It was a busy night in the Chequer Inn in the centre of Steyning, with winter around one corner and karaoke around the other. My wife and I were seated at the far end of the Saloon Bar, next to an out-of-tune piano and as far as possible from the strains of ‘Suspicious Minds’ being belted out in the Public Bar with scarce a thought for melody or accuracy.
In the main bar a roaring log fire sent smoke billowing everywhere but up the chimney that hadn’t seen a sweep since Harry Corbett had last visited the pub in the 1970s. With the bar’s low ceiling, heavy drapes and broken extractor fan, the smokey air was so thick you almost COULDN’T have cut it with a knife.
Despite all this, we stayed. It might have been for the ambience, it might have been that it was the closest pub to home; most probably it was because it served the best pint of London Pride this side of Fuller’s brewery. As I returned to the bar for a refill, the publican was in earnest conversation with an elderly gentleman whose wizened features would have made Scrooge look positively hearty. His thin white hair wormed its way over his collar and a bony hand trembled as he lifted a glass of hot punch to his grey lips. He reminded me of a South Coast joke I had heard to the effect that Brighton was the place to which everyone went to die, Littlehampton was the place they all went to be buried and Steyning was the place they all turned up in when they came back to life!
I regaled my wife with the joke when I returned to our table. If it was in bad taste, then at least the London Pride made up for it. As always, it was as I had anticipated. What I had NOT anticipated, however, was being joined shortly afterwards by the cadaverous old man from the bar who asked if he might avail himself of thc only spare chair in the pub – which just happened to be at our table.
He sat there quietly enough initially, rapt in his own thoughts as Sarah and I chatted aimlessly, our own thoughts more closely focussed on the pub grub that was duly ordered and imminent. The Chequer had a good reputation for food, which was more than could be said for one of the other Steyning pubs (which shall remain nameless) that served a cottage pie which only resembled its name inasmuch as the meat had the consistency of real thatch.
Our ears soon pricked up to the sound of our name being called and the arrival of two fish platters with more chips than the casino at Monte Carlo. It was only as I was squeezing my lemon segment that I noticed our neighbour staring intently at me. I stared back with a look that was meant to imply ‘If you think you’re getting one of my chips…) but which probably just gave the impression that I’d imbibed too much London Pride. “I hope you won’t mind my forwardness…,” he began, not deterred by the strong likelihood that I probably would. I poised my fork in readiness should a bony hand reach towards my covetted chips. “But I couldn’t help overhearing that your surname is Linfield. I myself am a local historian and I have this very day been researching the tale of a knight who was incarcerated in a tomb at Bramber Castle. I wonder, perchance, if he might have been one of your ancestors : his name was William de Lindfield.”
Now my brother had, many years earlier, told me of this self-same famed ancestor when he had encouraged me to join him and his metal detector for a tour of the grounds of Bramber Castle – in search of buried treasure. I had heard no more of the tale since that day, when my brother’s metal detector had rolled to the bottom of the moat at Bramber having failed to pick up anything other than the Jimmy Young programme.
Out of a mixture of genuine interest and relief that my chips were apparently safe, I encouraged our aged historian friend to recount the tale, which he did in soft yet emotional tones. The tale he told was as follows :
Bramber Castle was, in its day, one of the oldest of the kingdom and a place of great strength and importance. The place takes its name from the Saxon word ‘Brymmburgh’, meaning ‘fortified place’ and the Castle is mentioned in the domesday Book. Just as Arundel was built to guard the estuary of the River Arun, so Bramber was built to guard the estuary of the Adur.
During the reign of Henry VII the castle and manor were given by the Crown to Thomas, Lord de la Warr, and his heirs, and during the time of their possession the castle was occupied by Lord Hubert de Hurst. Though 50 years of age, Hubert was married to a local beauty, Maud Willmott, known as Maud of Ditchling, who was just half his age. Maud was as poor as her husband was rich, and she had married him out of compulsion rather than love. He was the scourge of his household and very jealous of his attractive young wife.
Shortly after they were married, there came to the Castle a young knight by the name of William de Lindfield, the last member of a family that had once been wealthy but which had lost a great portion of its estate through political misfortune. A good field sportsman, he had been invited by Lord Hubert to spend Christmas at the Castle. Unbeknown to his host, de Lindfield had once been on terms of intimacy with young Maud Willmott, now Lady de Hurst. For the first few days of his visit, de Lindfield and Maud maintained a respectable disposition towards one another; until Christmas Day when Maud, her husband having sunk into a drunken slumber, seized the opportunity and beckoned William away from the festivities.
She led him through darkened halls to a room known as the crimson chamber, which adjoined the tower, near the church. The chamber was said to be haunted, and for that reason was rarely used. There de Lindfield and Maud embarked on protestations of renewed love, he fully sympathetic to her plight as the captive wife in a loveless marriage. As they enjoyed their tryst, however, their voices were overheard by Lord Hubert’s maiden sister who had been praying in the chapel and who acted as her brother’s spy. Within minutes she had located the chamber and entered while de Lindfield and Lady Maud were still ensconced. Fortunately for them, she had the night vision of a bat and the two lovers managed to escape the room without being caught. Not so fortunately, however, in her haste Maud left one of her gloves behind, which Hubert, alerted by his sister, discovered the next morning. By the time of his discovery, though, de Lindfield had left Bramber, returning to his home in Brighthelmstone for the rest of the winter.
He did not return to Bramber until Summer. Once again he was deferential in his bearing towards Maud; and Hubert gave no indication of his suspicions concerning his wife and the young knight. The opportunities for de Lindfield to be alone with Maud were few indeed; until Hubert suffered an attack of gout and was ordered by his physician to retire early each night. William and Maud took full advantage of these early nights to rendezvous in a pleasure house within the grounds of the Castle. Soon rumours filtered back to Hubert.
It was only a matter of days before Hubert’s attack of gout cleared up, but once it had he maintained the pretence and Maud and William, believing him still incapacitated continued to rendezvous. One evening Hubert hid himself and spied William and Maud indulging in language too warm for friendship, too corrupt for modesty. At that very moment, his fiery temperament concocted a ghastly resolution to this unhappy state of affairs.
The next day de Lindfield left for Yorkshire, but he was due to return in one month. During his absence Hubert visited the pleasure house, under which was a cave that was used to house corn during times of war. Here Hubert laboured day and night until he had removed a portion of the arch immediately beneath the main seat in the pleasure house. Then he cut away a portion of the floor of the house, forming it into a sort of trap door, secured with a bolt underneath.
When William returned to the Castle in early September, Hubert feigned gout once more and kept early hours as before. One evening when William sought the pleasure house Hubert was already in waiting, his sister having engaged Maud so that she might be delayed beyond the hour of her assignation. As soon as William sat on the seat in the house Hubert (from the cave below) released the bolt and sent William plummetting into the vault beneath. Hubert then dragged the stunned de Lindfield for some distance into the vault before imprisoning him behind a locked gate.
Having captured de Lindfield, Hubert made his way back to the pleasure house and took up the place in the darkened room where William had been seated. Soon after Maud appeared and, speaking William’s name, crossed over to the figure in the dark, kissing him as she uttered gentle excuses for having been delayed.
“The first kiss of affection the Lady Maud has ever bestowed upon her husband,” growled Hubert, thrusting her away from him and raising himself from the seat. At the realisation of her discovery Maud fainted and was removed to her chamber by Hubert, who promptly threatened to cut out her tongue should she ever tell of her disgrace and his dishonour.
It was assumed that William had returned to his home in Brighthelmstone, whereas in fact he languished in his pitch-black dungeon with only the Castle rats for company, his heartbeat the only sound. Two nights after his imprisonment, Lord Hubert appeared with bread and water for his captive. As William ate, he watched as Hubert produced a mason’s trowel and lay a bed of mortar, upon which he lay a row of stones, across the passage leading to the cell, one yard from the iron door.
Each night Hubert returned and laid another course until, at the end of a month, only four courses remained to be laid. With the realisation of Hubert’s hideous intention and each day’s step nearer to his horrendous fate, de Lindfield’s appearance had altered beyond recognition – his hair had turned as white as snow, his eyes were bloodshot and sore and his cheeks pale and hollow. Each night he pleaded with his captor for leniency, until that fateful night in the middle of October when the last thin ray of light from Hubert’s lantern was extinquished as the final stone was slotted into its place…
One hundred and fifty years later, during the English Civil War, when the pleasure house was destroyed by Parliamentarian troops, a skeleton was discovered crouched in a corner, the head resting upon his hands, the elbows on his knees – the mortal remains of William de Lindfield.
“And don’t tell me – on each anniversary a faint voice can be heard singing ‘A Tomb With A View'”. My flippancy was throttled at birth by my wife who threw me the sort of withering look that she normally reserved for flatulent shop assistants.
We were on our way back from the pub, our fish and chips having not gone down as well as they might have done had they not been accompanied by tales of grisly import. Autumn was drawing to a close and Winter was announcing its impending arrival with fresh chill blasts that had us snuggling into our coats as we crossed the quiet village High Street.
“I hope that old chap isn’t going far on foot tonight. This wind will have him over,” my wife said between gusts.
“I’ve never seen anyone so frail,” I answered. “The last time I saw anything that thin it was strung on a guitar!”
On such nights there is only one place to be, and that is wrapped up cosily in bed. Half an hour later, that’s exactly where we were, all thoughts of incarcerated ancestors driven away by the onset of sleep. Though not for long.
That’s the disadvantage of London Pride; it plays havoc with an overactive imagination. ln my case, at least. My place of dreams is normally the sort of neighbourhood most people would pay to be evicted from. But on this occasion, my dream world wasn’t a million miles away from home; in fact it was home, as in my dream I was waking up, getting out of bed and walking from the bedroom. I kept walking until I reached the kitchen. The door was closed but from beneath it there shone a thin gleam of light. I opened the door and beheld, to my astonishment, that the light was coming from the open refrigerator door.
And delving into it was a man dressed in a suit of armour.
Oblivious to me, he turned around and put on the kitchen table a plate of cold chicken legs that he had removed from the fridge. Leaving the fridge door open he seated himself, his armour clanking heavily with every move. Once seated he lifted his arms up and slowly pushed the helmet from his head.
I found myself staring at the old man who had been talking to us in the pub.
I awoke shouting and sweating, my wife making comforting comments like “Don’t you realise what bloody time it is? I have to get up in three hours!” She turned over and slipped back into sleepfulness.
As for me, no matter how I tried, I could not get back to sleep; so I decided to do what I normally did in such circumstances – go and make myself a hot drink. I slipped noiselessly out of bed and tiptoed to the kitchen.
It was only when I had filled the kettle and turned around that I noticed that one of the chairs had been pushed back from the table, in the centre of which sat a plate of discarded chicken bones.
The following day I went along to Steyning Museum to see what I could dig up in reference to the sad fate that had befallen William de Lindfield at Bramber Castle. As small museums go, the one at Steyning is a veritable treasure trove and hidden amidst its booty I came across a booklet entitled ‘The History and Legend of Bramber Castle’.
It detailed the de Lindfield tale exactly as recounted by our historian friend the previous evening. But it also added one small detail that he had neglected to mention in his account. The date when de Lindfield’s entombment was made complete by Lord Hubert de Hurst.
For the previous day had been the 500th anniversary of that very event.
The Saloon Bar of the Chequer Inn was a good deal quieter and environmentally-friendlier than it had been the previous night as I entered for a quick lunchtime pint. Behind the bar the landlord was chuckling over the bankruptcy notices in the Telegraph, but was prepared to put his paper to one side long enough to serve me a pint.
“I see you had a long chat with that elderly gent who was in here last night,” he said, surprising me that he could have seen that far through the smog.
“I did; do you know him, by any chance!”
“Never seen him before. But I did have quite a long chat with him earlier in the evening. Some sort of historian.”
“Yeah, that’s what he told me. I don’t suppose he told you his name, did he?”
“He did, as a matter of fact – but I’m blowed if l can remember it.” He placed my pint on the counter and took my proferred £5 note. “Vaguely French, it was – sounded like a Sussex village I recall.”
“Not Lindfield, by any chance?” I ventured as he returned my change.
“Now that you come to mention it, it was. William de Lindfield, that was it. Well fancy you picking Lindfield first off like that. Uncanny, that’s what I call it.”
Uncanny? He didn’t know the half of it.
Mind you, uncannier still was the fact that for the first time I could remember, the London Pride at the Chequer tasted decidedly off.