by Peter d’Aguilar
Visiting the bustling market town of Crowborough, Peter d’Aguilar discovered the delights of the town, chronicled its history and some of the notable residents.
Perched on the second highest point in East Sussex, the bustling market town of Crowborough is well placed to enjoy the beautiful surrounding countryside of the Ashdown Forest in the heart of the High Weald Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty – making it a honeypot for walkers, horse riders, rock climbers and cyclists. At 242 metres, it ranks as one of England’s 175 Marilyns (places with a topographical prominence of at least 150m). Crowborough is situated seven miles to the south-west of Royal Tunbridge Wells and, with over 20,000 residents, has the largest population of any inland town in East Sussex.
Crowborough first became established in the 18th century, when local benefactor Sir Henry Fermor bequeathed money for a church and a charity school for the benefit of what he uncharitably referred to as ‘the very ignorant and heathenish people’ who lived locally.
The town of today initially grew from the merging of a number of villages and hamlets – including Jarvis Brook, Poundfield, Whitehill, Stone Cross and Alderbrook, Sweet Haws and Steel Cross, with ‘Crowborough’ existing originally at the bottom of Coopers Lane and School Lane.
As with so many towns in the south east, the arrival of the railway in 1868 sparked a period of growth. In the late 19th century Crowborough was promoted as a health resort due to its high elevation, rolling hills and surrounding forest, which led to its description as ‘Scotland in Sussex’. The golf club was founded in 1895 and the ancient Crowborough Common, covering over 220 acres and owned by the golf club, opened to the public in 1936 ‘for the taking of air and exercise’. Crowborough Country Park is a 16-acre nature reserve located in the southern part of town. Previously a clay quarry for the adjacent brickworks, the site became a Local Nature Reserve in 2009. The nearby Ashdown Forest, an ancient area of open heathland protected for its ecological importance, is renowned the world over as the setting for AA Milne’s stories about Winnie-the-Pooh. The War Memorial cottage hospital, with its popular midwife-led maternity unit, first opened its doors in 1900 and has survived the threat of closure numerous times – largely due to enthusiastic local support.
Crowborough’s most famous former resident is Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. The creator of Sherlock Holmes lived at Windlesham Manor for the last 23 years of his life, having moved to Crowborough from Surrey in 1907 when he married his second wife. He captained at the golf club in 1910 and his wife was Ladies Captain the following year. A statue of Conan Doyle stands proudly at Crowborough Cross in the town centre. Other notable past and present inhabitants of Crowborough include former Doctor Who Tom Baker, actor and writer Dirk Bogarde, Robert Henry Cain VC, journalist and politician Tom Driberg, actors David Jason and Cate Blanchett, musician and actor Adam Faith, musician John Paul Jones, singer Kerry Katona, Victorian nature journalist Richard Jefferies and astronaut Piers Sellers was born here.
Crowborough Athletic is the town’s main community football club. Based at the Crowborough Community Stadium, it plays in the Premier Division of the Southern Counties East Football League. Crowborough Rugby Football Club won promotion to London South Division Two in 2006. England captain Dylan Hartley moved to Crowborough from New Zealand at the age of 15 and played some of his early English rugby at the club. Crowborough Tennis and Squash Club has nine outdoor all-weather tennis courts and four squash courts, as well as offering racketball and other sporting activities. There is a netball club welcomes children and adult players of all standards. The town also has two badminton clubs, tai chi societies, Crowborough Runners and an anglers’ association.
Crowborough has several recreation grounds, including Goldsmiths, which was donated to the parish by private owners in 1937. The town council has since developed the ground into a recently-refurbished recreation centre with a swimming pool, gym, sports hall, children’s playground, model railway, skate park and petanque court.
A major event in the town’s calendar is its annual celebration of Guy Fawkes Night, when around 5,000 people descend on Goldsmiths Recreation Ground each November 5th.
On the on the second Saturday in September you will see the whole town taking to the streets for the Crowborough Carnival which is run by the town’s Bonfire and Carnival Society, it involves a daytime fête on the town green followed by a torchlight parade, a tradition dating back around seventy years and part of the build-up to the Lewes Bonfire Celebrations.
The town also holds a summer fair, a summer fun day complete with French Market, a fête organised by the hospital every August Bank Holiday and a Christmas fair. The first Crowborough Community Festival took place in May 2018, offering a programme of family-friendly events including a self-guided mystery trail. There is a Farmers’ Market on the fourth Saturday of each month. As well as its markets, the town has several supermarkets and numerous small independent retailers, restaurants and cafes – supported by generous free parking.
Crowborough has a number of active groups and societies, including Lions and Rotary Clubs. Crowborough Arts organises musical performances, literary events and art exhibitions, workshops, book and play-reading groups and skill-sharing activities. The new Community Centre provides a venue for films, plays, concerts and conferences. The Crowborough Players, established in 1933, are the resident community drama group based at the 300-seater hall at Crowborough Community Centre. The town also has a historical society, a youth theatre group, a flower club and a horticultural society.
Crowborough is twinned with Montargis in France and Horwich in Greater Manchester – the first towns in England to be twinned with each other.