Daniel Defoe relished eating ‘delicious’ Sussex songbirds

In 1724 Daniel Defoe described Arundel as a decayed town. He was more charitable about the fish in the Arun, hailing the rivers mullet as the biggest and best in England.

Last week we accompanied “Robinson Crusoe” author Daniel Defoe on a journey through the east of Sussex made in 1724 in the course of researching a series of books with the collective title “A Tour Thro’ the Whole Island of Great Britain”.

Now we follow his progress westwards. Before embarking on this though I thought I would share his observations on our avian population. As will become clear, the author was clearly writing from the perspective of a gourmet rather than an ornithologist: “They have here an abundance of wildfowl such as pheasant, partridge, woodcock, snipe, quails, also duck and mallard. Particularly they have from the South Downs, the bird called a wheatear or alternatively, the English Ortolan, the most delicious taste that can be imagined for a creature of one mouthful, for ‘tis little more.”

I love to see wild birds alive and singing and definitely not laid out on my dining table, so Defoe’s taste for songbirds horrifies. However, even today in France, songbirds remain a gourmet dish where the birds are drowned in Armagnac prior to cooking. Diners traditionally cover their heads with a large napkin. Perhaps in shame?

Defoe continues his journey: “From Lewes, following the South Downs west, we ride in view of the sea, to Bright Helmston, a poor fishing town, old built, and on the very shore. From here the fishermen go to Yarmouth, Norfolk, to the fishing fair there, and hire themselves profitably for the season to catch herrings.

“The sea is very unkind to (Brighton) and has by its continual encroachments, so gained upon them, that in a little time more they might expect it would eat up the whole town, above 100 houses having been devoured by the water in a few years past; they now must beg money all over England, to raise banks against the water. The expense is £8,000, a sum that would seem to be more than all the houses in it are worth.”

Defoe goes on: “From hence, still keeping the coast close, we come to Shoreham, a seafaring town inhabited by carpenters, chandlers, and all the trades depending upon the building and fitting up of ships.”

Next stop was Arundel: “A decayed town also but standing near the mouth of a good river. The principal advantage from the River Arun is the enabling of the shipping of great quantities of much esteemed timber east by sea to the Thames and the Medway and also westward to Portsmouth and even Plymouth for the business of the navy. In this river are also catch’d the best mullets, the largest in England, and a fish much valued by the gentry.”

Defoe describes the countryside between Arundel and Chichester as the “most pleasant and beautiful in England, whether we go by the hill, that is the Downs, or by the plain. From west, the country becomes less woody, and there begin to show their heads above the trees, a great many fine seats of the nobility of the country, such as the Duke of Richmond’s seat at Goodwood.”

In Defoe’s opinion the cathedral at Chichester is not the finest in England, but “is far from being the most ordinary. The spire is a piece of excellent workmanship, but it received such a shock some years ago, that it was next to miraculous, that the whole steeple did not fall down; which if it had, would almost have demolished the whole church.

“The inhabitants say it was a fireball but to speak in the language of nature, lightning broke upon the steeple, and such was the irresistible force of it, that it drove several great stones out of the steeple, and carry’d them clear off. They were found a prodigious distance away, so that they must have been shot out of the steeple, as if they had been shot out of a cannon.

“One of these stones of at least a ton weight, by estimation, was blown beyond a row of houses in the West-Street, and fell on the ground at a gentleman’s door; another of them almost as big was blown into the same gentleman’s garden, at whose door the other stone lay, and no hurt was done by either of them; whereas if either of those stones had fallen upon the strongest built house in the street, it would have dash’d it all to pieces, even to the foundation. The breach made in the spire was so large, that as the workmen said to me, a coach and six horses might have driven through it; yet the steeple stood fast, and is now repaired to what it was before, an admirably sound and well finished piece of workmanship.”

Defoe would have had no idea that 140 years later that same spire would suffer a catastrophic and unexplained total collapse!

Finally, the author recounts a little local folklore: “They have a story in Chichester, that when ever a bishop of that diocese is to die, a heron comes and perches upon the cathedral’s spire. This accordingly happen’d, when Dr. Williams was bishop. A butcher standing outside his shop in South Street saw the heron and ran in for his gun, and being a good marksman shot the bird, and kill’d it, at which his mother was very angry with him, and said he had kill’d the bishop.

“Next day news arrived that Dr. Williiams was indeed dead.”

The clergyman in question was Bishop John Williams who died suddenly in London in 1709. Daniel Defoe himself died in 1731.

Besides his many books his legacy includes this worthy quotation: “It is better to have a lion at the head of an army of sheep than a sheep at the head of an army of lions.”

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