Saturday, 24 October 2015

A brief history of Brighton, part 2

A few days ago I told how Bristelmestune became established and we whisked through some 4,000 years of history in about ten seconds.  We left the story (the first part is here) in 1086 when the population had grown to about 400 souls.

Back then, the village was all but cut off from the rest of the country to the north.  What is now the Weald of Kent and Sussex was covered by an almost impenetrable forest - St Leonard's Forest - and change on the sea shore happened very gradually as modernising influences seeped slowly through.  For the next few centuries, fishermen lived on the foreshore below the cliff, while above them were farmers.  Each day, the farmers would drive their flocks of sheep and their few cows out of the farms
and into the fields cleared from the edge of the forest on what are now the South Downs.  There were, I understand, five large fields or laines - north, west, hilly, little and east - and even now there is an area in the city known as the North Laine.

Medieval Brighton (although the town was not yet called by that name) was bounded by four streets, named rather unimaginatively North Street, West Street, South Street and East Street.  All but South Street still exist and the area inside the square is filled with narrow lanes (not laines) and is known, unsurprisingly, as The Lanes.  (Those old Sussex men must have been a stolid lot, not given to flights of fancy.)  By the beginning of the 16th century, there was another street running from north to south - Middle Street! (And it's still there.)

The area between Middle Street and East Street became known as the Hempshares where fishermen grew hemp for ropes and nets, the paths between the allotments eventually becoming the Lanes.  It was probably at the eastern edge of the Hempshares, close to East Street, that the Priory of St Bartholomew stood.  There is nothing of it left now except the name, Bartholomew Square, the site of Brighton Town Hall.

"The Priory was home to many nuns, who became victims of pirates and smugglers as this stretch of coast line became increasingly used for illicit ends. This became such a problem that soldiers were stationed nearby, hoping to halt the rising smuggler trade and protect residents, including the nuns of the priory.  It is a truth universally acknowledged that no woman can resist a man in uniform, and regardless of the wrath of our lord the residents of St Bartholomew’s were no exception. Such was the love between one nun and a soldier, that they soon laid plans to desert their respective posts and elope, choosing a life of shame and slander over honour and spiritual fulfilment. Unfortunately the lovers were caught, and the nun had to face up to both the wrath of the Lord, and more pertinently, the wrath of her senior sisters. Her punishment, it was deemed, was to be entombed within a small room of the grounds of the priory and left to suffocate – a common method of capital punishment as it was seen to absolve an individual of a murder, whilst ensuring that the job was done properly. In Silas’ own words, ‘her wails and moans must have been heard long into the night as the walls of her tomb grew ever higher’. Yet although she was certainly shuffled off this mortal coil, there have since been reports of apparitions and ghostly sightings of a woman around the boarded up passageway between Brighton Place and Meeting House Lane. Silas hypothesised that this might have been the intended meeting point for the two lovers, and the area is now haunted by a displaced spirit still searching for her lost soldier."  (From the Brighton Dome blog.)

The new street sign - with the "i" blocked out by a local.
And finally, to revert to the word "laine".  The words "lane" and "laine" are not interchangeable, although some three or four years ago the Council decided to put a name sign on a narrow alley off Bond Street.  "Bond Street Laine" they called it, much to the indignation of certain locals, although that, apparently, was the name allocated by East Sussex County Council more than thirty years previously.  Harried by local history societies, the Council applied to the magistrates' court to change the name to "Lane", but, in view of the costs involved, decided not to pursue the matter.  So a narrow alley in central Brighton is still known as a meadow!

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