Roughly 1,000 years ago, a small church was built at an ancient crossroads. By the early 13th century, this crossroads had developed and East Grinstead High Street had grown into an important road from London to the coast with the area officially becoming a town. Today, East Grinstead, which is in the heart of the High Weald Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB), has one of the longest continuous rows of 14th-century timber-framed buildings in England. As you whizz from north to south or east to west, it’s easy to hurtle on through the town but if you do, you’ll miss a chance to discover interesting architecture and history. It’s also a town that sits on the Greenwich Meridian and on a leyline which means it’s home to a large number of orthodox and not-so-orthodox religions adding to its slightly bohemian charm. There is now a Heritage Trail you can follow from the station if you want to explore the town on foot.
The Meridian Line
The Meridian Line is marked by a series of terracotta marker stones. It also passes through East Court where you’ll find a large block of unworked ironstone to mark the turning of the new Millennium in 2000. Passers-by are encouraged to touch the stone and wear it away so that over time it will be transformed. It weighed 11.5 tonnes when it was first installed.
Leylines are lines that crisscross the globe, connecting significant monuments and natural landforms. They are supposed to carry supernatural energy and where they intersect, they create pockets of energy.
Sackville is a name that is synonymous with East Grinstead. At the east end of the High Street and founded in 1609, Sackville College was an almshouse as well as the place where John Mason Neale wrote the Christmas carol “Good King Wenceslas”. It was built as a home for the poor of the parish and is now a charitable foundation that provides accommodation for the elderly. It’s an attractive Jacobean building that is open to the public in the summer. In the main hall, there is a famous wooden chair in which King Charles II sat, as well as Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother and HRH Princess Royal.
The McIndoe Memorial statue
Just outside Sackville College is a statue of Sir Archibald which was unveiled by Princess Royal in 2014. Sir Archibald McIndoe was a pioneering plastic surgeon who worked at the Queen Victoria Hospital in East Grinstead to rebuild the faces and hands of badly burned and disfigured airmen during WW2. The town prided itself on being very supportive of the disfigured airmen and would go out of their way to invite them to dinner and to go on dates with them, so much so that the town became known as “The Town that does not stare”.
East Grinstead’s world-renowned Queen Victoria Hospital is where the Guinea Pig Club was formed in 1941, which then became a support network for the aircrew and their family members.
Exploring the high street
The High Street, which is a conservation area, is now home to street cafés and bars. But it’s here that you’ll find a fabulous selection of Medieval houses, coaching inns and interesting architecture. It’s a wide street because it needed to accommodate the markets and fairs of yesteryear, and the houses on the south side have exceptionally long gardens known as Portlands, developed so the occupants could be as self-sufficient as possible.
One of the many distinctive properties you’ll find on the High Street is the timber-framed Sackville House. Built in about 1525, it still has the original wagon way giving access to the back. It’s now a Landmark Trust property and you can visit. Admission is free and leaflets are provided with details of the building’s history. Booking is required.
Cromwell House and Clarendon House
Cromwell House was built by iron furnace owner, Edward Payne, in 1599. Clarendon House was built in about 1485 and up to the beginning of the 19th century was home to the winter Assizes in Sussex. The Assizes were courts or court sessions held periodically around England and Wales. They dealt with criminal and civil matters although mainly criminal, and during the period 1625-1800, there were three Sussex Assizes towns, namely Horsham, East Grinstead and Lewes. East Grinstead was normally home to the winter Assizes because of the terrible state of the Sussex roads which made East Grinstead the easiest place to get to. Adjoining Clarendon House, you’ll find Judge’s Terrace named because the site was occasionally used as the judges’ lodgings during the Assizes. At one time, executions took place immediately in front of the building.
Church of St Swithuns
In 1556, during the reign of Queen Mary, three Protestants were martyred in East Grinstead. They were Anne Tree, John Forman, and Thomas Dungate and you can still find a memorial to them in St Swithin’s churchyard just off the High Street. They were burnt at the stake in the middle of the High Street in 1556 having refused to renounce their faith. In 1785, the church tower collapsed and the church was rebuilt in Gothic style and finished in 1813.
East Court is an 18th century building that was restored in the 1980s by the Town Council. The main hall and Cranston Suite have many original features. The Greenwich Meridian runs through the grounds.
Just outside the town, Standen House is a country house owned by the National Trust and one of the finest examples of Arts and Crafts workmanship, with Morris & Co. interiors. It was built between 1891 and 1894. With views of the Medway Valley and Ashdown Forest, it was the family home of the Beale family until 1972 when the National Trust took over. Today you can still see the house as the Beale family might have used it and find out more about them by reading their letters and diary entries, and learning more about the Arts and Crafts movement.
East Grinstead Museum
In 2006, the East Grinstead museum moved into new custom-built premises. You’ll find it on Cantelope Road, not far from the High Street, and it tells the story of East Grinstead with an ongoing series of exhibitions, collections, and events.
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