Memoirs of Little Hedgecourt

Memoirs of Little Hedgecourt


Jean Roberts was born at The Lodge, Little Hedgecourt (now known as Hedgecourt House) where her father, William Sargent, was employed as a gardener. The following are her memories of her childhood in the gardens and surrounding area from the 1930’s to the early 1950’s. Jean takes you on a walk of the gardens, with numbered references in the text that correspond to the attached map. Take a stroll with Jean around Little Hedgecourt, as it was, the country home of Andre Simon, President of the Wine and Food Society.

Little Hedgecourt, 1930-1950

Little Hedgecourt is situated on the Northern side of Copthorne Road, the property running the length of the lakeside. Little Hedgecourt Farm was part of the Felbridge Place estate, but after the sale, in 1911, the Pattenden family, who had farmed there since 1823, moved on, and the property was eventually sold, in 1915, to a Mrs Marion Hoppe, who proceeded to extend the house. There is no written evidence but it is thought the inglenook in the drawing room and the bedroom above was probably the last building work of Charles Rennie Mackintosh. He had been commissioned to design a much larger extension, but the Hoppe’s sold to the Simon family before this was carried out. In 1920, Andre Simon, with his wife and family of three daughters and two sons came to live there, and that is when my father William Sargent, joined the work force of five gardeners. Andre Simon had great visions for the property and work commenced with the house adding a new kitchen, cellar, larger dining room, four bedrooms and two bathrooms. Electricity and water had also to be connected, as there was only a well at the back, and water had to be pumped to the existing bathroom. A local builder carried out the building work by the name of Mills, who also lived in Copthorne Road. There was also a Lodge bungalow built, for the Head Gardener and my parents were then able to live in Lake Cottage, later they were moved to The Lodge, where I was born. By the 30’s a lot of alterations had been made to the surrounding farmland, of which there was some 28 acres, which had been composed of rough grazing and woodland. By the time I was old enough to remember the gardens there were many delightful features.

Many trees and shrubs had been planted, especially Rhododendrons and Azaleas, which were heavily scented. During the late 30’s I remember the excitement and preparation for Cricket Matches, which were held in the roadside field. It was still rough pasture and proved quite a tall order to prepare a patch that was good enough to play on. There would be many cars and coaches from London with teams made up from friends connected with the Wine Trade. The Felbridge X1 and Lingfield X1 would be challenged, and according to Mr Simon’s memoirs, the Beer v. Wine matches were most amusing as the beer drinkers could not resist the wine, and in his words, ‘Wine and first class cricket were not the best partners’.

There were a line of Beech and Red Oak Trees  planted on the roadside of this field, which still exist today. Nearby there was a modest Yew Garden , and then following the long pathway to the Eastern end of the property was a raised green called the Fairway . This was flanked with many large species of Rhododendrons, some of which were the Loderii variety that originate from Leonards Lee home of the Loder family. At the far end of the property an Open Air Theatre  had been constructed by the gardeners in 20’s, much earth and stone had been moved for this. There were four tiers of half circle grass covered steps as a sitting area backed by Lime Trees. The wings of the stage were Golden Yew and Beech trees. I can remember the Aubretias and Alysumm at the front of the stage being reflected in the water below. My parents used to tell me about the parties of people from London that would come down when this was opened with well-known actors and actresses of the time, and especially Mr. Cochran’s Young Ladies. Unfortunately, this was not used many times due to family misfortunes and the coming of the war. Continuing along the property on the lakeside, there were two rough pastures , which the Saunders family, from across the Copthorne Road, used to cut hay from each summer. There was still evidence of Hedgecourt being part of the common, with Wild Heather here. Further along, returning westwards, there was a boathouse , (so called, but with no evidence of a boat in those days). The roof of this was covered with house-leeks, Sempervivums. However, in about the 50’s William Guillet, their son-in-law, acquired a pontoon, which was used for fishing and bathing. Brian and myself asked permission one day to use this for harvesting some rushes for his mother to use for a class she was attending to repair rush seated chairs. This was a bad move on our part as we had not taken into account the nature of the craft, which was very heavy, had a flat bottom and scraped along the bed of the lake, we did eventually make it back to dry land with difficulty. Nearby there was a tennis court , surrounded by Cypress trees, and beds of Azaleas, which were very heavily scented. These seemed to thrive on the poor soil, although they were mulched with grass cuttings from the lawns.

Another remarkable feature here was an Alpine rockery , referred to as the “Mountain” presumably because of its height of some 10-12 feet, the base of which, I recently learned, was built from empty wine bottles. The Welsh Granite was purchased from an exhibition with a legacy of £100, which Mr. Simon had received. Nearer to the house there was a sunken Rose Garden , surrounded by Golden Yew hedging, this was circular and the beds divided by box hedging. Closer to the house were clipped Yew Trees, on the lawn in front of the original part of the Pattenden’s home, and nearer still to the road were herbaceous borders . This had originally been a kitchen garden, but was now in front of Lake Cottage .

At the outbreak of war many things changed, there were only two gardeners and although the appearance of the grounds had to be maintained, work became concentrated on vegetables. I can remember my father poring over catalogues for seeds, which would thrive on the poor ground, as this was still showing signs of being common land. He was growing many unusual vegetables for those days, (i.e. Blue Runner Beans, Sweetcorn, Salad potatoes – Kipfler and Pink Fir apple, and Mangetout Peas, to name but a few). These would often be packed and sent to the Simon’s London home. Mr Simon was president of the Wine & Food Society for many years and also wrote many books about food, and these were used for this purpose. We also had our own patch of garden near the roadside behind a hedge of Bamboo; this was really poor ground. One experiment was to grow sugarbeet that was boiled for about a week to try and produce a substitute for sugar, but we ended up with a sticky saucepan of dark stuff that would not come out.

It was during the War years that I recall being enlisted by Mrs Dora Wheeler to help with the gathering of Meadowsweet, which grew in abundance in a water meadow , to the West of Little Hedgecourt by the original ‘S’ bend in Copthorne Road. This would be sent up to London for medicinal use, together with her other wild herbs. In about 1936, the road was re-aligned and this left an island of pasture which had a fence and hedge surrounding it, together with wide swathes of grass along the roadside and pavements, which included many wild flowers such as Ox-eye Daisy, Buttercup, Birds Foot Trefoil and many others. Some of these you will see in a Wild Flower project, which I did for School in 1946. This is not very extensive as they were only collected in the months of April, May and June of that year. This area was also a regular spot for Gypsies and their caravans and horses, sometimes one or two but sometimes more, probably depending on the season. They could be seen making wooden pegs sitting by the fireside. The children would sometimes be sent to beg for buckets of drinking water. On rare occasions, they would be given the end of our loaf of bread, depending on whether they were about to leave or not, as this would be tempting more calls from the rest of the families.

The largest lawn at Little Hedgecourt bordered the lake and the bottom third of this was still wild common land with at least two sorts of Heathers, Harebells and a small variety of Wild Orchid. Another plant, which grew in ditches at Hedgecourt, was the much-valued Spaghnum Moss, which is used for hanging baskets, and workers would collect this from the nearby Hogger’s Nursery in Copthorne Road. The roadside hedges had at least two types of Wild Rose, in pink and white, and Honeysuckle. Even today the hedge along Doves Barn field has Wild Gorse growing there.

The barn in this field was always known as the Black Barn, but more recently, it has been known as Doves Barn. This barn was mentioned in Mrs Wheeler’s memoirs in her scrapbook of the Pattenden family, when it was used as a store for the bark stripped from the Oak trees felled during the sale of Felbridge Place. Then in wet weather, the bark could be cut into pieces, bagged up and sent away to the tanneries. Another thing which comes to mind about this barn, were the local tales of mysterious happenings linked with it and the bend in the road, where it was purported a porridge pot used to wander about. Even the most reliable people of the day were said to have seen and heard odd things. There have been many up to date suggestions on the subject, my own being perhaps a horse or other animal may have been feeding from this vessel resulting in it being tossed into the highway. Highway being a very loose description, as my father could remember the local roads being very rough and barely good enough to cycle along.

Returning once more to Little Hedgecourt, I will mention the Lake. This was a good source of entertainment, in both winter and summer, for myself, and the Bouchard family of five children, who lived in Lake Cottage for the duration of the War. We would wallow in the water in summer, and Paul, his older brother and myself would attempt to launch a genuine old hip bath, very heavy with rolled edges, we did eventually succeed in crossing the water when it was at its lowest level one Summer. The War Dept. kept the lake during the War, but water level was lowered to reduce visibility from the air, and it also had post and wire stretched across to prevent seaplanes landing.

In winter there was another game, skating, and so called ice hockey, in which I joined in. I don’t know whether I was invited or not, or just there on sufferance. I first learned to skate on some very old style skates, which looked like bread knives that clipped and screwed onto any old shoe or boot that was available. Later I graduated to some white figure skates and got my money’s worth from these in 1947 with six weeks of freezing weather, and the lake stayed frozen all of that time. Nowadays the lake is kept at a very high level, much to local landowners’ dismay. The water level was first raised when a Dr. Ashby bought the rights and used it for Water skiing. It has since been used for canoeing, and sailing. Our eldest daughter was in the Anderida Scout /Guide Venture Unit, and has been canoeing there in the past. The present owners are the Crawley Mariners.

I hope this has briefly shown what was at Little Hedgecourt in the past. In the future it is hoped that the subject of the house and Andre Simon will be covered as a topic for one of our meetings.

JR 07/01