Those who celebrate the life, at a funeral, of someone who led a healthy and extrovert life, nearly always choose the hymn Jerusalem. It’s music that can be bellowed out without fear of upsetting those mourning the dead.
The first line, for those who aren’t of a religious persuasion, reads ‘And did those feet in ancient time, Walk upon England’s pasture’s green?
Those who are regular readers of my terrible tales in Town and County know I love nothing more than a story based on rumour, gossip and a smidgeon of historical fact to back it up.
So did the feet in times gone by walk upon Lewes’s Saxon twittens? The feet in question belonged to Charles Dickens.
About 15 years ago, two letters from Dickens were discovered in a writing bureau in a home in Telscombe Cliffs. Dated1847, the two messages were auctioned off and raised £3600 for the man who found them, a distant relative of Dickens.
It is not guaranteed of course, but if the letters were found on the outskirts of Lewes, there is a fair chance that Dickens did find his way to the County Town.
Indeed he was in Seaford in 1850 among the crowd of 10000 who watched about 50000 pounds of dynamite blast chalk rock from Seaford Head, to try and divert the estuary of the Ouse so that Seaford could become an important port. He almost certainly had left when the sea washed the soluble chalk away, thus ending hopes of Seaford playing host to merchant’s vessels.
Dickens was very fond of travelling by train, so it is almost certain that he would have passed through Lewes, already a critical junction for the new railway companies, as there is ample evidence that Dickens frequently went to Brighton.
Other evidence of Dickens’s feet walking on Lewes’s hilly streets is a bit more circumstantial, although demonstrating that here or not, his knowledge of events in the town and other communities in the area is said by experts to be reflected in his writings.
Dickens made the idea of a White Christmas romantic and sentimental. He experienced six such occasions when everything was white, touched by snowflakes floating from the heavens on Christmas Day.
He also popularised the festival as one of Christmas decorations, carol singing, punch supping and gift-giving.
But he especially excited the imagination with snowfalls in a white season where the snow lay roundabout.
His snowy world of Pickwick Papers was written in 1863, and the descriptions of the landscape reflected almost precisely the conditions of the time.
Literary experts say that his snow-laden writings were triggered by the winter of 1863 in which very heavy snowfalls were recorded. That was the year 15 people died when a dangerous overhang of snow on a ledge above Cliffe’s South Street gave way, triggering an avalanche that destroyed a row of cottages beneath. The tragedy occurred where the Snowdrop Pub now stands. Because he was familiar with the area, Dickens would have quickly known about it, and it would have impressed on his mind when writing novels such as Pickwick Papers.
Dickens was also caught in a train crash at Staplehurst in Kent in which ten people died after carriages toppled from a viaduct. Dickens was in the first carriage which stayed attached to the locomotive and was saved.
That experience persuaded him to write the ghost story The Signal Man. But he was also influenced by the ‘Ghosts of Clayton Tunnel’ another horrific railway smashup in 1861.
Twenty-three people died and 176 injured in that accident, not far from Lewes and ghosts are said to this day to be heard from the spirits of the victims who died that day. Dickens also knew about that tragedy leading to his own ghost story.
Dickens visited Brighton on many occasions and memorialised the phrase ‘All aboard for the Skylark’, after touring the Brighton front and shouting it out with gusto.
Dickens frequently stayed at a Brighton Hotel called the Bedford, which was only knocked down in 1964. The site presently has a Holiday Inn on it, but a ‘Blue Plaque’ is attached to the site commemorating the fact that Dickens often stayed there.
The author made many references to Brighton in his books; Bleak House, Nicholas Nickleby, Sketches by Boz.and the Life and Adventures of Martin Chuzzlewit.
Now I have never hidden under a bushel, my fascination with Lewes’s 63 pubs. Dickens was also quick to recognise the town’s penchant for a decent drink.
One notable brew in the 18th century is a strong beer from Newhaven brewed by Thomas Tipper. It was known as Old Stingo which King George IV, the former Prince Regent, was known to enjoy. Old Stingo is mentioned in Martin Chuzzlewit in which Mrs Gamp is known to partake.
Harvey’s Brewery invented a beer cocktail named ‘Huckle-my-buff’ which is considered to have been the world’s first cocktail, created in Sussex. Huckle-my-buff is a hot drink consisting of brandy, eggs, beer, sugar and nutmeg. It was initially made with smuggled French brandy and Harvey’s porter beer. This particular drink does not escape Dickens attention either.
Dickens was also familiar with Haywards Heath. He often visited the nearby village of Lindfield. An elderly resident recalled that as a child, she met Charles Dickens when he frequently visited a local doctor, Richard Tuppen. Similarly, she recalled that Tuppen and Dickens went to church on Sundays, but Dickens found it difficult to keep awake during the long sermons of those days. When he was awake, he made sketches of the congregation, chiefly caricatures, on the walls or a pillar. Among the old lady’s most treasured possessions was a signed copy of a Dickens’ book ‘A Christmas Carol’, given as ‘a token of regard’.
The ghosts and spirits that appear in A Christmas Carol had allies even after the great author’s death. Dickens’ ghost was reportedly turning up in Victorian séance parlours, telling spooky tales from the other side of the grave.
That settles it then. Lewes has ghosts galore, so it confirms the fact that ‘Those feet in ancient times, did indeed walk along Lewes’s pleasant twittens.
No Ghost worth its salt would go anywhere else.