With its quaint tearooms, lovingly restored ‘Bluebell’ steam railway and England’s longest row of 14th-century half-timbered buildings, East Grinstead would seem to be the quintessential English market town.
It’s a place where tourists stop to see the historic sights after visiting one of West Sussex’s stately homes. Where neighbours chat to one another in the streets. Where the only whiff of scandal came in 1973, when Alan Ayckbourn chose it as the setting for a dirty weekend in his triology of plays The Norman Conquests.
In other words, a tastefully normal place.
Do not be deceived. As we discover in an acclaimed new six-part podcast — devised by a writer who was raised in this town of 30,000 divergent souls — East Grinstead, which lies 27 miles south of London, is anything but normal.
For this quaint little outpost has become the sect capital of Britain — our answer to Twin Peaks, the logging town in the 1990s American TV drama, where strange folk settle and weird things tend to happen.
Once a bastion of Anglicanism, in recent years it has become a magnet for esoteric sects and quasi‑religious fringe groups.
Pictured: A general view of a street in East Grinstead, West Sussex. With its quaint tearooms, lovingly restored ‘Bluebell’ steam railway and England’s longest row of 14th-century half-timbered buildings, East Grinstead would seem to be the quintessential English market town
They range from Scientologists and Mormons to more obscure organisations such as the Rosicrucians, an esoteric spiritual and cultural movement that dates back to the 17th century, and Opus Dei, the arcane Catholic faction that spawned a fictitious murderous albino monk in Dan Brown’s bestseller The Da Vinci Code.
But the town has attracted other outlandish types, too.
Druids who are said to dance naked at dead of night in the nearby forest. Satanists. Pagans who believe the earth on which East Grinstead was built conceals a network of ‘ley lines’ that emit waves of spiritual energy.
It is precisely because the town has rather an ‘uncanny feel’, as he puts it, that Nick Hilton, 27, made the gripping podcast while stuck at home during lockdown.
‘It’s such a fascinating place because it has all these amazing religions and belief systems, yet on the face of it is so middle-class, conservative and conformist,’ he told me.
‘Walking down the High Street, with its medieval buildings and tearooms, you’ll see these Hollywood perma-tanned Scientologists and Mormons.
Saint Hill Manor, European Headquarters of the Church of Scientology near East Grinstead, West Sussex in a 1998 file photo. They range from Scientologists and Mormons to more obscure organisations such as the Rosicrucians, an esoteric spiritual and cultural movement that dates back to the 17th century, and Opus Dei, the arcane Catholic faction that spawned a fictitious murderous albino monk in Dan Brown’s bestseller The Da Vinci Code
‘It’s that contrast that makes it so interesting. There’s this Stepford Wives sense of nothing being quite as it seems.’
Nick says he was awakened to East Grinstead’s oddness as a boy, when he played for the rugby club whose grounds back on to the Scientologists’ 60-acre estate, Saint Hill, which was the organisation’s worldwide HQ for some years after it was bought from an Indian maharajah in 1959. It is still the Scientologists’ national HQ.
‘If the ball went over the wall, you would have to ask an adult to fetch it because there was this underlying sense of suspicion — a feeling that over that wall lay something weird and sinister.’
Saint Hill is just one of the large estates around the town that have been bought by religious orders, whose members have segued seamlessly into the community, investing in offices, shops and houses.
According to the Scientologists, about 1,000 members live there and some 50 run local businesses: a sizeable proportion in such a small town.
When I asked Tory-dominated East Grinstead Town Council to provide more details about the activities of the Scientologists and other groups, they did not respond. But, as I was warned repeatedly on my visit this week, in East Grinstead such matters are seldom discussed openly.
As one woman put it: ‘You could be standing in the supermarket queue, talking to someone who dresses up in funny clothes and takes part in strange rituals, but you would never know it. This is a place where people don’t pry.’
Her summation was reinforced when I called in at East Grinstead’s museum. It contains tributes to the town’s notable figures: hymn-writer John Mason Neale, who composed the Christmas carol Good King Wenceslas here; and eccentric astronomer Sir Patrick Moore, who grew up in the town and later brought galaxies into our living rooms as presenter of the BBC’s The Sky At Night.
Druids who are said to dance naked at dead of night in the nearby forest. (File photo of a druid ceremony)
There is also a poignant display remembering the work of Sir Archibald McIndoe, a pioneering World War II plastic surgeon who won acclaim for reconstructing the disfigured faces of RAF pilots who had suffered terrible burns when trapped in their blazing cockpits.
Yet there is nothing about the Church of Scientology, whose American founder, the science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard, moved to East Grinstead in 1958 and bought Saint Hill a year later.
With its replica medieval castle and magnificent rooms preserved exactly as they looked when Hubbard — who died in 1986 — was using his self-invented gadgets to ‘map the path of the human mind’ (and check whether tomatoes could feel pain), this is the Scientologists’ equivalent of Mecca or the Vatican.
Devotees converge on it from all over the globe, and Tom Cruise — the sect’s most famous follower — even bought a £4 million mansion near by for his regular visits. He sold it four years ago to singer Peter Andre but is rumoured to be house-hunting in the vicinity again.
Other notable Saint Hill pilgrims include John Travolta, who made headlines a few years ago when he tried (and failed) to book a table at East Grinstead’s branch of KFC.
There is no mention in the museum, either, of the Mormons, even though Wickenden Manor, just outside East Grinstead, which they bought 60 years ago from the Astor family, is the site of one the church’s grandest temples.
The town’s many other sects have been similarly ignored.
Why so, I asked the museum’s curator, Jonathan Parrett. After all, one need only tap the words ‘East Grinstead’ and ‘cult’ into Google to realise its renown as a centre for alternative beliefs.
‘It’s a conscious decision not to exhibit these figures. The museum is for the whole town and there’s an underlying need not to upset groups . . . because we’d be failing in our community spirit if 80 per cent of the town wouldn’t talk to us.’
He paused and added: ‘And it’s the nature of these organisations. They are, by their very nature, secretive.’
They certainly are. Arriving at the ‘London England Temple of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ (so named by the Mormons, even though it is nowhere near London), I was halted at the security barrier by an immaculately attired and scrupulously polite guard.
Might I be allowed to look around the sumptuous grounds? Nice try. He handed me an email address and watched intently while I made my exit.
According to Nick Hilton, ‘outsiders’ have been admitted on only two occasions: when the temple was consecrated in the late 1950s, and again when it was renovated during the 1990s.
Satanists and Pagans believe the earth on which East Grinstead was built conceals a network of ‘ley lines’ that emit waves of spiritual energy
Given that Mormonism is a religious movement with millions of members and could almost have produced a U.S president in Mitt Romney, this struck me as rather odd. There are no steely-eyed security guards at St Paul’s cathedral, after all.
Then again, not many religions would have the temerity to posthumously baptise the likes of Princess Diana, Elvis Presley and Michael Jackson.
My reception was similarly frosty at the Scientology complex. A guard with a clipboard registered my numberplate before waving me away. However, I did receive a link to a cheesy film made for the Scientology Network and narrated by a Hollywood-voiced American, which described how Saint Hill had become ‘a global icon’ set in enough acreage ‘to fit Buckingham Palace in twice’.
The film also made much of the Scientologists’ integration with the East Grinstead townsfolk. There was footage of the mayor attending a fete, and various dignitaries attested to the sect’s generosity towards local charities.
Doubtless this is true. But Nick Hilton’s podcast features the harrowing testimony of Charlotte Greenwood, who moved to East Grinstead as a child. Her father had become fascinated by Scientology, with its claim to hold the secret to unlocking one’s ‘higher self’.
Initiated at an early age, at first she was ‘love-bombed’, she says. But at 15 she was enrolled in a boot-camp where followers were made to ‘run everywhere’, forbidden from talking to outsiders or dining with their families, and underwent five hours of Scientology tuition daily.
Matters became worse after she admitted, during a group confessional, to having once tried a cannabis joint. To purge this sin, she claims, she ‘spent about a month locked in a room’.
Eventually Ms Greenwood fled Saint Hill and moved into a dingy flat with several other ‘outcasts’. However, she says it took her many years to accept that she had been indoctrinated with ‘bull****’.
She still lives in the locality. In fact, I was told there are a good many disentangled sect members in the town.
One woman, who asked not to be named, said she knew of a case in the 1980s where a disenchanted Scientologist had been helped to leave the movement by the former vicar at St Swithun’s, the imposing old Anglican church that overlooks the town centre.
But all this poses an intriguing question: why have all these unconventional interlopers planted their flags in East Grinstead?
Hilton’s aim is to come up with an answer. As the series progresses, he explores — with a healthy dose of scepticism — various theories, some more compelling than others. He ponders whether the town’s oddness is down to some geographical quirk. It does happen to stand directly on the Prime Meridian, the invisible line that divides the Eastern and Western hemispheres and stretches right round the globe, from North Pole to South.
It is marked by a slab of prehistoric rock and a plaque in the town council’s gardens — and if you stand there with legs astride, you can plant one foot on either side of the great divide.
Then there are the ley lines, a matter of some debate in these parts. Those who believe in such things — the dowsers, with their forked divining rods, and the geomancers, who look for patterns in the soil and rocks — are sure these aeons-old subterranean ridges exist.
Furthermore, they will tell you, the energy they generate is of great spiritual significance, influencing people’s behaviour and shaping momentous events.
East Grinstead has certainly experienced its fair share of such events down the years, some of them dark and chilling.
In 1556, three unrepentant Protestant martyrs were burnt on bonfires in the main street. Spencer Perceval, the only British Prime Minister to have been assassinated (in 1812), lived near by and was married at St Swithun’s.
PicturedL The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints in Newchapel, near East Grinstead. They certainly are. Arriving at the ‘London England Temple of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ (so named by the Mormons, even though it is nowhere near London), I was halted at the security barrier by an immaculately attired and scrupulously polite guard
In more recent times, a stray Nazi bomb fell on the town’s Whitehall Cinema, killing 108 innocents.
And in 1996, a macabre murder shone a spotlight on the goings-on behind the high walls surrounding the town’s grand residences.
The victim, wealthy computer company director Richard Watson, 55, was shot in the neck and chest as he climbed from his sports car at Larches Farmhouse, where he lived with his beautiful wife Linda, a former Miss Scotland runner-up.
Police initially accused Mrs Watson, who stood to inherit most of his estate, and her daughter Amanda of hiring a hitman to commit the murder. But the charges were dropped on the eve of the trial.
It was later alleged that Mr Watson had been a spy who passed information gleaned from his Eastern European business trips to MI6, the implication being that he may have been targeted by overseas agents.
Suspicion still later fell on a local antique dealer. But the case has never been solved and remains a subject for whispered speculation 24 years later.
Paranormal investigator Barry Depp says East Grinstead is also ‘very haunted’. There have long been rumours that the spectre of Anne Boleyn, Henry VIII’s beheaded second wife, has been seen in East Grinstead, where she once stayed. People have also claimed to see the ghost of a soldier who was shot in a pub cellar during World War I.
However, Mr Depp says he encountered another wraith last year — that of a woman who appeared in the garden of a house he was called to. When he and his team asked her to stop a dog barking, she even complied, he says.
It seems fanciful in the extreme to link murders and supposed hauntings with whatever has caused East Grinstead to become ‘Sect Town’. So Hilton examines a much more uplifting theory.
It centres on Archibald McIndoe, whose statue stands in the town centre, and who has a private wing named after him at the town’s Queen Victoria Hospital, where he performed his inventive plastic surgery on wartime pilots.
He not only strove to rebuild them physically but placed equal importance on raising their morale, determined that they must not be regarded as freaks and hidden away from society, but as heroes.
He, therefore, approached the townsfolk and urged them to invite the convalescing airmen into their homes, and to greet them unflinchingly when they shopped or drank in the pubs. He also found the men jobs and insisted they wear their uniforms with pride. His approach to their treatment was so experimental that the airmen dubbed themselves The Guinea Pig Club. They held reunions until 2007.
As the residents followed the surgeon’s wishes full-heartedly, taking the airmen into their midst, East Grinstead became known as The Town That Didn’t Stare. This is the title of the podcast.
You may be wondering what this has to do with the sect story. Well, Hilton asks whether the munificence of McIndoe (who would sometimes say God was guiding his hand when he performed his operations) has created a special aura around the town.
Perhaps an ambience of tolerance has somehow seeped into its fabric, making it the ideal haven for people who in other towns might be ridiculed or shunned.
In the end, Hilton concludes that this theory, although wonderfully ‘romantic’, is also fanciful. The likely reason why the sects have converged on East Grinstead is more prosaic.
Nestled in the scenic High Weald, it is replete with big country estates whose upkeep became unaffordable to their owners after the war, when the wealth of the aristocracy declined.
They were put up for sale — and dollar-rich alternative U.S churches that wanted to branch out into Britain snapped them up.
That they were suitably secluded and within easy reach of Gatwick airport and London added to their attraction.
Whatever the truth, the sects have enhanced certainly East Grinstead’s mystique. And if ever Martians do decide to visit us, they will know exactly where to land their spaceships.