England’s first Lord Chancellor, William Cowper, when a barrister on circuit, wrote to his wife in 1690, complaining about the ruinous state of our county’s roads, especially in the Weald between the North and South Downs:
"The Sussex ways are bad beyond imagination. I vow 'tis melancholy consideration that mankind will inhabit such a heap of dirt for a poor livelihood. The country is a sink of about fourteen miles broad, which receives all the water that falls from two long ranges of hills on both sides of it, and not being furnished with convenient draining, is kept moist by the water till the middle of a dry summer, which is only able to make it tolerable to ride for a short time."
Neither was Sussex mud a respecter of royalty. In 1703 the King of Spain visited the Duke of Somerset at Petworth and encountered enormous hardship in getting there. An attendant wrote in a letter: “We set out from Portsmouth early in the morning and did not get out of the coaches, save only when we were overturned or stuck fast in the mire, until we reached Petworth. Twas hard service for the King to sit fourteen hours in the coach that day, without eating anything, and passing through the worse ways that I ever saw in my life.
“We were thrown but once indeed in going, but both our coach which was leading, and his highness’s coach, would have suffered much more if the nimble boors of Sussex had not frequently supported it with their shoulders. The nearer we approached the Petworth estate, the more inaccessible it seemed to be. The last nine miles cost six hours in time to conquer.”
An old 17th Century rhyme credits “Sowseks” with “dirt and myre” while “the Sussex bit of the road” became a commonly used expression in South East England to describe any much muddied way. In 1752 the scholar John Burton wrote a book in classic Greek, “Iter Sussexiensis”, in which he explored our byways in the course of visits to his mother. With obvious tongue in cheek he observed: “I will set before you a problem in Aristotle’s fashion: Why is that all the animals and all the women are so long legged in Sussex? May it be from the difficulty of pulling the feet out of so much mud by the strength of the ankle, that the muscles get stretched, as it were, and the bones lengthened?”
The irony is that 1,500 years earlier, Sussex boasted a robust and comprehensive road system that was passable all year round, whatever the weather. It was, of course, the work of the Romans. Good, straight roads were their hallmark. Indeed a Roman road once linked Petworth to Chichester and thence to Portsmouth and had it still existed in 1703, the King of Spain would have enjoyed a considerably less arduous journey. Roman roads also linked up homesteads in the Weald as witnessed at Bignor Villa, a short distance from Petworth.
Unfortunately, after the departure of the Roman garrison in 410AD, the roads rapidly fell into disrepair. Indeed, for the Romano-British population left behind it was likely a mixed blessing. With assorted Saxons, Angles and Danes all queuing up for a spot of rape and pillage, the last thing an inland town needed was an expressway up which the plunderers could race, the easier to go about their bloody business.
Muddy roads clearly persisted longer in Sussex than in most other places even into a time when social mobility saw more and more people travelling. But there was one beast that had the measure of the mud. Oxen. They could haul a plough through the most glutinous fields and in a team could tackle impossible conditions that horses simply couldn’t cope with.
By the end of the Victorian era, oxen were a rare sight in Sussex but some farmers persisted with them. Writing in 1904, E.V. Lucas observed: “There is no pleasanter sight than that of a wide-horned team of black oxen, smoking a little in the morning air, drawing the plough through the earth, while the ploughman whistles, and ox-herder, goad in hand, utters his Saxon grunts of incitement or reproof. The ‘kews’, as their shoes are called, may still be seen on the walls of a smithy here and there. Shoeing oxen is no joke, since to protect the smith from their horns they have to be thrown down with their necks held by a pitchfork and their feet tied together.”
A saying goes: “Piddinghoe people shoe their magpies.” It sounds like nonsense but actually the magpies in question are not birds; it’s a nickname given to unusual black and white oxen once common on farms around the village. Shoeing was necessary to give the cloven hooves of the oxen better purchase in the fields.
There is an amusing poem written as an epitaph to Sir Herbert Springett of Ringmer. I’m afraid it is far too long to include here but it is relevant in that it talks of the swollen River Ouse “grown to a sea where here and there a drowning tree, cast up its arms beseechingly”. Ringmer itself had become a “waste of mud”. After many verses the ballad concludes with Sir Herbert and family managing to get to church only with the aid of eight press-ganged oxen able to haul his coach. It ends on the salutary note that in his earnest endeavour, Springett had broken the tenth commandment “past repair”:
“In spite of parson’s fervid knocks
Upon his cushion orthodox,
They’d coveted their neighbour’s ox.”