Nevill Memoirs > Robert Cheesman
The Downs Estate
I was born and brought up in Lewes and one of my earliest memories was walking home with my mother after shopping when there was a large amount of glass and other debris on the pavement due to bomb blast. I lived with my parents at 45 Highdown Road until I moved to Cumbria in 1972. They had bought the house there in 1939, when it was new, for just £ 495. Although I lived in a house where the back garden bordered on to the open downland this was not generally accessible until after the war was over and the area cleared of munitions used by the military when the area was used for their exercises. This happened soon after peace had been declared and I recall that much of what had previously been open downland close to the racecourse was then ploughed up to provide arable fields. But family walks to such places as Mount Harry and Blackcap were possible as well as those to Offham, Hamsey and Cooksbridge. During the blackberry season I remember assisting my parents in picking large quantities so that jam and bottled blackberries in Kilner jars could be made. Another recollection I have of this period is that although diesel tractors were in existence steam traction engines were sometimes used by farmers.
Lewes had long been a horse racing centre and there were many stables in the town in the post war period. The horses were exercised on the Downs and occasionally one would throw its rider and then bolt back to its stable. Until 1964 horse racing took place and this involved large numbers of people going to the racecourse to watch, many travelling by coach from distant places as well as in the Southdown shuttle service from the railway station. Although some stables still remain and the old course is still extant the atmosphere which race days produced has long gone.
For many years after the war our local milkman still used a horse drawn float for deliveries and the horse knew the route so well that the milkman could tell it from a distance to move on and the horse knew precisely where to stop. Other deliveries were made by diesel vehicles including a weekly self-service grocery van, and separate opportunities to buy greengrocery, bread and fish. Another memory is that when the fire service received a shout the all clear siren was sounded as a means of summoning the retained firemen to the fire station.
Both my grandparents lived in Brighton and so visits there were quite frequent. In my early days many of the buses had a sunken gangway for the upper deck where there were four seats straight across. This was because the railway bridge over the High Street in Lewes was not sufficiently high to permit a normal double decker to travel under it. However around 1948 the issue was resolved by lowering the road underneath. In those trips to Brighton I recall the telephone wires that followed the road and the pumps that were visible at the pumping station adjacent to where the Keep now stands. Within Lewes there are many hills as the town sits on a spur of the western downs with steep drops on both the east and south sides. Traffic sometimes stalled on the hills and as all traffic from east to west had to pass along Cliffe High Street until the by-pass was built in 1969 there was always much traffic passing through which over the years increased to cause a great deal of congestion.
After the war there was a lack of primary school provision in Lewes and as a result it was past my 5th birthday before I started at the old St Anne’s School in De Montfort Road. By the time I was 8 I had been transferred to Western Road School in Spital Road and then when the Wallands School opened in 1951 I was one of its first pupils. Prior to the school being built there was a smallholding on the site and my father had an allotment there. Schooling continued at the County Grammar School for Boys and the various shelters that had been provided in the war were still intact.
Since I enjoyed walking in the countryside I believe my mother suggested that I should go on a walk lead by Maurice Breese for the St Marys social centre rambling group. I well remember my first walk with them to Hamsey beside the river and then on to Barcombe and eventually Spithurst where we caught a bus back to Lewes. I continued with this group until it folded around 1960 but when Maurice Breese started the Lewes Footpaths Group in 1964 I was one of the first to join. This Group remains in existence and provides a regular programme of half day and all day walks as well as walking holidays. I am less active in it now but through participation in its activities over 55 years I have visited practically the whole of the South Downs and many other places too.
After joining the Footpaths Group and shortly afterwards taking office as its Treasurer I found that it was in fact a sub-committee of the civic society, the Friends of Lewes. As I had and indeed still have a desire to see the historic features of the town conserved I joined this Society. After I returned from a 6 year work posting to Cumbria in 1978 it was not long before it was suggested that I should join the Society’s Executive Committee. Although I was commuting to London at the time I was asked to become its chairman in 1984 and remained in this post until earlier this year. One of the Society’s objectives was to ensure that the downland surrounding Lewes was not built on. Indeed it was only the planning restrictions imposed by the war and legislation passed soon after that prevented the fields adjacent to the north side of the Brighton Road at Houndean from becoming a further housing estate. For many years a board stood in these fields saying that Ringmer Building Works, which was owned by John Christie, would be developing the site. However the threat remained and so when the South Downs Campaign was formed the Society joined it.
After retiring in 1996 I had time to take on more voluntary work that appealed to my interests and so I offered myself as a committee member of the South Downs Campaign and through that met such luminaries as Richard Reed, Ben Perkins, Paul Millmore and Margaret Paren. The latter was also involved with both the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) and the South Downs Society (SDS) and, as she was anxious that the trustees of SDS should be more supportive of having a National Park created, she suggested that I should put myself forward as a trustee. I was duly elected and remained a trustee with the Society until 2017 serving as their Chairman from 2010 to 2017 during which time it was appointed the National Park Society for the South Downs by the Campaign for National Parks.
As Paul Millmore also lived in Lewes it was convenient for the two of us to work together on a number of South Downs Campaign issues especially those involving Lewes. In the first instance the Countryside Commission, who had been tasked by Government with making proposals for a South Downs National Park, had to be persuaded to include Lewes in it. However the Inspector who considered the proposals thought otherwise and so a concerted effort was made to persuade people of the benefits of the town being included in the National Park. It was perhaps fortunate that the proposals had stalled whilst a legal case ensued in the New Forest National Park and as a result the Government took additional powers to make it clear that cultural heritage and wildlife were among the factors that should be considered in deciding on a national park boundary. This was a great help to the Lewes campaigners and after the second public inquiry the result was that the Minister decided in favour of the town’s inclusion.
Although it is now just over 10 years since the South Downs National Park was designated it took time for as National Park Authority to be established and assume its powers. Although it is probably too soon to make a considered judgment on its success my personal opinion is that it has been so and the wonderful South Downs will be better conserved for the future. However I hope that in due course an independent assessment might be made to include the part that others have had in shaping the future. Possibly recommendations could be made as to how the Authority and others might add to the benefits the National Park provides for generations to come.
Robert Cheesman, 11 May 2020 (First published by the South Downs Society)
Robert later added more memories of the Downs Estate:
- Although the footings of the houses in Nevill Road north of the junction with Highdown Road (nos. 42 upwards) had been laid down in the early part of the war the houses were not completed until after it was finished.
- The building next to and north of the shops in Highdown Road was also intended to be shops but due to the war creating an urgent need for more housing it was converted into flats when completed.
- The land on which Sheepfair now stands was originally intended for a public house to be named the Robin Hood. The land was left vacant until the brewers (Tamplins) decided not to build the pub and sold it to the developers of Sheepfair in the mid 50’s.
- Behind each of the houses on the north side of Highdown Road a tree was planted. Unfortunately these succumbed to disease in the 50’s which worked its way from east to west.
- Although when building started the estate was served on the Nevill Road by the service 20 to Chailey, the service 123 from Newhaven was extended to Nevill Crescent in the early part of the war. The local service 28, which ran from the Nevill to Landport Estate did not start until about 1946. It ran from Nevill Crescent via Middle Way, Cross Way and Windover Crescent to the green in Mount Harry Road where a bay was built for it to reverse into.
- The isolation hospital in what became Christie Road was used as emergency accommodation during the war and became council flats until it became the St Marys social centre. The isolation hospital was built on this site after the original one in the chalk pit above the former pub of that name was demolished.
- The social centre has the name St Marys as it started life in St Mary’s church hall in Highdown Road but moved to its current location after a disagreement with the church.
11 November 2020