diamond geezer

 Sunday, March 25, 2012

10 Things to do in East Grinstead
(like you'd ever bother, but if you did, these are ten things you could do there)

1) Get off the train: It's easy to get to, it's only in the top corner of West Sussex. It's less than an hour from London, and not overly expensive.
2) Admire the High Street: East Grinstead's High Street has "one of the longest continuous runs of 14th-century timber-framed buildings in England", which places it head and shoulders above, say, Milton Keynes. They form a wonderfully ragtag façade, all off-vertical and half-timbered, with a variety of mostly-independent shops and businesses still trading inside. At its widest point a separate parade of buildings runs along the centre - this is Middle Row. And at the eastern end is Sackville College, a former row of sandstone almshouses, and the very place where Good King Wenceslas was written in 1609.
3) Buy a book at the East Grinstead Bookshop: There are two bookshops in town, which isn't bad for somewhere with a population of 24000. One's a standard Waterstones, but the other is the independent East Grinstead Bookshop, and it's lovely. Located in Tudor House, a Tudor house on the historic High Street, it's a warren of rooms and galleries stuffed with (obviously) books. Downstairs the new stock, including one so fresh that it had only been on the shelf for 30 minutes when I bought it. Upstairs the second hand stock, in the "Mind your head" space, plus a timbered reading room with leather sofas. And a cafe by the door, because bookshops have cafes by the door these days rather than racks of bestsellers. Don't let the circa 2002 website put you off, every town should have an East Grinstead Bookshop.
4) Straddle the Greenwich Meridian: Ah yes, the zero line of longitude scores a direct hit on East Grinstead. Most of the town's in the western hemisphere, with the dividing line slicing down through the hospital, through a park and through the eastern housing estates. Every street the meridian crosses is marked with a special stone, installed in Millennium year, buried in the verge or on the edge of the footpath [photo]. Being a confirmed Meridian Marker Spotter, I couldn't rest until I'd found at least three of them, hidden down residential streets both ordinary and extremely desirable. The focal point (if a straight line can have such a thing) is the Council HQ at East Court. This 18th century Grade II listed building looks like it ought to have a coach and horses outside, but you're more likely to find a bride stepping out of a limo. The meridian just misses the building by a matter of feet, ditto the almost-well-named Meridian Hall alongside, grazing the rear terrace. There are two markers here - one a fairly standard plaque embedded in the ground [photo], the other a much more original lump of ironstone, all local and knobbly and begging to be touched [photo]. My "been there, straddled that" collection is suddenly a whole lot bigger.
5) Visit the East Grinstead Museum: The museum used to be at East Court, but the council recently funded a purpose-built blue shed nearer the town centre and transferred the collection there. It's not huge, but it is very well done, far better than most municipal attempts at curated display. There's old newsreel to watch, and old-ish artefacts to ponder, and a local history research room for those who want to take the whole thing seriously. Children are guided round by cartoon character Iggy the Iguanadon, who seems a perverse choice until you realise that this herbivore was first unearthed in a quarry nearby. The staff are ever so pleasant and helpful too. A shame then that the museum's odd location in a car park up a side road does nothing to lure passing trade inside.
6) Wave at Sir Patrick Moore's front window: Too late. He lived in the town for years, and took over the running of an observatory here at the tender age of fourteen. Somewhere up Lingfield Road, if you're interested. But he's in Selsey now.
7) Pop into St Swithun's Church: They do a bacon sandwich on a Saturday morning for £1.20. Beat that, London.
8) Walk the High Weald Landscape Trail: But probably only part of it, unless you've got a week to spare. Or walk a bit of the Sussex Border Path. I did a bit of each yesterday, to the south of the town, and had the footpaths mostly all to myself. I bet they'd have been very muddy earlier in the year, but the recent dry weather helped make progress easy. Brooks and fields, cows and catkins, hedgerows and tweeting birds. There were plenty of daffodils along the way, and even bluebells (in March!) in a couple of especially shaded spots. A great excuse to get out onto the Weald and enjoy the budding spring.
9) Praise L Ron Hubbard: The Lord High Chief of the Church of Scientologists, or whatever his official title was, used to live at Saint Hill to the south of the town. This 18th century country house has been through many owners in its time, including American socialite Drexel Biddle and the Maharajah of Jaipur. L Ron was here in the 1960s, opening up the house as an international training venue, or as some would have it brainwashing centre. Saint Hill Manor is still the HQ for the UK branch of the Church of Scientology, and they were holding a "birthday event" there yesterday for their blessed (and very dead) leader. I saw a heck of a lot of security cameras at the top of the drive, but the front gate was open and welcoming with a sign out front inviting the public inside for "on the hour" tours. I resisted.

10) Visit Standen: This Arts and Crafts mansion lies a couple of miles south of the town (hence my long walk). It's one of the National Trust's less ancient properties, all gables and chimneystacks, blessed with a beautiful Arts & Crafts interior courtesy of architect Philip Webb and his good friend William Morris. There's more Morris wallpaper here than I've ever seen elsewhere, mostly original, and a fine selection of period furniture circa 1925. Upstairs is a small exhibition devoted to Morris, Webb and De Morgan, in the Croxley Room no less (for which reason alone, I love the place). The house is located amid hillside gardens, not at their best at this time of year, but the flowerbeds are about to burst into bloom and the magnolia's magnificent. I was particularly taken by the woodland glade cut into the rock behind the house, with slippery steps ascending several metres to a bridge above the fishpond. Lovely stuff, if you're ever in the area, which of course you probably won't be.

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