You only have to drive through Sussex, to get a feel for what life must have been like when the landscape was dotted with great historic houses and huge estates. Driving from Chichester to Horsham, you pass West Dean, Cowdray Park, Petworth House, Parham House … each juxtaposed and quite literally owning the landscape. Many of these estates remain in the hands of the same families, or have reinvented themselves as “destination venues”. But equally, many of them, particularly perhaps the smaller estates, have been demolished, converted and pretty much forgotten.
These days, Strood Park just outside Horsham is known as Farlington School. But anyone who has had more than a cursory amble around the school and its immediate environment will have realised that it must date back further than 1955 when the school moved in. Nearby Strood Lane and Strood Cottages all give clues to what must have once been.
From marshy common land
The site has probably been inhabited since well before 1200 and the name Strood or Strod is believed to mean marshy, overgrown land. By 1353, it formed part of the Drungewick Manor estate in nearby Loxwood and was owned by the Bishop of Chichester who, in a strange twist, seems to have acquired it from the French Abbey of Seez. By an undated grant believed to be somewhere between 1200 and 1250, a Thomas of La Strode passed all his lands of La Strode to his son Richard and certainly by 1357, records show it was owned by the family of a Richard atte Strood .
Thereafter, Strood Park passed to the Stanbridge family whose daughter and heiress married, in 1465, John Cowper or Cooper (ancestor of the poet). In the 1835 book Horsefield’s History of Sussex, it states that Strood Place was owned by the Cowper or Cooper family from 1466 to 1725 and a visit to Slinfold church will reveal several monuments to the Cowper family for the period 1678 to 1797. It’s thought John Cowper was probably responsible for the first major renovation works before the house was passed to John Leland who held it until 1797.
Humphrey Repton (1752-1818), the celebrated landscape architect, acclaimed as a successor to Lancelot (Capability) Brown prepared drawings for one of his famous “Red Books” (circa 1801) for John William Commerell who bought Strood Park in 1803. Commerell made major improvements during his time there and there exists a Repton watercolour of the mansion house as it was then. There also exists a design for Strood Park by Repton which was sold by Christies in New York in 2013. The present house which is now the main part of the school seems to have derived from Repton’s design. There is evidence that Repton was staying at Strood Park in 1801 and this information along with two illustrations of Strood Park is contained in Humphrey Repton in Sussex published by the Sussex Gardens Trust in 2018 and contributed by Sally Ingram. In 1848 there’s mention of the sale of timber on the Strood Park Estate and of course, there is still a timber yard at nearby Clemsfold today.
In 1886 there was a significant sale of the estate which included a total of 17 lots “suitable for all classes of buyers”. That sale included all the houses in Nowhurst Lane (of which there were probably more than there are now) including Smithaw which included four tenements and the plots of land which are now Strood Cottages. Up to this point, it’s easy to imagine Victorian ladies in sumptuous dresses descending from their carriages in the drive outside the house but you can’t help but think that this sale probably marked the beginning of the demise of Strood Park as a significant estate.
The main house has been through the hands of a series of owners since then, including Williamson Morrison Strachan and the Buckley family, and eventually went up for sale described as a fine Georgian and Jacobean mansion with 15 acres, a chapel, stabling and lodge in 1954. No longer a private home, the lodge built in 1856 still sits aside the A281.
There still remain a few clues as to Strood Park’s former glory. On the opposite side of the road is a small, semi-walled field that once belonged to the house as did the copse further down the A281 and presumably supplied produce to the kitchens. The wall is now protected. Strood Cottages abound Nowhust Lane and these plots were reconfigured during the early to mid 20th century but were probably tenements belonging to the house at one stage. On the east side of the wall, in what is now one of the private gardens, are the forgotten remains of a hothouse or greenhouse which was certainly still in situ in 1929 when it appears on a conveyance map. In 2010, a floor of beautiful Victorian tiles running the length of the old wall were found several feet under the lawn where the greenhouse once stood.
Surprising to some is that Strood Park is in the parish of Slinfold, so householders of centuries past would have travelled down Cooks’s Lane and Nowhurst Lane to get to the village and church. These are still well worn if muddy tracks to the village. The lockdown restrictions of 2020/21 brought many more ramblers than usual to this corner of Sussex and no doubt people will be wandering the paths of the old Strood Park estate for many years to come.
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