by Martin Bastone
My earliest memories of Tilgate Park are from the mid sixties when I joined the cubs at their hut in the woods. These huts were previously army barracks and were cold and damp but, as we were required to jump around a lot, we didn’t take too much notice of that. Some days we were taken on trips through the wood and we enjoyed kicking up the autumn leaves and splashing through puddles.
In late summer, many of the locals from Tilgate went to pick blackberries on the lower slopes of the park approach, adjacent to Titmus Drive. We came home with bags of berries and blooded hands. It was difficult to tell the blackberry juice stains from the blood. We probably ate as many berries as we brought home.
We also collected firewood for a while in autumn, until the warden stopped it. The wardens were a source of fear and comfort. Good to know when you were injured or found an injured animal, but terrors when you were through the fence and messing around in the grounds surrounding Campbell’s Lake and the mansion. Fortunately, for me, I rarely encountered them and sometime in the seventies they disappeared completely.
The mansion and the adjacent water tower were a subject of much rumour at school. The older boys insisted that they had found blood in some of the mansion rooms and that the place was haunted. I never went inside the mansion, but did climb to the top of the water tower. The mansion’s grey stone walls and general air of long neglect did little to persuade us that the horror stories were not true. Later on I came to realise that most of the stories we were told were based on Hammer Horror films!
In the sixties, the main access to the park was through holes in the wire fence. For my friends and myself, this was a small gap between the base of the fence and a stone wall, hidden by bushes and about a hundred feet from the mansion. There always seemed to be lizards in the wall at this point. I never saw them elsewhere. At some point the park was opened to the public and families began to make more use of the accessible parts, which were confined to the north and west side of the lake, as most of the rest was boggy and overgrown.
Being only about ten years old at that time I, along with my friends were forbidden by our parents to go near the grounds without them, which just served to make it more interesting to us. We spent most of the school holidays and many weekends in the woods and grounds of the park. There were all sorts of wonderful playgrounds to explore- from orange-coloured stinking marshes, (where planks and logs were laid below the waterline, allowing only the initiated to cross), to the long rows of almost uninterrupted laurel bushes around the back of the lake. These, you could climb across, without coming down to the ground more than once or twice.
On that side of the lake, past the sluice gate, you came to a small quarry-like area which was used for pistol practice at some point in the past. We found several bullets embedded there. Continuing up the slope, you would enter a wide open area of gorse, ferns, a scattering of trees and bushes and hidden trench systems. Further up, was the start of the plantations.
The Easter holidays, in particular, announced their presence with plumes of smoke over the scrub and plantation, as careless boys made campfires, or smoked cigarettes and tossed them aside. Then would come the ringing of the fire engine bells. The smaller engines, that responded to rough terrain needs, would race through the woods picking up any boys they encountered with the order to grab a fire beater (a rubber tipped wooden pole, used to hit at the flames and embers). The boys, thus armed, then jumped onto the fire engine and held on for dear life until they reached the source of the fire. Other boys who were not lucky enough to get a ride, ran, or cycled to the site and tore branches from trees to act as beaters. I would have been about twelve years old when I last took part in one of these events. I was asked to take a group of younger lads into the edge of section of burning fir trees and start beating. Unfortunately, I went in too far and got temporarily trapped when flames jumped overhead and the fire started burning behind me. I got a bit of a telling off from some adults, when I emerged, for endangering the younger boys. Once the fire was under control, we all traipsed off home, exhausted, singed and smelling of smoke, but very happy. All except one lad, who had left his bicycle propped against a fence and returned to find the saddle and tires gently smouldering away.
Though-out this part of the plantation, were a number of artificial ponds, covered with a flexible mesh wire over a ten foot log. This log was laid across the pool to support the mesh. The water was to enable the fire brigade to refill the water tanks. But during one winter, when they iced over, we would sometimes have competitions to see who could make it from one side to the other over the log. Further complicating the contest was the fact that you had an opponent coming at you from the opposite side just as determined to reach the other bank. There were many participants who took the frozen wet walk home at the end of the day.
Another winter event was walking on the frozen lake, when the ice was sufficiently thick. A few boys even cycled across. Boys and girls played together and there were a few snowball fights on the ice between groups. As the weather became warmer, you had to be wary of thinning ice near the banks. I remember walking home with water in my boots and no feeling in my toes.
When the snow was thick enough for sledges the parents would bring their children to the slope below the car park area. On one memorable occasion, my dad and one of our neighbours built a sledge from an old wardrobe. It was big enough to hold both of them and they were determined to prove the sledge was worthy of the name. They launched themselves down the longest run. The only obstacle between the starting point and the bushes down near the road, was a single sapling, which they should have easily missed. Sadly, the sledge had other ideas. Neither sledge, or tree came well out of the encounter and the rest of us never got to try it out.
During the summer, in the early seventies, we often swam in the lake along with other children. Parents would bring picnics and sit around chatting. Floating just beneath the surface, our bodies looked to be coated with a sheen of gold, but when you climbed out, the gold turned to a thin coating of mud that clung to your legs. You could tell how long someone had spent in the water by the number of black leaches on their bodies. Fortunately these were easily removed.
When I was about 15, I bought a wood and canvas canoe that the sea cadets were disposing of. This cost me £5 and needed a bit of repair. It was very heavy and I acquired a set of pram wheels to get it from home to the lake. I usually arrived early on a Saturday morning and spent many happy hours paddling around, with the lake all to myself. Probably the most blissful moments were spent lying down in the canoe, staring at the sky, as a low mist hung over the lake. An early morning observer of this scene (being of a poetic inclination), might conclude that they were looking at the Marie Celeste of the lake!
In 1971 I was asked by the Boy’s club to take part in the Tilgate Lake Association canoe race. I was the only entry with a canoe not made of fibreglass. Somehow I managed to get third place. I was also asked to take part in another race with a canoe I’d not tried before. It was very unstable and I spent more time under the lake than on it. There is a photograph of the mayor presenting us with our pennants. I’m the one that looks like a drowned rat proudly holding a yellow flag.
What I recall about the buildings around the lake, apart from the mansion and army huts, were the few houses along what we called the upper road and is now the main road up to the car park. In my early teens I had a paper round that included these houses. I quite enjoyed the early morning ride while listening to the birds. Then there was the exhilarating run down the hill into Titmus Drive and back to the shop, where each Saturday I would collect my weekly wage of 21 shillings, as I had one of the longer rounds. As I came down the hill, I sometimes thought of the Laundry House. This house (just below the sluice gate), was part of the Campbell estate and my first, and last, encounter with the occupants was when I was about nine or ten years old and had a quite nasty fall onto gravel, resulting in a lacerated kneecap. My two friends took me to the house and the lady who answered the door quickly called me into the kitchen, where she bandaged my knee after applying some iodine. I still remember the large wooden table and the flagstone floor. The kitchen was spartan, but very clean. She gave us all some sweets and we went on our way. Some few years later I returned to find the house empty. I wandered around the overgrown garden and saw the graves of three dogs, all dating to around 1903. The only thing I saw in the house was a single roller-skate.
Further up the lane (that in later years lead onto the golf club), there was a small stone bridge over a stream. In the stream, one day, we found a large bronze bell. We’d no idea where it had come from and we couldn’t move it. There it stayed for some weeks, before disappearing as mysteriously as it had arrived.
The area that is now the golf course was, in the early seventies, still a mix of gorse, ferns, odd areas of fir and assorted deciduous trees. There had been a military camp of some sort here. The remains of a heavy lorry was in a trench, Lee Enfield .303 cartridges turned up regularly, as did fragments of mortar bombs. The target for the mortar bombs was a mocked up tank built of brick and concrete, with a steel tube for a barrel. At some point an ammunition dump had been made in a small structure by the side of the track. Corroded cartridges were still lying around in the mud there.
In the late seventies I was part of a team that helped clear the area in preparation for the golf course and we then found further cartridges and hidden 40 gallon drums of diesel fuel. I had seen two of these previously near the old concrete garage, by the lake, one hidden in a crater, under a bush and the other in the structure itself. Talk of WWII lead to a farmer telling me that just over the motorway bridge was the place where he’d seen a German bomb hit, which failed to explode. He thought that it was still there and that it was lucky that the digging of the motorway hadn’t lead to an unfortunate encounter.
Going back to the lake, in the sixties, there were two boat houses at Campbell’s lake. The smaller of the two was rotting and heavily overgrown. What’s more, it was also infested with snakes. Needless to say, we didn’t spend a lot of time in there!
The other, larger boat house, also of wood, accommodated a large wooden boat. This had sunk long ago, but the top two feet was still above water. From the bow you could launch yourself onto the wooden door and swing it around to land on the bank.
Another favourite place, that I recall, was a perch in one of the elderly trees that stood near the entrance to the park. The tree was fairly easy to climb and the branches formed a platform from which you could survey the park and lake.
Towards the southern end of the lake were two small islands. These had once been linked to the bank and to each other by bridges. The nearest one worked on a pivot system. Both were broken, but the nearest bridge could be made to throw a spray of water when pivoted and released. The object of the game was to avoid a soaking when you dropped the bridge. We made our usual underwater bridge of branches and planks and made camps on the second island, which was overgrown with bamboo. I was told that there had been a tea room here. There were certainly remains of some structure remaining. A farmer told me that John Haigh had once taken tea there.
Titmus lake itself does not really stick in my memory very well. I just recall it as an area of muddy paths and little more. We did have a camp to the left of the lake, in the woods. It was based on a circular trench and we covered it with abandoned asbestos board.
The small stream, that flows from the lake towards Tilgate, was a rich source of bicycle parts, although the other streams in the park also had their fair share of engine parts, motorcycles, scooters and prams. All were treasures, especially to the boy who wanted a bicycle, but couldn’t afford to buy one. There were some very interesting and inventive contraptions on the roads in those days. A fixed wheel (no gears) being the easiest to make. It had the advantage that the pedals also acted as the brakes, which was fine until you were going down hill at speed with the pedals whizzing around under your feet. Tyres were often the only thing you had to replace to get a basic machine. One boy tried to ride a home-built bicycle down the hill from Campbell’s lake along Titmus drive, without any tyres. All went well until he reached the bend. He went home with his bicycle buckled, arms and legs bruised and bleeding, but also as local legend.
The track that, in the sixties and seventies, lead to Titmus Lake had scrub trees and bushes acting as an unkempt hedge along both sides. Within the righthand hedge were the remains of two military vehicles. I remember the coloured plate on the back of one of them. Beyond the lefthand hedge was a slope leading to an open area where the remains of mortars could be found at the far end. Near the hedge there had been a munitions dump at the end of the war and some of these munitions had sunk into the wet clay and were missed during the clearance. I found a live grenade there in the mid seventies. When I realised what I was looking at, I cycled to the nearest phone box and rang the police station. After some brief discussion I was told that they were all really busy at present and that if I couldn’t wait around, then I should bring it to the station. I carefully laid put it in my saddlebag and cycled to the station where I asked for the sergeant. I explained that I’d been told to bring it to the station. He smiled and asked me to follow him with the bomb. When we got outside, he took me over to a large metal waste bin which he opened. It was half full of cartridges and artillery shells. I placed the grenade on the top of the pile and that was that until the next time anyway. When, the following year, I found another in the same area, I took it straight to the station and placed it on the counter in front of the WPC. She asked me what it was and I explained. She disappeared rapidly through a door and no one came to see me for ten minutes, although three constables looked through a window at me. The same sergeant eventually ambled out and then the procedure was as before. Things were just a little more relaxed in those days!