by Chris Barfield
Why are we here?
Back in 1947, Crawley was chosen as the site for one of Britain's 'New Towns', to provide homes and
jobs in the post-war years. Crawley was then just a small market town. The idea was to develop a series of neighbourhoods, each with its own shopping centre, plus a main industrial area. People and industries moved down from London and elsewhere - and many of them and their children are still here.
Housing development began in West Green, close to the town centre, then Gossops Green, Langley Green, Furnace Green, Tilgate and Pound Hill followed. These were all Council housing to provide homes for the growing industrial workforce. In the 1970's, Broadfield and Bewbush were added. Meanwhile, Gatwick airport continued to grow, providing more jobs.
In 1978 the M23 was completed, giving easy access to London and the rest of the country via the M25.
This left an isolated triangle of poor quality farmland between the motorway, the railway and Pound Hill. The Crawley Borough boundary was later extended to include this triangle.
In the 1980's, Gatwick's second terminal was completed, and the M25 was now also complete, providing access to the whole motorway network. Crawley was therefore a prime target for new homes..
In 1986, the Council agreed to a 13th neighbourhood on the triangle between the motorway and the railway. This time, it was to be mostly private housing, and a consortium of developers was formed. The consortium agreed to contribute towards the infrastructure, including road improvements at Three Bridges, a a new motorway junction, and community facilities.
In 1986 the farmland was bought by compulsory purchase from the Covey family, who had been farming it for over 30 years. The price was not disclosed, but was estimated at over 30 million pounds. The headlines at the time ran something like 'Millionaires overnight'! Building began in 1988.
Why is it called Maidenbower?
Before development, two farms occupied the area - Frogshole and Maidenbower. Maidenbower was chosen as the name for the new neighbourhood, probably because it sounds nicer than Frogshole!
The origin of the name 'Maidenbower' is a bit more difficult to trace. In the days before most people could write, place names were handed down by word of mouth, before eventually being written down. For instance, 'Frogshole' was probably originally 'Foxhole', which would make more sense.
'Bower' is an old word for a farmstead or place to live, or it could be a corruption of 'byre' (a cowshed). The old meaning of 'Maiden' was 'virgin or young woman', so it could mean a piece of virgin land previously uncultivated, or land given as part of a dowry. On the other hand, it could just be another corruption, perhaps of 'midden', meaning place where cattle urinate. 'Maiden' and 'Bower' are not very common in place names, though Maidenhead (Berkshire) and Maiden Lane in Crawley are two examples. In the end, we don't know for sure, we can only guess.
Maidenbower Farm itself was situated roughly on the roundabout which now joins Matthews, Maidenbower and Billinton Drives. There is still a signpost in Furnace Green on the far side of the tunnel under the railway, advising that the track leads to Maidenbower Farm only, though nothing of the farm remains.
There may be an even simpler explanation. There is an old legend in the Dunstable area telling of a queen who made a wager with the king that she could camp a whole army inside an ox hide. To win the bet, she cut the hide into strips, joined them together, and got her handmaidens to form a circle to lay them on the grass. The army was then able to march into the circle, which became known as the Maiden Bower. This legend may have spread to other parts of the country.
What was here before that?
The farmland on which Maidenbower was built was originally part of the parish of Worth. This makes it more difficult to trace it's history, because any records of the area that still survive tend to concentrate on Crawley itself. The building of the London-Brighton railway and the branch line to East Grinstead in the 1800's firmly established Crawley's eastern boundary and served to further isolate the area on the other side of the line. Only the closure of the East Grinstead line in the 1960's paved the way for it to be opened up.
Cereals and cattle were the main farming activities, but ironworks were important in this part of Sussex since Roman times. A supply of running water was needed for this industry, and also a plentiful supply of wwod to stoke the furnaces. The network of streams in the area and the extensive woodland made it an ideal site. Furnace Green takes its name from this, and there were forges at Worth and Blackwater (now in Pound Hill) as well. The local blacksmith still survives on the Balcombe Road, though his work is now very different from what it was in the past! There were corn mills too, of course - running water was needed for them too. The streams feed into the River Mole, which runs through Surrey to the Thames.
Is there anything still left?
There's a surprising amount of Maidenbower's history you can still see today.
Mentioned from at least 1540, the main farmhouse has been converted into the local pub. Many of the original features are still there, despite extensive alteration. The original entrance was from Balcombe Road, not Maidenbower Drive.
The old railway line from Three Bridges to East Grinstead is now a footpath, separating Maidenbower from the older Pound Hill development. In the 1960's, many rural branch railway lines were closed, leaving bus services to fill the gaps. A few of the old lines have been revived - the Bluebell Line is a famous local example. The rest remain as local footpaths and cycleways.
Many of the old farm paths have been kept, and the old style wooden signs reintroduced to emphasise this. In most rural areas, these old signs have rotted away and been replaced with metal ones. The footpaths tend to follow the lines of the streams and old field boundaries. The trees, hedges and undergrowth alongside them have been left undisturbed wherever possible, providing a valuable habitat for the wildlife which would have been abundant on the old farmland.
Worth a visit!
The old village of Worth is a short walk away across the Balcombe Road. The church is one of the most interesting Saxon churches in the country, over 1000 years old, and there are many sources of information about it. The spire is just visible from parts of Maidenbower, but it's still surprisingly difficult to find, hidden between tall trees. The village's old buildings have been preserved, but there are no shops or other services.
The developers have included period features into many of the houses, to imitate the different building styles that would have developed over the years in an old community.
Wooden beams and diamond windowpanes would have been found in the earliest buildings (you can find these in the Frogshole Farm pub).
Hanging tiles are common in later buildings in the local area, and flint facing is very common around the North and South Downs where flints are plentiful.
You'll also notice the sash windows and porches of Victorian style homes.
Maidenbower's 'logo', the belltower feature, can be seen
on several buildings, including in the village centre.
Originally it would have been a school or small church
belltower. Today it's just for decoration and to remind
us of the past.
Can you find any others?