Reflection on North Stoke, near Arundel - Sussex
PUBLISHED: 16:59 29 November 2010 | UPDATED: 17:44 20 February 2013
The hamlet of North Stoke, near Arundel, is an oasis of peace close to the busy B2139. Ann Churchett used to live there. Here she remembers her time there with great affection and looks at some of its past and characters...
Our house stood at the top of the lane - quite a steep climb. The bright red phone box and little square post box next to the flint and brick garden wall. The lane curved round past a long tractor shed, our wood store. Across the road two elderly ladies lived. They turned everything possible into wine - marrows, potato peelings, pea pods, elderflowers and berries, cowslips and rhubarb!
The air up here is clean and fresh and full of the subtle smells of the land.
Further down was a very old, square, flint and brick horse pond. Here, in the days when all power on the fields was horsepower, the animals were cooled and cleaned after their heavy labour. We were all stunned when it was demolished along with an old flint farm building.
The hamlet of North Stoke, near Arundel, is an oasis of peace close to the busy B2139. Ann Churchett used to live there. Here she remembers her time there with great affection and looks at some of its past and characters
Stepping out of the lethal traffic flow rushing over Houghton Bridge was always a special moment for me.There was a magic quality of transformation, as in Leslie Thomass novel Goodnight and Loving when he pushed through the hedge behind a motorway service station and found himself in a quiet English village, untouched by the insanity of the six lane highway.
Although it is many years since I regularly walked the lane to North Stoke it still helps me oft when on my couch I lie/In vacant or in pensive mood, as Wordsworth writes. If sleep eludes me I mentally retrace my steps until I reach our old cottage, re-visiting memories all the way.
The lane begins at Houghton Bridge toll house, called The Turnpike. An old drinking buddy of my husband, John Hatt, lived there. Then The Bridge Inn, a very old hostelry, where in 1872 Elizabeth Merritt dropped dead in her bedroom in the act of tightening her stays.
Across from the inn is the wharf, once used for loading barges with lime from the chalk pits, now very overgrown, concealing an abandoned barge. An elderly local man, Mr Philby, remembered playing on it as a boy in the early 1900s, when it was still in good shape. He and his friends used to light the stove and make a camp. As my grandmothers family were bargees on the river Arun since the 1700s I always felt an affinity with this relic.
The way continues past ancient cottages, and a building that was once a school, a village hall, an art studio in the 1980s and now , a private dwelling. Next to these buildings is Mr Philbys cottage, high off the roadway. The slope up to his old, pink-washed home was covered every February in thousands of snowdrops, indicating that the ground had been undisturbed for a very long time. Farm traffic had to be cautious on this corner, as Mr Philbys chickens spent all their time scavenging the lane and verges. Records show that this lovely old mans family have lived in the district of Amberley since at least the 1600s.
Beside Mr Philbys cottage is a tall, narrow, brick railway arch the line from the coast to London. The train carrying Queen Victorias coffin passed this way, in 1901, on her last journey from Cowes to Windsor. In 1873 a boot was picked up on the line with the foot still in it!
The next stretch of the lane is untouched except for the railway fence, overgrown with Old Mans Beard, and Sweetbriar, which Keats called pastoral Eglantine. Here also grows blackthorn, May blossom, catkins, holly and sloe berries. This was where I first saw the beautiful spindle berries.Skewers and spindles were made from the close-grained wood. Closer to the ground were celandines, violets, wood anemones (windflowers), dead nettles, billy buttons, wild garlic, daisies and dandelions. Every season has its own offering.
By this stage of the walk - at the time, and retrospectively - I feel a great calm, in touch with the slow, natural, rural year.
I remember spots where various incidents occurred: the milk tanker driving too high up the bank, to pass a car in the narrow lane. The weight of the milk tilted him sideways into the car and severely dented it!
On the other side, the deep, damp ditch, into which my Mother slid, I can still hear the laughter and her voice saying "Oh Roon, help me Im falling!". What a job my aunt and I had to pull her out, tights torn and covered in mud.
I love to think of all the generations of people who have travelled this way: hay-making, withy-cutting, harvest, market days, new babies and school children, young men going to various wars, coffins and mourners. Horses, carts, early cars, flatbed lorries, milk carts loaded with churns, haywains, bicycles and eventually farm workers with cars all passed over this ground.
Then past the dairymans cottage, where the lane widens to an impressive vista, down to the farmhouse. The verges now clipped and mown, masses of daffodils highlighting the way in spring. This house is very odd. From the farm side it is a long, low beautiful flint and brick superior cottage But viewed from Houghton Hill, its other aspect is stone, with imposing pillars and big, square chimneys.
Here the lane ends with the church and a track, to the farm steading, smelling of cows and the milking parlour.
The site of North Stoke church is a pre-Christian burying place and the church is listed in the Doomsday Survey of 1086. Parts of todays building are from the 1200s and the list of incumbents is complete back to 1272. Centuries of prayer have ascended from this perfect downland setting.
The church went through a period of redundancy, but was re-dedicated in 2007. In the early 1980s the wives of the farm workers kept it swept and polished, and services were held monthly. The vicar from nearby Amberley is once again responsible for the five parishes. The church is now under the dedicated care of the Churches Conservation Trust
During one service, attended by about 15 people I opened the venerable, damp-spotted hymn book, to find the remains of a truly massive spider imprinted on its pages. It must have been trapped there many years before by a horrible farm boy. How I remained silent I dont know. I have such a horror of these monsters. I remember the shock made me feel so faint, I quickly sat down!
The hamlet of North Stoke once teemed with farm children, workers and horses, but when we lived there, there were ten children, no horses and a handful of farm employees. The cottages are still tied to the land, the whole place is deeply rural. Long may it remain so.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Ann Churchett was born and brought up in Sussex, a member of an old Sussex family, the Saigemans, who were long connected with the River Arun. She and her family lived at North Stoke from 1979 until 1985 and she and husband Jack have two daughters and two grandsons. Ann worked for 22 years as a Learning Support Assistant at The Angmering School.