A portrait of The Duke of Wellington hangs on the wall of one of London’s leading members clubs in prime position.
It was the last picture painted of the general before he died. When it was unveiled Wellington commented that it was his favourite because it almost made him look handsome.
The great man also paid tribute to a hotel in the seaside town of Seaford. He stayed there overnight after the Napoleonic Wars and was impressed enough to lend his name to the hostel, which is still there and still called The Duke of Wellington.
Some talk of Alexander and some of Hercules. So runs the first line of the marching song of the Grenadier Guards.
A local version might be ‘Some talk of Newhaven and some of Seaford Town Because these two south coast towns have had a remarkable relationship with the military over 200 years while indulging in a rivalry to be the number one south coast port.
Seaford held the edge until the Middle Ages when flooding altered the course of the river Ouse and Newhaven took prime spot.
Efforts by Seaford to regain the initiative were dramatic. Charles Dickens was among a 10000 strong crowd in 1850 who watched a huge explosion send tons of rocks from Seaford Head tumbling into the sea to try and divert the river back to its old course and gain the lucrative upper hand in prosperity and wealth.
The operation was successful and the townsfolk congratulated themselves on a job well done.
As is often the case, the best laid plans of mice and men were thwarted by an unexpected setback. The chalk dissolved into the sea and after a few days, nothing was left of the rock which had been thrust into the water.
Newhaven continued on as the number one port, notching up military achievements throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. The disaster of HMS Brazen in 1800 on the rocks below the town with the loss of all but one of its crew triggered the launch of Britain’s first lifeboat service. The port was involved with the transport of troops in both World Wars, was the launch base for the disastrous Dieppe Raid in 1942 and the despatch point for many of the flotilla of little ships which brought back thousands of British troops from Dunkirk.
Seaford it seemed had been left in the backwater.
But this small pretty town has an astonishing record of quietly entertaining many military leaders and producing seven winners of the Victoria Cross, the highest UK award for bravery in wartime.
Perhaps not strictly military leaders but sitting at the desk where the buck stops were three Seaford MPs who became Prime Minister. Henry Pelham 1743. William Pitt the Elder 1766 and George Canning 1827.
Following on from the Duke of Wellington was Admiral Sir Peter Parker. Parker fought in the American War of Independence and became MP for Seaford in 1784.
This top sailor was away at sea when elected and didn’t know he had a seat in Westminster for many years. The mind boggles to think that whenever he said aye aye to his crew it could have been mistaken for casting a vote in the House of Commons! The Ayes have it.
Away from such nonsense and on to Gordon of Khartoum. As a lad, General George Gordon spent his holidays with an aunt in Seaford before joining the army and fame as an unbeatable general. But in defiance of the British government, he refused to retreat from a Sudanese religious leader and after withstanding a year long seige was beheaded by the Mahdi in 1885.
At the beginning of the First World War Field Marshall Herbert Kitchener reviewed troops stationed in Seaford. To the raucous cheers of schoolboys, his horse bolted, nearly unseating him, creating a funny rather than dignified occasion in the town. He had acquired hero status by defeating the Mahdi in Sudan and avenging the death of Pasha Gordon.
Now he was in charge of the British Army in 1915.
It was a hugely popular choice but Parliament were not so pleased. Like Gordon, Kitchener had a tendency to ignore politicians.
So when a ship carrying him on a mission to Russia blew up near the Orkney Islands, conspiracy theories went into overdrive and have outlasted those surrounding the assassination of John F Kennedy.
The official explanation was that the vessel hit a German mine. The conspiracy theorists claimed the government wanted to get rid of him and deliberately steered the ship into mine infested waters. And there were a dozen more conspiracy theories in between, fuelled by the government delaying some documents relating to the incident until 2035.
Whatever the truth, the Seaford appearance would have been almost the last public event Kitchener held before his mysterious death.
Less glorious was the fate of Edward Cooke, commander of a troop of soldiers who rebelled over bad living conditions by looting local shops and marching a pig skewered on a rifle bayonet through the town. They executed him by firing squad.
Of the Victoria Cross heroes perhaps the best known is Colonel H Jones who died in the Falklands War at the Battle of Goose Bay.
He led a small force of paratroopers against 1500 Argentine soldiers and died in the assault.
There were three more VC holders from Seaford making their mark.
But perhaps the most famous soldier, statesman and military strategist of all roamed the streets of Seaford for quite another reason.
He was in love
Winston Spencer Churchill made numerous visits to the tiny town in pursuit of Clementine Hozier who lived there.
As history relates he won her hand and the couple went on to be among the most successful husband and wife teams in modern history.
This track record of producing famous people, and there are dozens more outside the military, seems to have offset the loss of port status.
Go down to this lovely little town and it is obviously at peace with itself.
I take a quick glance at the last portrait of the Duke of Wellington and immediately think of Seaford. The Duke of Wellington hostelry. My pulse quickens at the thought of a pint there.
What is it about my obsession with pubs?
I think that where there’s a good pub there’s also lurking in the snug a good hero. Another pint? Thank you. I don’t mind if I do. •