Crowborough lies in the High Weald nearly 800ft above sea level. Nowadays the beauty of the surrounding countryside is enjoyed by everyone who comes here, but the area was not always appreciated. William Cobbett traveling from Forest Row to Uckfield in 1822 described Ashdown Forest as “a heath with here and there a few birch scrubs upon it, verily the most villainously ugly spot I ever saw in England”!
The Victorian “romantic” view of the beauties of the landscape probably contributed to the development of the village centre at the beginning of this century, when Crowborough was described by local estate agents as “Scotland in Sussex”.
Boys Firmin’s Guide, first published in the 1890’s emphasizes the beauties of the situation and the surrounding countryside. “Nature has been very bountiful in Crowborough. Placed on one of the most elevated ridges in the County of Sussex, it commands extensive panoramic views, being surrounded by valleys and hills richly beautiful in form and colour”.
In prehistoric times these hills and valleys were densely forested. However, recent research suggests that the forest was not as impenetrable as was once thought. Mesolithic and Neolithic tools have been found in considerable numbers in surrounding parishes. Concentrations of these tools show that there was some settled occupation, and rock shelters have been excavated in Tunbridge Wells, and High Hurstwood. The only flint implements recorded from within the parish boundary are a Neolithic fabricator discovered during alterations to Crowborough Rugby Club and a small scraper and some flint flakes, waste products of flint working, from close to Allfreys Farm.
Excavations at an iron-age hill fort at Garden Hill, Hartfield, show the inhabitants to have been readily influenced by the Roman invaders; their traditional round houses were replaced by the 2nd Century A.D. by a rectangular villa building with an adjoining stone-built bath house. Garden Hill appears to have been a management centre for small iron-smelting furnaces in the area. There is a similar hill fort at Saxonbury Hill, Frant.
These early iron smelting furnaces were known as Bloomery furnaces, the iron being formed in an impure mass, known as bloom, inside the furnace.
An important Roman Road, the London-Lewes way crosses Ashdown Forest, its alignment from the Five Hundred Acre Wood towards Camp Hill being the nearest to Crowborough. This road was probably constructed for the purpose of distributing the products of local iron works. Sections of the road in the Weald are surfaced with Bloomery slag. Many Roman iron-working sites are known in the vicinity and work by the Wealden Iron Research Group has shown sites of differing importance, large complexes probably controlled by the Roman authorities such as Oldlands at Heron Ghyll, and smaller sites serving local needs. A number of small Bloomery sites exist within the parish boundaries in Jefferies Wood, near Redbridge Farm and at Steel Cross but none has been defiantly attributed to the Roman Period. The use of Bloomery furnaces continued until the introduction of water powered blast furnaces in the 15th century , and therefore some of the local sites could be medieval, Iron age, Roman and medieval have been evacuated just outside the parish in Minefield Wood, Rotherfield. A minor Roman road following the line of Rotherfield-Withyham parish boundary for part of its route, appears to link the Roman site with the London-Lewes way.
Crowborough was, until 1905, part of the ancient parish of Rotherfield and its early history cannot be divorced from the history of Rotherfield itself. The original church was constructed in the 8th century. In 1868 the railway between Groombridge and Uckfield was opened, the station, at Jarvis brook, being originally named Rotherfield but later changed to Crowborough and Jarvis Brook. Eleven years later in 1879, Joseph Firth established brickwork’s at Jarvis Brook. The development of Crowborough was gathering momentum.
Dr. Prince who lived at the Observatory in Beacon Road contributed towards development of Crowborough as a health resort. In his book ‘Crowborough Hill’, he states that the cases of diseases of the respiratory organs, nervous depression, languor and debility of the systems ‘it will be found… that the delightful and extensive scenery, the open, airy and vivifying atmosphere, abounding in ozone, together with a numerous retinue of the natural attractions in the vicinity, all contribute to secure to the visitor that measure of health which follows the due co-operation of an active body with a cheerful and contended mind.
The district’s reputation as a health resort brought one of Crowborough’s most distinguished residents to stay for the benefit of his failing health. Richard Jefferies , the naturalist and author, came to Crowborough in 1885, staying first at Jarvis Brook and later at The Downs, London Road. Some of his most beautiful essays were written during his stay here. Sadly, the improvement in his health that was apparent at first was not sustained and he moved once again to Worthing where he died, at the early age of 39, in 1887. The Beacon Hotel was built to accommodate those who came to enjoy the scenery and benefit their health and the Crowborough Beacon Golf club was formed in 1895 to help them to develop the active bodies needed to combine with cheerfulness and contentment to provide good health! Following these early developments in the community, the Civil Parish of Crowborough was formed in 1905. In 1907 another distinguished author came to live here. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of the immortal Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, lived at Windlesham until his death in 1930. The last twenty years have seen massive housing development within the parish, the tiny Victorian hamlets of Jarvis Brook, Whitehill, Alderbrook and Poundfield having given way to the town of Crowborough. The surrounding countryside still gives the same pleasure that it gave to Richard Jefferies over one hundred years ago. ‘A thousand acres of purple heath sloping towards the sun, deep valleys of dark heather; further slopes beyond of purple, more valleys of heather – the heather shows more in the sunlight, and heather darkens the shadow of the hollows – and so on and on, mile after mile, till the heath-bells seem to end in the sunset.