The focal point of East Grinstead’s charm and old Market Town reputation is the conservation area in and around the historic High Street. It’s not too hard to find as you just have to look on the sky line and spot the tallest building, which will be the tower of St Swithun’s Church. From wherever you are just head towards it and you are bound to end up in the High Street.
This is where the treat starts, as stretching from East to West are an incredible mixture of magnificent mediaeval buildings, small passageways and courtyards all waiting for you to explore them. Today many are commercial buildings with shops, cafes , restaurants and pubs mixed with other commercial uses on the upper floors. Many are still private homes and have remained almost unchanged since they were built. If you take a look at the rear of the houses on the South side of the Street you’ll notice the extraordinary length of their gardens. Known as Portlands they were intended to enable the households to be almost self-sufficient by keeping pigs and poultry as well space for vegetables and fruit, some extend as far as 630 feet and are all still preserved as they were, although not many boast pigs and chickens these days!
For an English town the High Street might seem strangely wide, and this is due to the fact that for many years it also served as a thriving market place, and there some early photographs in the Town Museum showing cattle wandering around the street on a market day. These days the High Street is more focused on its speciality shops offering a unique take on today’s retail offer.
There are hundreds of years of history to explore here, from old coaching inns, where you can still almost hear echoes of the stagecoaches of yesteryear clatter through the street. There are also signs of a more turbulent past commemorated in the churchyard of St Swithun’s, where you can find a memorial to the three Protestant martyrs who were burnt at the stake in the middle of the High Street in 1556 having to refused to renounce their faith.
At the Eastern end of the High Street stands East Grinstead’s foremost architectural gem, the golden sandstone buildings of Sackville College. Founded in 1609 by the Earl of Dorset as a home for the poor of the parish, it continues to this day to serve the same purpose. It’s called a college as the residents originally lived a ‘collegiate’ life with their own rooms, but all coming together to eat together. From the outside there aren’t too many clues as to the secrets that lie within, but once through the door you will find yourself in a courtyard with gravel paths and inlaid with turf, surrounded on each side by the various elements of the College. In the summer months the College is opened to the public, who are treated to guided tours of the downstairs rooms including the study where the famous Christmas carol of Good King Wenceslas was written by a previous warden of the college in 1853.