On the first day of summer, 2006 I journeyed to the small town of Storrington. It was not until the train to Winchester passed through Crawley that the excitement began to build. Crawley in Sussex held my interest for two reasons. Firstly it was near to where Francis Thompson, my suspect for Jack the Ripper, stayed at local monastery. It was also at Crawley were the infamous ‘Vampire’ George Haigh claimed his last victim and tried to disposes of her in a vat of acid.
Before I could allow myself to ponder too long on all this the train arrived at Pulborough, where I met by John Mann, a writer and Storrington resident, who having purchased my book ‘Jack the Ripper’ and having read it had invited me to see the sights. John, an ex Head Teacher, had written to me after being invited to create a temporary exhibition on Thompson by the local museum.
During the 10-minute drive from Pulborough for the seven miles to Storrington, John gave me a brief rundown on the town. Apparently, the residents of Storrington are sedimentary, hardly moving a few miles from where they are born. This tradition has been followed from the Stone Age. The descendents of these pre-historic peoples can be recognised by what he told was their shortness and their darkness. The local butcher, John explained being a typical example.
Finally we parked in Church Street Storrington a few yards from his house. My knowledge on English flora is limited but I immediately noted that before us on the other side of the road was a well-grown Horse Chestnut tree, distinctive by its large splayed leaves and mighty branches. During our short walk to his house John pointed out the gates of a fine convent, now in private ownership that is due to be converted to expensive apartments. John also showed me an intricately carved wooden gate that apparently was a gift from Burma from the time of the Great Exhibition.
John’s house, once a butcher’s, was a quaint but interesting place. Its history could be traced back to the 15th century, and perhaps even earlier to the twelve. What struck me upon entering was the low ceilings, and exposed wooden beams. Its walls are made from wattle and daub and at one end is huge fireplace whose back holds a great metal grate that celebrates the crowning of Charles the second at the end of the civil war. John has been renovating his house and had found some remarkable coins dating back to the 15th century. Even before beginning my tour, I had already felt I had literally stepped into history.
John’s wife, a primary school teacher, was a charming woman, who despite preparing work for her school that holds thirty pupils, proved gracious as she was pretty.
Our first jaunt was to the South Downs. A hilly range that holds an ancient highway and what is now a popular overland trail for walkers. These bare, gently undulating hills, provide an interesting backdrop to the town that is nestled at its base. Near to John’s house is the Priory that Thompson lived during late 1888 and much of 1889. By heading up along the paths to the top of the downs I was literally retracing Thompson’s footsteps as he would have undoubtedly have walked this himself. The local call the path that snakes itself about anthills, thistles, and berry bushes is known by the locals, and by Thompson as Jacobs ladder. As one walks it one is almost completely unaware that they have gained altitude until a backwards glance shows the landscape is exposed in all its glory. The South Downs from Storrington is part of a vast natural amphitheater. Storrington is right at the front of the stage as it were among the limelight. While ascending Jacob’s Ladder John, who proved himself knowledgeable in many things local, explained one plant from another. With surety, he pointed out cowslip and primrose and told me that in Thompson’s day much of the downs were used for sheep farming, the Sussex sheep being a much smaller cousin of today’s breeds. Consequently, the hills would have been shorn and bare due to grazing. Nowadays much of the Downs is marked by shrubbery and the new growths of trees that are huddles in copses in the valleys. The Downs are composed mostly of chalk and flint and here and there this exposed in stark patches of white on the green turf. The turf itself barely reaches more than a few inches deep but provides almost a springy flooring, enabling a hiker to traipse about in comparative ease. From the top of the ridge we looked down and could see Storrington and neighbouring villages. Each are similar by being shaped in tight circles, clustered together to enable as much of the land as possible to be devoted to farming. Storrington has a rather large modern growth of houses, known as the estates, whose dull modern roofs contrast with the low dark roofs of slate of the oldest part of the town. Also from the top of Downs Ridge I could easily see the Priory and John pointed out what he thought would have been the window to Thompson room where he stayed on the top floor.
We walked a mile or so westward along the Down. Up so high on this day the wind was strong, but a fine mist hung in the air. The ocean could be seen several miles to the south, and John let me know that on some days could be seen in far greater detail. I found John an easy man to converse with. He spoke of history, of how the entire bowl of the hinterland was once completely covered in plains of chalk that the millennia had weathered to away, and that once the land, of which Storrington was a part, was an ancient forest. The indigenous people would have lived up on the downs, in huts, or during times of war, in stone forts. The forests below a green see of mystery and unknown dangers. The remnants of these squat stone fortresses could be seen every few miles or soon set on the peaks of the Downs. From each would have been fiery beacons used to transmit signals quickly over great distance. During the Second World War, John told, these same peaks were once used to transmit messages using devices like windmills whose vanes held brightly flags.
As we walked on we spent out time talking of Thompson, scanning upturned fields for stone age tools, which were left in abundance and evidently still quite easy to find. John pointed out some flooded fields, which he said was a technique farmers relied upon to ensure the soil regained its nutrients after a season of planting and harvesting. Near the end of our walk we entered a copse of trees. To my untrained eyes these small thin trees seemed to be re-growth on land left idle, but John showed that several of the trees shared the same root systems that stretched many meters underground. These trees were in actuality the oldest living things in England, being perhaps thousands of years old.
We then came to a cutting where the path was banked on both sides by steep mounds. I thought they were merely what remained of soil that had been dug out for whatever reason from the valleys. John invited me to climb up and showed that the mound was really a huge ramp that began in the valleys to the south and extended up over the ridge of the downs and projected like a finger pointing to the North East. John told that such ramps had been built in intervals for hundreds of miles and all, despite following a natural curve of hills, pointed Northeast as well. For what purpose I do not know, but I venture John has thought considerably on them and may one day explain the reasoning behind what I can only assume, if interconnected, make up the largest Stone Age structure on Earth.
Eventually we made our way down the Downs, where we waited for John’s kind wife Mary, to rescue my tired legs and drive us back into town. Our drive back proved to be a journey through the most charming streetscape that I had ever witnessed. Wonderfully picturesque houses made from local stone and set by roofs of fine thatch met my gaze at every turn. It came as a shock to come back to the centre of town and be confronted by modern buildings. By modern in this case I mean abodes of the 19th century.
While refreshing ourselves a local pub with a maritime name that seemed oddly out of place, [The Anchor] John and I discussed Thompson’s verse in relation to the natural landscape of Storrington, and then we talked about Thompson as an individual, how he thought and how he saw himself in relation the late 19th century, an era that abounded in contradiction, aesthetic and tension.
Having regained our spirits we made out way to Storrington Museum. It must be remembered that old Storrington is a small place making it easy to get from one point to the next by foot. The Museum, which was attended by a retired lady and gentleman at the front desk proved to be small and interesting. It has only been recently established and at the moment consists of a single room full of display cases aiming to provide examples of Storrington from the stone age to modern times. On walls hang old photos of the town, and scattered about are example of tradesmen tools, clothing, bits of roman pottery, flint tools, letters, peasant clothing etc..
After taking my time, with John, who no doubt found all the museum’s content very familiar, waiting patiently. I signed the visitor’s book. By now a third lady, who John later told me later was a worthy member of the museum committee, joined the other two staff at the front desk. John told them my reason for being at Storrington and briefly went into my theory of Thompson and the Ripper crimes. The three expressed the same dignified surprise long familiar to me. The same mutterings of concern and ignorance of people who would soon forget what is thought matters little to them.
The high-point of my planned visit was the Priory that Thompson stayed in. In his day the priory, a large redbrick building, stood just on the outskirts of the town. Now it was housed in its centre, surprisingly close to the bustle and everyday affairs of the town. The priory is a single building four stories high that is surrounded by a high wall. First built as a gift by a local lord for French Norbertine monks in the 1870’s. Neither of us had managed to make prior arrangements to visit so we contented ourselves with tracing its outer walls. We found the double gates at the rear were open providing an easy view of the rear grounds. Now a bank of grass, John proposed that it was originally a kitchen garden. These garden are common to the town. They are walled areas to the rear of houses and buildings devoted to growing food produce for the household. A great variety of food was produced, citrus, herbs, roots, strawberries, and grapes. This method of self-subsistence not only had its origins in frugality but during times of war they would become the sole means of survival. From the drive of the open gateway, we could see the building’s many windows. John pointed out that he thought it was the right uppermost window that was the room where Thompson himself had stayed.
We walked right around to the south side of the building and noted a more recent extension. Across the rode was a little park that held an altar to the Virgin. Set upon stone steps wearing a dress of white with a blue sash I noted the base was decorated with prominent fur-de-lye. A symbol whose origins are perpetually argued.
John and I decided to make our way along the west side of the church where a quaint wooden sign directed was a gravel path. We walked it, me with my camera ready to take photos of the building, when I tall woman in her fifty’s approached us. In a curt manner she enquired what our business asking if we meant to ‘Suss the Joint out’, evidently she presumed our intentions were not at all honourable and was concerned we were casing the Priory for a future burglary. We quickly put her at ease with our explanation on the purpose of our visit. To partly change the subject I asked this lady if she knew were the cross was situated. Thompson, in his ‘Ode to the Setting Sun’ had written of a cross and biographies related how a large cross once stood within the grounds of the Priory. Local legend had it that some time after Thompson having written his poem some troublesome youths had torn the cross down and transported it away. It was not until many years later that this had been rectified with the erection of a new cross. This woman, who might herself have been a nun, although in casual dress, told that we could find the cross if we followed a short winding road which begun south east of the Priory. The woman told that this road led to a cemetery with the cross at its centre. I also asked if it would be possible to enter the Priory. The woman agreed that we might simply knock on the Priory door and see what happens. We bid her good day and following her instructions John and I found this road and made our way up it. On the way I joked that perhaps the woman was protecting a valuable gold relic secreted within the Priory. Ironically this turned out to be partly true. I later discovered that for the Virgin which stood in the little park opposite the Priory, two crowns of gold set with precious gems where bequeathed. John had lived in Storrington for the past thirty years though he confessed to me that he had never known of this cemetery. He had thought the road was private and led only to manor house.
We found the cemetery soon enough. It was a Catholic cemetery with mostly plain headstones holding remains of people from 1860 onward. Many of the names on these Headstones, although Catholic, seemed to be of those foreign to the town, although John was familiar with several names as being native to Storrington. The wooden cross itself, actually a crucifix, was life-size, complete with a suffering Jesus. A plaque at its base, told that it had been erected in 1997 to replace a previous one that had been toppled during a fierce storm. Even without this plaque the newness of the cross, with its lacquered wood was easily apparent. John let me know that anything wooden buried in the grown quite rapidly rotted in Sussex’s damp soil.
Having scoped the cemetery, we decided to make our way back to the Priory. With John close behind I knocked on the Priory door. We waited in expectation. For a long time nobody answered. We suspected that if there were inhabitants they might probably be in prayer. Finally, we heard movement from inside and the door opened to reveal a Cannon who looked at us with surprise. This Cannon a grey-haired man, with a young face and ice blue eyes, listened while we explained who we were and our purpose of visiting. He explained that he had once given a tour of the Priory and walked up Jacobs Ladder with a woman who was writing a book on Thompson. He told irritably that although he had been careful to relate to her the important events and dates of the Priory this writer had gotten all the dates wrong in her published book. I guessed that it was Bridget M Boardman who had written ‘Between Heaven and Charing Cross’. The priest, realising, I knew something about the woman, and proving my credentials with my knowledge of the subject warmed up and was happy to invite us inside.
The interior of the Priory proved to be a simple structure. Essentially, it was a large quadrangle set with a decorative garden at its centre. We asked about if he knew of the cross. In response he walked us down into the halls and showed us the cross itself that was set against the north east corner. He disagreed that local lads had taken the cross away, telling us that after it had been vandalised it was taken into the halls. After he pointed out an old photo on a wall that showed the cross once stood within a small garden inside the enclosure of the kitchen garden.
The Cannon told us the history of the priory. He told that it had been a priory that housed French Cannons during the time of Thompson. The poet was fluent in French so this would not have hindered him. The last French Cannon died in the 1940’s and since then the Priory had been cared for by a Belgium contingent. The Cannon told us that Thompson’s room was not the end eastern one that we had first believed. This room was a private Chapel for meditation. Thompson’s room had been besides this. The Cannon took us into the visitor’s room. It held pamphlets and books. One book was a recent one on Thompson, given, I guessed by the author. The Cannon asked my opinion on this book. I told him although it showed accurate research it did not show an understanding of the mind of the Poet. The Cannon agreed and then offered us copies of a magazine that explained the history of Storrington Priory and of their order. It included a comic book history of Saint Norbet, their founder.
The Cannon then spoke of the Meynells, telling us that they sometimes visited to observe Mass. He spoke of nearby Greatham Cottage which is still owned by the family. The Cannon also mentioned the rumour that there were once notebooks relating to Thompson housed within the Priory but they had mysteriously been taken away during the 1940’s.
Not wanting to take too much time we said our goodbyes. I promised him that if I were to write about the Priory I would use their literature as the resource to ensure that dates and facts were correct. He asked that once my book was finished that I send the Priory a copy. I wonder if he knew that my book’s theme was that Thompson was Jack the Ripper, he would have been so willing to gain a copy. I thought that desecration was the better part of valour and omitted this fact when I mentioned my research on Thompson. It is likely that if I had told him and explained my position at some length he would not have reacted badly, and might even have been keener to set us straight about the purpose and history of the order.
John and I then made our way back to his house where Mary met us and we all supped tea. We agreed that it had been a worthwhile trip. John was happy to drive me back to the station. I just missed my train and John waited with me at Pulborough station. We talked again at some length about Thompson and I told John what I could of the extra research I had made on Thompson which was now contained in my manuscript. The next train arrived all too quickly and I had to run to catch it back to London’s Victoria station.