Crawley, A Town For All Seasons

Crawley, A Town For All Seasons

by Ruth Lawrence

Steeped in history and home to some eminent famous faces, Ruth Lawrence spent an enjoyable day visiting the parks, animals, museums and centre of this vibrant growing town

Although Crawley is best known as a New Town, designated in 1947 and chosen as a location for people and industry to relocate from London, its origins reach back well over 2,000 years.

In 600BC somebody placed a bronze sword in the Polesfleet Stream in Langley Green where it remained until excavated in the 50’s. Whether this was an offering to an ancient god we will never really know, but people have inhabited the area since the Stone Age, leaving behind finely knapped flint weapons. Crawley as a village began in Saxon times and by the 13th century had grown to a small market town because it lay on the important route from London to the South Coast. From 1202 there was a Friday market and an annual summer fair began in 1279. With a population of several hundred, it was home to craftsmen such as brewers, blacksmiths, carpenters and bakers and it remained primarily an agricultural settlement. By the end of the 18th century it developed as a stage coaching town as people travelled from London to Brighton but in 1848 the railway reached Crawley and it began to expand. At the start of the 1900’s the town had a piped water supply and soon had an electricity generating station.

With the railways came commuters, including Mark Lemon, the founder editor of both Punch and The Field magazines, who was friends with John Leech, a former medical student who found his niche drawing cartoons for the magazine. Leech illustrated A Christmas Carol for Charles Dickens in 1843 and his humour shone through in the expressive faces of Scrooge and the ghost of Jacob Marley. Incidentally, it was through Leech’s illustrations that the idea of not working over Christmas was cemented in the public psyche, which led to the Bank Holidays Act 1871.

Leech lived at Tree House in the High Street, better known as The Tree when he was a student; this building now houses Crawley Museum which made its move from a small building in Goffs Park House earlier this year. The Tree received its distinctive name in commemoration of the ancient ‘Crawley Elm’ which once stood opposite. It was described in a 19th century book as having, “a tall, straight stem which ascends to a height of 70 feet” and “fantastic ruggedness of its roots.” At that time its trunk had been partly hollowed out to form a small room variously used as a billet, a temporary lodge and a meeting room. The room had a circumference of about 35 feet, a door and some brickwork. Although dying at this stage, parts remained until the New Town was developed in the 1940’s.

The museum received substantial grants from the Heritage Lottery Fund and Crawley Borough Council and houses photos of works by Leech among its exhibits. An exhibition to mark the 175th anniversary of A Christmas Carol is scheduled for December and will include illustrations by Leech so that people can learn more about his work and life. The museum aims to reflect all aspects of life in Crawley in a lively and engaging way through a regularly changing programme of temporary exhibitions through the year.

The New Year will see an exhibition by Worth Park History Group which will feature unusual and interesting archaeological objects discovered there by enthusiasts.

Despite being a large town, Crawley has a wealth of green spaces within and around it; Worth Park has recently joined Goffs Park and Memorial Gardens in receiving Green Flag status, an award for the highest possible environmental standards, maintenance and visitor facilities. Thanks to a large Heritage Lottery funded grant, the park has been restored to its former glory and boasts formal gardens, a beautiful fountain, a wooded lake, croquet lawns and a tennis court.

The magnificent and expansive Tilgate Park has received the Green Flag Award since 2002 and is one of the South East’s most popular natural leisure destinations. Various habitats compose the park; broad leaf woodland with trees such as oak and birch attract all three British species of woodpecker, Roe deer and invertebrates. Heathland is a priority habitat in the park, comprising of open land with gorse and wild heather which supports rare specialist birds, reptiles and amphibians. The lakes and ponds provide breeding sites for frogs, toads, newts and dragonflies and birds such as coots, moorhens and grebes grace the waters. The Walled Garden is one of the remaining features of Tilgate Estate and George Cook, Britain’s oldest man in 1997 at 108 was born on the estate, working there for 60 years, mainly as head gardener. Today the garden is home to a number of show gardens, café, maze and picnic area. The entrance to the garden has a plaque mounted on local stone, dedicated to Councillor Alf Pegler OBE who was instrumental in the purchase of Tilgate Park and the development of Crawley as a New Town.

Seven Champion Trees stand within Tilgate Park including an 85 foot high black oak; unusual for its huge leaves and tiny acorns the tree is also known as the quercitron oak due to the yellow dye obtained from its bark and acorns. Trees were brought here by avid Victorian plant collectors and one oak is 250 years old, planted when George II was King and now boasting a crown that is 125 feet wide. A self-guided tree trail can take visitors around a dozen of the most memorable trees in the park.

During my visit to Crawley I spent an afternoon being shown around the superb Tilgate Nature Centre by Simon Woodard and had the chance to get close to animals I had only encountered in photographs and on film. The five acre centre has been running since the mid 1960’s and has recently developed a large Americas themed zone housing a colourful flock of macaws and the capybara, the world’s largest rodent.

Simon introduced me to Alf, a two-and-a-half-year-old lowland tapir, a species which lives in the South American forests. Alf would have been born with spots and stripes as camouflage against predators but now sports his adult plain brown coat; his prehensile nose is agile enough to wind around stems and long enough to act as a snorkel when he has to take to the water. The capybara was more reticent than Alf and stayed at a safe distance while a South American ostrich called the Rhea stalked about inquisitively. Simon told me that the male carries out the incubation and chick rearing by himself, a rarity in the animal kingdom. Further on, I met Terry the 28-year-old raven, a hand-reared bird who enjoys reacting to visitors and uttering the occasional word. I was surprised to learn that ravens can live to 40 years old and seeing one at arm’s length was an unforgettable experience.

We stopped at an enclosure to view the emus; the females make a loud drumming noise in their throats and the males again take on sole parental duty once the chicks are born. The kookaburras are unusual in that their chicks help to raise next year’s brood, an adaptation that means they can defend a larger territory. Shaped rather like a large kingfisher, the birds feed on small mammals and fish, stunning their prey on a branch or stone.

One of the most unusual animals was a member of the kangaroo family, the long nosed potoroo that carries its joey in a pouch and is unafraid of people due to its evolution on islands with a lack of predators. Easily the most arresting encounter was a large Hungarian pig, or mangalitza, called Boris, covered in coarse hair and possessing a pair of deadly looking tusks. With a huge wrinkled face and powerful body, Boris was described as ‘a handful’ by Simon; we fed him a pumpkin and watched from behind a fence as he swiftly demolished it in several mouthfuls. The final animals I met were a lively mob of 20 meerkats. Within moments, they were exploring my notebook and bag while one jumped on my head to get a better view of the surroundings. Utterly relaxed in human company, they are the ultimate children’s delight and happily allow themselves to be stroked before jumping to attention in the classic upright pose on both hind legs, faces alert for danger from above.

Crawley certainly turned out to be a town of surprises; there is a wealth of vibrant diversity here and a proud sense of community born from its long and varied history as an important part of the Sussex Weald.

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