It has been described as Britain’s strangest town and the real answer to Twin Peaks. But East Grinstead hardly exudes a sense of dreamlike Lynchian terror. Elegant buildings from the 14th century house bookstores and jewelers; butchers sell burgers and sausages on market stalls; and friends gather happily in front of cafes. The scene is pleasantly kind. It all seems so… normal.
Beneath the surface, however, this otherwise unremarkable Sussex market town is loaded with unlikely religious zeal. A disproportionate number of spiritual organizations have made their home here; some are ancient and some modern, some orthodox and some unconventional. One group in particular generated more column inches than the others.
On a wooded hill southwest of town sits Saint Hill Manor, a pretty country house built in 1792 in the late Georgian style. Saint Hill had a colorful life, serving variously as the headquarters of a Christian mission and the home of the Maharaja of Jaipur. When the latter moved in 1959, the most famous resident of Saint Hill moved in: L. Ron Hubbard, science fiction writer and founder of the Church of Scientology.
The estate served not only as the home of Hubbard, but also as the world headquarters of Scientology until 1967. It still belongs to the Church and, as is often the case in its enclaves around the world, the stories goofs abound. Tom Cruise has visited several times and reportedly even chose a wing of Saint Hill Manor as his lockdown sanctuary during the coronavirus pandemic, as reported in Tatler. John Travolta, an A-List scientist, made headlines in 2011 when he tried – unsuccessfully – to book a table for those around him at the local Kentucky Fried Chicken branch. In 2013, local Sussex newspaper The Argus reported that three airline pilots saw “two silver saucer-shaped discs” hover near Saint Hill – apparently unrelated to Gatwick Airport, where the pilots were arriving to land.
But it’s not just Scientology that’s making waves here. The Mysterious Rosicrucians, a secret society that claims to keep a body of esoteric truths about the universe, maintain a lavish Tudor lodge near Greenwood Gate; while Opus Dei, a Catholic sect famous for wearing spiked chains and hair shirts as an act of devotional self-mortification, holds self-improvement retreats in the alluring Wickenden Manor.
Less conventional, the British Home of Mormonism is a few miles north of East Grinstead, in the impressive London Temple in England, while Jehovah’s Witnesses and Christian scientists have also settled in the town.
Alternative ways of thinking start early in life here. Michael Hall School, located near Forest Row, was Britain’s first example of a Waldorf school, where students learn according to Rudolf Steiner’s spiritual concept of anthroposophy, with a development-oriented curriculum. emotional and artistic. The region’s multitude of biodynamic farms, which use gradual composting preparations such as cow skulls filled with oak bark and quartz, are also based on Steiner’s teachings.
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South of East Grinstead, a Battenberg blanket of manicured green fields gives way to the hazel, chestnut and oak trees of Ashdown Forest. The forest is best known for being the inspiration and setting for Winnie the Pooh, whose creator, AA Milne, lived on the northern edge of the woods and walked there with his son, Christopher Robin. Milne’s legacy lives on here – Pooh Sticks Bridge, for example, crosses a creek in the woods and is where the author invented the eponymous game Poohsticks with his son – but Ashdown Forest holds some weirder and more intriguing secrets .
Whispers of Wiccan rituals and gatherings of druids in the woods are commonplace. “Druids and other pagans are sometimes found in the henges of the Scots pine groves at the top of the forest,” said Richard Creightmore, a geomancer who divines the spiritual significance of the earth marks in Ashdown Forest.
The Forest’s weirdest occult episode, however, is believed to have taken place during World War II, featuring a cheerful cast of warlocks, spies, and Nazis. Cecil Williamson was a leading British and pagan screenwriter who was hired by MI6 in 1938 to learn more about the senior Nazis’ apparent interest in the occult. He devised a propaganda exercise called Operation Mistletoe, which aimed to capitalize on the Nazis’ growing fixation on the dark arts by staging a mock occult ritual in the Ashdown Forest. The hope was that it would hurt the morale of the Nazis if they believed supernatural forces were working against them.
This is the response of East England to Glastonbury
The ceremony reportedly involved grieving Canadian soldiers dancing around the burning effigies of Hitler and his colleagues. If this sounds like something out of a James Bond movie, maybe it’s no surprise; according to biographer Mark Simmons, Ian Fleming would have been present. While the exact details of Williamson’s ceremony are never known, Ashdown Forest is known to have been the site of Aspidistra, a radio mast used to transmit this kind of “black propaganda” in wartime. The site is now a Sussex Police Training Center.
So what about East Grinstead? Some locals will tell you the answer lies underground in the form of mighty ley lines and their intersection with the Greenwich Meridian, which runs through the city center. “We are here at the intersection of the High Weald sandstone ridges – whose quartz crystal structure improves cognitive clarity – with the Greenwich meridian,” Creightmore said. “A lot of good things have happened along the meridian, as well as in the High Weald,” he added, “but the esoteric spirituality seems to be more concentrated at the conjunction of the two, in the center around East Grinstead and Forest Row. “
Even for the most mystical, this theory can be a little hard to swallow. Davina MacKail, a shamanism and feng shui teacher, told me, “I believe the energy surrounding the East Grinstead area is enhanced by ancient forests. Much has been said about its plethora of ley lines, but I think the real reason for its appeal to weird religious sects has more to do with its proximity to London, and the fact that since Scientologists moved in at the end of the 1960s people accept alternative lifestyles here. This is the response from the east of England to Glastonbury. People can conduct their alternative practices peacefully and find support within the local community.
Other locals agree that the answer is more prosaic. “East Grinstead has traditionally been a meeting place for millennia,” said Dawn Spalding, the city’s tourism manager. “People have met here, traveling along the roads to sell their wares. It was considered a fairly safe place. Father Gaskin, of Notre-Dame-et-Saint-Pierre Church, explained it in even less romantic terms in the 1994 documentary Why East Grinstead ?, claiming: “People have moved to this part of the world. world because of Gatwick airport. “
Certainly, the region’s proximity to London, coupled with its abundance of stately mansions with stunning views of the High Weald, makes it appealing to the affluent types with a bohemian bent. Saint Hill Manor, the reason Scientologists came in the first place, is just one of them; another is Hammerwood Park to the east of town, an elegant ruined Greek Revival style pile once owned by Led Zeppelin. The comparison to Glastonbury’s boho gentrification brand is apt; the fact that the area around East Grinstead and Forest Row is famous for both its biodynamic farms and world-class golf course rather sums up the spirit of the place.
One episode in East Grinstead’s story, however, predates L Ron Hubbard’s arrival and sheds more light on the city’s character than any savage theory about unconventional religions and supernatural energy. During World War II, the city’s Queen Victoria Hospital was the pioneering plastic surgery site of Sir Archibald McIndoe, a New Zealander employed by the Royal Air Force. McIndoe’s innovations in cosmetic surgery (his specialty was the “McIndoe nose”) became fundamental in the field and gave new life to dozens of airmen who had suffered horrific burns and other injuries to the body. fight.
We told them not to watch and it got stuck
His medical expertise, however, matched an understanding of his patients’ mental health that was decades ahead of its time. It did away with the clinical attire traditionally worn by recovering patients – known, rightly so, as Hospital Blues – and allowed aviators to wear their own clothing instead. McIndoe formed a support group for them – which was called, in the tradition of wartime gallows humor, the Guinea Pig Club – and set about making East Grinstead a home. tolerant and welcoming during their rehabilitation. Encouraging those who were good enough to venture into town, he implored the local residents to make them comfortable – and they got involved so easily that East Grinstead became known as “The Town That Wasn’t Watching.”
“The work to rebuild the broken minds of the severely burned airmen has forced the people of East Grinstead to accept the men with all their disfigurements without drawing attention to them,” Spalding explained. “We told them not to look and it took hold; many famous people come to town and shop happily enough without fear of being disturbed.
The region’s appeal to well-heeled buyers seeking peace and quiet shows no signs of abating; in 2017, Adele became the last megastar to set up shop here, in a Grade II listed mansion. It seems like now, just like in the days of Archibald McIndoe and his guinea pigs, East Grinstead is a town that knows when to look away. It’s no wonder that people from all walks of life feel so at home here.
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