Sunday, August 18, 2013

Mad Jack

Whenever I step into my back garden, the first thing I look for is the sharp silhouette of the spire of St. Giles at Dallington, some five miles away on the horizon. It has become something of a superstition for me: if the church is still there up on the ridge, then the earth is still turning and all things must be in their rightful place – I am comforted. But this summer, I have been deprived of my little ritual. The tower and stone spire, both originating from the early 16th century, are being repointed and are currently encased in scaffolding and plastic, forming a blob on the far horizon that is indistinguishable from the trees.

The importance of being able to see the spire from home is something I share with ‘Mad Jack’ Fuller, the erstwhile squire of Brightling. Hopefully, it is the only thing we have in common. John Fuller, who died in 1834 at the age of 77, was a controversial figure: an Eton-educated Member of Parliament, he was also a renowned drunk, plantation owner and supporter of slavery.

At the age of 20, Fuller had inherited a large Sussex estate (that is now Brightling Park) and Jamaican plantations from his uncle. By the age of 23 he had become a Member of Parliament - firstly for Southampton, then Sussex. His political career was doubly notorious: he once had to be detained by the Serjeant–at-Arms after a drunken incident with the Speaker of the House and, in one of his regular speeches in support of slavery, he claimed that the slaves on his plantations had better living conditions than many of his constituents.

But Fuller also had a philanthropic side. He was a sponsor of the young scientist, Michael Faraday and commissioned paintings from the artist, JMW Turner. And locally, he financed the first Eastbourne lifeboat, built the Belle Tout lighthouse on Beachy Head and purchased Bodiam Castle to save it from demolition in 1828. But it was with his building of follies that he left an indelible mark on the landscape of East Sussex.

The most striking of Fuller’s follies is the 65 feet-high Brightling Obelisk which stands without inscription or apparent purpose atop Brightling Beacon, the second highest point in East Sussex. Equally pointless, is the two-storey Fuller’s Tower on the Brightling – Darwell Hole Road. More purposefully, Mad Jack was inspired by his friendship with the German astronomer Friedrich Herschel to build his own observatory. Now a private home, the silver dome can still be seen from the Brightling – Burwash road. Fuller ended up beneath another of his follies: his mausoleum, a 25-foot pyramid, stands in the churchyard of St. Thomas à Becket, Brightling.

However, Fuller’s Point is the most perverse of all his follies. Fuller had made a bet with a friend that he could see the spire of St. Giles at Dallington from his home in Brightling. On returning home he realised that he could not see the spire after all. Rather than lose the wager, he had a 35-foot stone cone built in a field within sight of his house. It is more popularly called the Sugar Loaf - named after the conical loaves that sugar was sold as in the nineteenth century - and can still be seen in a field on the Battle to Heathfield road at Wood’s Corner. Whether the friend was fooled, or Fuller gained any comfort from seeing the Sugar Loaf every day, are not recorded.

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