The Ruins at Brambletye
by Garen Ewing
This article was written for the local community magazine East Grinstead Living, September 2010
Please do not reuse or copy this article without permission from the author - thank you.
Poking your head through the foliage that lines the south side of Forest Way, about half a mile from its bisection with the A22 at Forest Row, you may find yourself confronted by three ancient stone towers rising above the trees that mask the still-humble River Medway on its route towards the Kent countryside. This is many people's first glimpse of a structure that provides much mystery and romance within the remains of its tantalising Jacobean architecture, but not a lot in the way of hard facts.
Some facts, however, can be extracted by studying the clues carved into the local sandstone that make up the honey-hued ashlar blocks. The date 1631 is accompanied by the initials C H M in a lozenge at the top of the central tower, and a weathered coat of arms above the door aides their interpretation - the house was the abode of one Henry Compton and his second wife, Mary Browne.
They married in the 1620s, not long after Compton came into ownership of the older double-moated manor at Brambletye by way of Richard and Edward Sackville, the 3rd and 4th Earls of Dorset respectively. They were brothers of Henry's first wife, Cecily Sackville, and his own step-brothers after his widowed mother married the 2nd Earl of Dorset (and creator of Sackville College) when he was 13.
The old manor at Brambletye had been one of the most important of the district, detailed in the Domesday Book, and handed down through the connected families of Montague, Aldham and Saintclare, ending up at the end of the 1400s with Richard Lewkenor, an East Grinstead MP, County Sheriff, and second husband to Elizabeth Saintclare. His building, surrounded by the moat which still survives 150 yards to the west, was very likely prone to dampness, and this may have been one of the reasons Compton built his house on a new site, and made sure it rose up from an impressive vaulted basement.
Henry Compton, half-brother to the 1st Earl of Northampton, was returned MP for East Grinstead on several occasions and also served as a ranger on Ashdown Forest and Assistant Warden at Sackville College (1628). One of his children, Henry, was killed in a duel with the 6th Baron Chandos in May 1652 at Putney, and seven years later another son, John, died in residence at Brambletye. The manor had survived the Civil War, and the last act of the Comptons at Brambletye was in 1660, the year of the Restoration, when Henry's third son, George, held court there. George had married Mary Biddulph in about 1648, and the Biddulphs would eventually become the new owners of Brambletye Manor, the land staying in their family until as late as 1866 before passing to the Larnachs.
However, the house had fallen into ruin long before then. In 1683 or 84 one Sir James Richards was made a baronet and described as 'of Brambletye House'. It is commonly believed he abandoned the manor while fleeing to Spain on suspicion of treason, leaving the manor masterless and falling into disrepair. A drawing dated 1782 shows the building in ruins, though with the gatehouse mostly intact and two of the impressive finials still in place atop the towers. By 1830 it was pretty much the ruin we know today, with large portions of the stone having been dismantled for other building projects, including for repairs to the bridge at Edenbridge.
The house, or castle as it was sometimes overzealously known, enjoyed a flare of celebrity in the late 1820s when the popular novelist Horace Smith wrote his fictional account of the Comptons, 'Brambletye House, Or Cavaliers And Roundheads', which had the double effect of confusing its history and bringing the tourists, some of whom decided a little piece of the castle would make a very nice ornament.
By the early 1900s the edifice seemed more tree than stone, but by 1930 the ivy was cleared, the building was stabilised and surveyed, and in 1953 it became a grade II listed structure. It currently resides on private land, and as of 2009 was included on the English Heritage 'At Risk' register due to general deterioration, though the air of mystery and romance, and perhaps a whiff of Horace Smith's fictional gunpowder - if the wind is right and the imagination flowing - will still greet the viewer who happens across this wonderful local gem.