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|A Straight Line Walk Across Brighton
by Paul K Lyons
5 - A lovely war, amazing grazing, a Piltdown mystery, and the shames of Whitehawk Way
According to David Rowland and Beryl Tucknott of the East Brighton Bygones Reminiscence Group who write about the history of Whitehawk on the 24 hour museum website, the caravan park - Brighton's first - was opened in 1938. It incorporated the buildings of the former Newhouse Farm: the farmhouse was used as the warden's residence, the flint barn as a hall, and the stables as a toilet block. Intriguingly, the short history also tells me Sheepcote Valley was the site of a rifle range in 1870. From the early 1950s to the early 1980s, large scale tipping took place here, but the site was eventually levelled for use as playing fields. One more tidbit about Sheepcote Valley: the trenches seen in the 1960s film 'Oh What a Lovely War' were created and filmed here.
I thread my way along the tracks past an area fenced off, partly with wooden slats and partly with netting. I'm not sure why, perhaps something to do with the racecourse high above. A man and woman are taking a greyhound for a walk inside it. As I stroll across this scruffy land so the sound of traffic noise increases. At a gateway to Wilson Avenue, I find several posters. One of them was placed here by Friends of Sheepcote Valley. It tells me that Japanese Knotweed is a rampant garden escapee and will take over the valley, smothering native wild plants, if left unchecked. Recently, a contractor has treated it with chemicals - harmless to humans and animals - and this process will have to be repeated several times. Another notice, entitled 'Amazing Grazing', explains that sheep are about to be reintroduced to the valley. I am invited to meet the shepherd, some of his flock and a working sheepdog. Kids, it says, can have a 'baaarilliant time'.
Wilson Avenue is a busy thoroughfare defining the eastern edge of the Whitehawk, which is on the steepish side of yet another valley (once called Whitehawk Bottom). Most of the roads run in a north-south direction, along the contours of the hillside (just like the sheep tracks in Happy Valley). Thanks again to Rowland and Tucknott, I know that this council estate, with around 1,200 houses, was developed in the mid-1930s, all with gardens, none with garages. Part of the housing stock was demolished in the mid-1970s, and small cul-de-sacs created, thus allowing the number of houses to increase closer to 1,500. My route now, trying to remain as close as possible to the 450 northing, is a bit zig-zaggy or ziggy-zaggy.
From Wilson Avenue I turn into Piltdown Road, a mixture of older style semi-detached houses and more modern infilling. I don't know why the street has this name - it's a mystery. Piltdown is a collection of small hamlets in Sussex, but the word is most commonly associated with a famous forgery - Piltdown Man. Around 1912, fragments of a skull and jaw found nearby the hamlet were thought to be from a single ancient individual and thus to underpin important claims about a new species, considered to be the missing link in the evolution of men from apes. It took more than 30 years for the fragments to be finally and conclusively proved as modern and thus fake: the skull was human but only a few hundred years old, and the jaw was that of a young orangutan. Despite many theories, the forger was never identified with certainty.
Piltdown Road brings me down into Whitehawk Way which is an extension of Whitehawk Road, and runs up the valley bottom. Thanks to Geoff Mead, who writes on the BrightonandHove website, I know that when this area was chosen to house those displaced by slum clearance in the 1930s, there was little more here than a couple of farms, one of them for pigs. Once built, though, the estate found itself stuck out on the eastern fringes of the town, up a dead end valley, without nearby employment, Mead explains, and eventually developed a reputation for a range of social problems, such as gang fights, drug busts, child abuse cases. In April 2000, for example, there was a serious clash with police. A report in the 'Brighton Argus' said: 'A mother faces plastic surgery after being savaged by a Rottweiler during violent clashes between youths and police in riot gear on Brighton's Whitehawk Estate. . . A total of 15 people were arrested after police came under a hail of bricks, stones and bottles in Whitehawk Way. Four police officers were injured. . . At the height of the clashes, 50 officers, some with riot shields and helmets, faced missiles from a 150-strong crowd.'
But the most shameful incident in Whitehawk's recent history - also here on Whitehawk Way - occurred a year earlier in May 1999. Jay Kensett was 16, a pupil at Marina High, and a talented boxer and footballer. One Friday, he scored four goals for the school football team, then, later the same day, just before midnight, he got into an argument with a man and a woman. As a result, he was stabbed in the back with a carving knife. Doctors at Royal Sussex County Hospital tried in vain to save him, the 'Argus' reported. Darren Mateer, twice Jay's age, was convicted of his murder and sentenced to life imprisonment - or, as decided by the Home Secretary, 14 years.
by Paul K Lyons
A Straight Line Walk Across Brighton - along the 450 northing
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