Such was her energy and charm, Winifred was able to persuade the manager of Woolworths in Haywards Heath to set up a credit account, and bought a set of green saucepans and wooden handled cutlery to complete the woodland theme of her new home, which she quickly made as comfortable as possible. In spite of being in the south of England and therefore in the front line of any attack from Germany, the evacuation programme ’Operation Pied Piper’ had nearly doubled the population of Mid-Sussex at the beginning of the war. The county was full of evacuees from London and Stonehurst itself was no exception. When her dog Dominie was released from quarantine Winifred could begin to relax and plan how she could best aid the war effort. She began by helping to resettle the victims of the Blitz but her heart lay in supporting the cause of France so, when she was sent for by the embryo Free French organisation in London she was overjoyed. Enrolled in a newly-formed project called the ‘Friends of French Volunteers’ she was asked to be a propaganda speaker and fund-raiser for the ‘Fighting French’. A rather thankless task at that stage in the war when the British had small sympathy with France, its government or its army. Across the platforms of Sussex her exalted, actress's voice rang out, explaining the plight of the ordinary French man and woman in the face of their defeatist politicians and praising the courage of those few who had joined De Gaulle’s Free French in London, and of the emerging resistance in France.
It was at Many Waters that Winifred would give sanctuary to Richard Hillary, the handsome Spitﬁre pilot so badly burned on his face and hands in September of 1940 when his aircraft crashed into the Channel. A patient of Archibald Mclndoe at the Burns Unit of The Victoria Hospital at East Grinstead, his terrible injuries seemed to make little difference to the allure he held for women, and Winifred was no exception. Introduced to him by Kathleen Dewar of Dutton Homestall in Ashurst Wood, which had become a convalescent home for injured officers, Winifred took Richard Hillary to her heart. She nurtured his ambition to become a writer, giving him the key to her cottage and encouraging him to record his experiences and his very personal thoughts on combat and the war. Here he declared he had found ‘his circles of peace’. As Winifred wrote: ‘It was with joy in the weeks which followed that sometimes, as I returned from my walk in the woods, I did see smoke rising from my chimney from a fire lit by Richard Hillary.’ So it was at Many Waters that Hillary wrote the beginning of the draft for his immensely popular book The Last Enemy.
After a period fund-raising in Devon, Winifred returned to Many Waters. She now became Chairwoman of the Sussex Branch of the Friends of French Volunteers and ﬂung herself into the task ‘with the driven ferocity of the over-tired and unhappy’, until the war ended and Europe was liberated. In October 1945 she began to make her preparations to leave Many Waters and return to France. Following her would be 108 cases of donated necessities, a project she had organised to help the bereft people of Provence. One small object would not accompany her. Dominie, her precious spaniel suddenly became very ill. He had contacted jaundice and, although she did everything to save him, sitting for three days by his side giving him tiny sips of water, he lost the ﬁght and now lies buried at Many Waters. He was her last link with her old life in Provence and she tried hard to understand, calling on her faith to support her: ‘Perhaps He means His crusaders to stand alone and be of single mind and heart’.
©From: Escape to Provence by Maureen Emerson
The location of Many Waters is a complex and little-known grade II landscape by Thomas Mawson in a Wealden gill valley. It has features ranging from Mesolithic sites preserved beneath sandrock cliffs to Edwardian ponds and cascades. By the 1870s it was a pleasure farm with picturesque planting. At the turn of the century it was developed by Mawson in a manner reminiscent of his Lake District designs. A typical Arts-and-Crafts garden still overlooks spectacular rock terraces. These lead to a woodland valley garden that spans the whole 80ha of the site, structured by clusters of conifers. The spectacular water features devised and built by James Pulham. James Pulham & Son were experts in this field and responsible for - Rock Gardens, Ferneries, Follies, Grottoes and Fountains all over the British Isles. For more information visit The Pulham Legacy at this link.
Stonehurst House is located near Wakehurst Place, high up on a hill with glorious views over the Sussex countryside. It came about as a result of Camp Coffee, the bitter blend of chicory and spices which served as a substitute for the real thing until 'instant' coffee was invented in 1938. Although Camp Coffee still exists, it isn't sold in the quantities it was in the 1880's when its inventor, John Stuart, made huge amounts of money from it.
In 1889 he chose the dramatic location near Ardingly to create for himself a gentleman's mansion. It was designed in local style with long brick and pantile elevations, the rooms full of oak panelling. He also added a somewhat imposing tower on top of the building. To the side of the croquet lawn he built an observatory, designed to house a sizeable telescope. In all Stuart obtained 239 acres, some of which he obtained as a result of debts owed to him from gambling.
At the back of the house the lawns give way to a drop of about 100ft over a sandstone cliff edge and down into a valley where there is a series of lakes, some dating back to the Middle Ages when the area was known for iron making. Down in the valley there are many rocks, one is known as 'Big on Little' where a 20ft high rock sits finely balanced on a much smaller rock, a prehistoric deity? Stuart turned this valley into pleasure gardens employing Thomas H. Mawson to landscape and James Pulham to create special water features. Both were experts in their fields.
After Stuarts death in 1926 the house was sold, it boasted amongst other things, six maidservant's bedrooms and two bachelors rooms. Ten years later in 1936 it was sold again to Jenny Strauss for £31,000. At that time this huge sum of money would have purchased a street of 60 suburban houses in Edgware, London. It was Jenny Strauss who let the former game keepers cottage to Winifred Fortescue during WWII. Not long after the purchase of Stonehurst in 1936 it was necessary to remove the huge feature tower. There are reports that the Home Office ordered the removal at the beginning of WWII as it was being used by Luftwaffe pilots to navigate and attack Biggin Hill.
During the war the house served as a home for children evacuated from London and Winifred Fortescue, in her book 'Beauty for Ashes', published in 1948, tells how the babies would tumble and roll down the hillside on the lawns. Stonehurst returned to private use after the war and passed through the ownership of two more members of the Strauss family. Over the years the estate has operated as a 'pocket shoot' as well as an orchid nursery. Walls display drawings of the varieties bred at Stonehurst.
In 2001 the estate was put up for sale and, in addition to the 8 bedroom main house, included a farmhouse, 10 cottages and two flats.
Pictures - P.Riley, Maureen Emerson, P. Masters ACTA, Text - Maureen Emerson, P. Masters ACTA, P. Riley