tudor and medieval hall buildings in continuous use in England, he is largely ignored. Why? Because this is a town that doesn’t stare.

The explanation for why can be found right at the end of the same High Street but before we go there I suspect you’re curious to know why such a famous Hollywood star comes to a West Sussex town in the first place.

They aren’t about to commence shooting Top Gun II in the skies above Ashdown Forest. What attracts him is Saint Hill Manor in East Grinstead, which is the European headquarters of the Church of Scientology and former home of the movement’s founder, L Ron Hubbard. At one time it was rumoured that Tom Cruise was going to move in there, but he hasn’t yet.

What is curious, bordering on the spooky, is that the Church of Scientology is only one of several religious and quasi-religious organisations based here. Others include Opus Dei, the Rosicrucian Order, the Mormons, the Jehovah’s Witnesses and… the Caravan Club.

To discover why I pop into the modern library and enquire at the Tourist Information desk. Here I’m introduced to the curious phenomenon of ‘ley lines’, which are an alignment of land forms, places of ancient religious significance or culture. A network of these converge on East Grinstead. The Greenwich Meridian slices through the town, Kent, East Sussex, West Sussex and Surrey all meet up here and it’s roughly midway between London and the south coast.

The last point is why East Grinstead flourished for centuries as a popular stopping off place for coaches travelling between Brighton and London. Yesterday’s coaching inns are today’s pubs, of which there is no shortage in the town.

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To build up an appropriate thirst to appreciate them, I must first explore the place and am grateful to Dawn Spalding, East Grinstead’s promotions manager, who has agreed to escort me.

On the way to the High Street we stop just over the road from the library in West Street at what Dawn describes as a “secret garden”, which celebrates the five towns that are twinned with East Grinstead. At the top of the hill we’re roughly 400ft above sea level. Dawn explains that the town was laid out around 1200. As we stroll along the aptly-named Judges Terrace I learn that criminal courts of assize were held here from the mid-16th century to the end of the 18th century.

It’s believed executions were originally carried out in front of what is now the Old Stone House but, to accommodate bigger crowds to what was evidently a popular spectator sport, the gallows were moved in the 18th century to a field which now forms part of the Halsford Park Estate. A man found guilty of horse theft in 1799 was the last to be hanged there which, had he known it at the time, might have provided some comfort in his final moments, but I doubt it.

Witches were not burnt at the stake but were hanged. Burning was reserved for heretics. And in July 1556 on what is now a paved area outside a men’s outfitters, John Foreman, Anne Tree and Thomas Dungate were burnt to death for refusing to renounce their Protestant faith.

There was a flurry of excitement a while back when workers sent by a water company to fix a leak beneath a paving stone unearthed a bone. However, tests revealed it had not belonged to one of the Protestant Martyrs but had come from a cow and was a relic from the weekly cattle market in the High Street. Although the cow in question was comparatively modern, the first market dates right back to 1247. Originally held on Monday, the market was switched to Thursday in 1655 and the last cow was sold in 1970.

Dawn points out a small plaque sunk into the pavement in front of the war memorial which commemorates the award of a Victoria Cross to Sydney Godley on 23 August, 1914. Born in East Grinstead in 1889, Godley defended Nimy railway bridge single-handedly with a machine gun to allow the rest of his section to retreat. Despite being badly wounded, he held the bridge for two hours until he ran out of ammunition. His last act before being captured was to dismantle the gun and throw the pieces into the canal. Godley died in 1957 and his VC fetched £276,000 when it was auctioned five years ago.

Rather more peaceful is a cluster of five flower beds along High Street. Each has a different theme and together they won a Britain in Bloom Award. According to Dawn, they are becoming an increasingly popular attraction.

The rather impressive York stone drinking fountain was installed in 1887 to celebrate Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee. However, it was smothered in black pitch on the morning of the Jubilee by members of the town’s band annoyed at the withdrawal of their funding by Reverend Crawford, who had donated the fountain. Eighty years later, the feathered finials on top mysteriously disappeared. Concrete replicas replaced these in 2005. All that remains to be done is for the fountain to be connected to the mains water supply. That, however, may never happen.

We pop into a delightfully old-fashioned bookshop that occupies a classic Tudor building which proclaims it was built in 1535. On the exterior just above the jetty – the bit that sticks out where the upper storey overhangs – is cork bark cladding imported from Spain and stuck on by the Victorians. Inside, shop owner John Pye proudly shows off evidently very old wood carvings along the beams, one of which he asserts might be of Anne Boleyn.

Dawn is keen to take me to the Dorset Arms, not to buy me a drink but because, as we walk under the arch through which horse drawn coaches would have entered, there in front of us is a classic portland. According to Dawn it’s a 626ft long strip of land that comes as part of a burgage. A burgage is a mediaeval term to denote a rented piece of land with a narrow street frontage. East Grinstead has bags of burgages and plenty of portlands. To enjoy one of the latter at your leisure stay in Sackville House, which is a holiday let owned by the Landmark Trust. It has a garden which is, you guessed it, 626ft long.

Over the road from Sackville House is lovely Sackville College. Built of sandstone and most famous as the place where Good King Wenceslas was written, it’s open to the public from June to September.

In front of it and right at the end of High Street stands an impressive statue of East Grinstead’s most famous resident, Sir Archibald McIndoe, with his arms reassuringly resting on an airman’s shoulders. During World War II, McIndoe performed miraculous pioneering surgery on badly burned soldiers and airmen in the nearby Queen Victoria Hospital.

Although seriously disfigured, McIndoe’s patients would venture out into East Grinstead where no one would pay them much attention, hence the inscription at the foot of the statue: “The town that did not stare.”


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