There will be countless thousands of people who ‘know’ our Ashdown Forest, whose acres mean so much to us, yet most of them will only spend the odd ten minutes travelling through it on their way to work or to the coast. However, will they know that the chap they see walking along the verge, or pedalling his bike, will be an integral part of the life that goes on away from public gaze, and would they be surprised to discover the likes of Pippingford, The Vachery or Braberry/Barbary Hatch quietly basking in the Ashdown glow?
There was a time in the Fifties when the tranquillity of Chelwood Gate’s summer Sundays would be broken by the noise of howling engines. These were the days before National Speed Limits when bikers who sported crash helmets might be thought of as show-offs. The A275 from Wych Cross to the Red Lion was popularly dubbed the Mile Straight, and was the regular venue for the ‘Ton-Up Boys’ who’d congregate around Wych Cross on their 1000cc Vincents or Nortons and set off southwards to achieve the mystical 100 mph., always hoping they could do so before the road dropped away beyond Dick Elphick’s house. Suffice to say, not all managed it.
At the fork where the A275 leaves the A22, lived Bill Mighall(?) in a dingy stone cottage that has long since been demolished. One could pass it a hundred times and never see any sign of life but, in the days when bow saws had to be sharpened, that was where it happened – for 9d. a time.
Once past the Roebuck and heading north, the road twists and turns down towards Forest Row. On each side is a ‘Warren’, Broadstone to the right and Hindleap on the left, each of which was tended by a wood rief. Both were Freds. Fred Cansdale looked after Broadstone and was renowned for ‘travelling light’ when he set off on his honeymoon – he put a spare pair of socks in his pocket.
Fred Budgen was his opposite number in Hindleap and operated from his cottage, still called Cherry Orchard, until approaching retirement necessitated the recruitment of a successor, a German man called August, for whom a new house was built just inside the top (southern) gate. However, in his solitary days the warren was Budgen’s life. He loved the wildlife it contained and could pinpoint every fox earth and badger sett, but one special ‘pal’ of the late Forties was an old three legged stag that he could readily track from its unique footprints, especially when snow was on the ground. The animal was reputed to have lost its leg as a result of an unsuccessful attempt by locally stationed Canadian troops to augment their meat supply.
Hindleap, Broadstone and the Isle of Thorns were under the common ownership of a charitable organisation, all managed by a man called Brookes who used his position to act out the role of country squire. He would instruct Fred to open all the boundary gates when he and his hunting pals were due to create mayhem in Hindleap, but this advance notice would enable Fred to visit all the fox earths, sniff to see if Brer Fox was in residence and, if so, to block the entrances up, thus preventing them from coming out. He could always be relied upon to look appropriately puzzled when his boss didn’t ‘find’ – but would then go round unblocking the holes.
Because it was regularly cut by a handful of experienced and conscientious woodmen, Hindleap boasted some of the best chestnut in the county. To landowners, the knowledge that such ‘n’ such an individual could be relied upon to obey the rules was as good as any university degree. A cant (section) of woodland had to be left in pristine condition so that it would be saleable at the end of its next twelve year growing cycle. The upward, second stroke of the axe had to be clean, so that it sealed the stump and allowed the rains to run off without rotting it. To build a fire too close to a stub, so that it burnt it, was a terrible crime – although it wasn’t always possible to control that. The soil in Hindleap was heavily made up of peat. This suited the chestnut, but was also a good medium for rhododendrons of which there were many throughout the Warren. Whilst working with my father and grandfather near the entrance to HIndleap Farm in the late Fifties, I was merrily felling away, trimming and stacking the poles, and disposing of the ‘brish’ on a roaring fire but, unbeknown to me, my fire was gradually spreading through the peat underground until it re-emerged on the surface 20-30 yards away in amongst a huge clump of Rhodies. The noise of my second fire was indistinguishable from my main one, but I suddenly noticed flames shooting forty feet in the air from the Rhodies. My grandfather’s ‘Let ‘er goo, Boy.’ remained a classic thereafter.
But, wherever we were working, many a ‘bait’ (break) time would see the tall, slender figure of Fred Budgen stroll in to see what news was around. Never without his peaked cap, Budgen wouldn’t sit down, although there’d be plenty of woodland ‘furniture’ available. Instead he’d place his left hand just above his left knee and, leaning forward, would prop himself up in that position for anything up to twenty minutes at a time. Always quietly spoken, a wicked sense of humour lurked in him and, if amused by something, a slight stutter could be heard to creep in. He had a phobia about the Forest Row undertaker, a man called Jackson whose ‘shiny black hat’ was the symbol of doom to Fred. On one occasion, he’d returned to work earlier than expected from a nasty bout of flu so, on arriving where we were having lunch, the speed of his recovery was mentioned, whereupon he said ‘Cor, I see that black ‘at come along the top of the hedge, and I was blooming s-s-soon out of it.’
Maybe the Forest of yesteryear doesn’t exist any more. Perhaps the characters like the two Freds, and Gillie Sargent from Pippingford, have never been replaced. Will a young newly married couple of today feel they’ve been on honeymoon if, as one couple I knew, they only ventured from their wedding in Blackboys to Brabury Hatch. For those of us who were privileged to know the Forest of the Forties and Fifties, who could experience a world apart with the A22 traffic a mere drone in the distance, we shall have memories to treasure for ever?