It has been described as Britain’s strangest town and the real-life answer to Twin Peaks. But East Grinstead hardly exudes a sense of dreamlike Lynchian terror. Elegant 14th-Century buildings house bookshops and jewellers; butchers hawk burgers and sausages from market stalls; and friends cluster cheerfully outside cafes. The scene is one of pleasant gentility. It all seems so… normal.
Beneath the surface, however, this otherwise unremarkable Sussex market town is charged with an unlikely religious zeal. A disproportionate number of spiritual organisations have made their home here; some are ancient and some modern, some orthodox and others unconventional. One group in particular has generated more column inches than the rest.
On a forested hill to the south-west of town sits Saint Hill Manor, an attractive country house built in 1792 in the Late Georgian style. Saint Hill has had a colourful life, serving variously as the headquarters of a Christian mission and the home of the Maharaja of Jaipur. When the latter moved out in 1959, Saint Hill’s most famous inhabitant moved in: L Ron Hubbard, science fiction writer and founder of the Church of Scientology.
The estate served not only as Hubbard’s home but as Scientology’s worldwide headquarters until 1967. It is still owned by the Church, and, as is often the case in its enclaves around the world, zany stories abound. Tom Cruise has visited several times, and is even said to have chosen a wing of Saint Hill Manor as his lockdown sanctuary during the coronavirus pandemic, as reported in Tatler. Fellow A-list Scientologist John Travolta hit the headlines in 2011 when he tried – unsuccessfully – to book a table for his entourage at the local branch of Kentucky Fried Chicken. In 2013, local Sussex newspaper The Argus reported that three airline pilots saw “two saucer shaped silver discs” hovering in the vicinity of Saint Hill – apparently unconnected to nearby Gatwick Airport, where the pilots were coming in to land.
It’s not just Scientology making waves here, though. The mysterious Rosicrucians, a secret society that claims to guard a body of esoteric truths about the universe, maintain a palatial mock-Tudor lodge at nearby Greenwood Gate; while Opus Dei, a Catholic sect famous for wearing spiked chains and hair-shirts as an act of devotional self-mortification, host self-improvement retreats at the attractive Wickenden Manor.
Less unconventional, the British home of Mormonism lies a few miles north of East Grinstead at the impressive London England Temple, while Jehovah’s Witnesses and Christian Scientists have also set up shop in town.
Alternative ways of thinking start early in life around here. The Michael Hall School in nearby Forest Row was the first example in Britain of a Waldorf school, where pupils are taught based on Rudolf Steiner’s spiritual concept of anthroposophy, with a curriculum that focuses on emotional and artistic development. The area’s bevy of biodynamic farms, which use progressive composting preparations such as cow’s skulls stuffed with oak bark and quartz, are also based on Steiner’s teachings.
To the south of East Grinstead, a Battenberg blanket of neat green fields gives way to the hazel, chestnut and oak trees of Ashdown Forest. The forest is most famous as the inspiration and setting for Winnie the Pooh, whose creator, AA Milne, lived on the northern fringes of the woods and would walk there with his son, Christopher Robin. Milne’s legacy lives on here – Pooh Sticks Bridge, for example, runs across a stream in the woods and is the place where the author invented the eponymous Poohsticks game with his son – but Ashdown Forest harbours stranger, more intriguing secrets.
Whisperings of Wiccan rituals and druid gatherings in the woods are commonplace. “Druids and other pagans are sometimes to be found within the henges of the Scots pine groves at the top of the forest,” said Richard Creightmore, a geomancer who divines spiritual meaning from earth markings in Ashdown Forest.
The forest’s most bizarre occult episode, however, is rumoured to have taken place during World War Two, featuring a merry cast of warlocks, spies and Nazis. Cecil Williamson was a British screenwriter and prominent pagan who was hired by MI6 in 1938 to find out more about the apparent interest of senior Nazis in the occult. He conceived a propaganda exercise called Operation Mistletoe, which aimed to take advantage of the Nazis’ increasing fixation on the dark arts by staging a fake occult ritual in Ashdown Forest. The hope was that it would damage Nazi morale if they believed that supernatural forces were working against them.
It’s east England’s answer to Glastonbury
The ceremony is said to have involved berobed Canadian soldiers dancing around burning effigies of Hitler and his colleagues. If it sounds like something from a James Bond film, perhaps that’s no surprise; according to biographer Mark Simmons, Ian Fleming was said to have been in attendance. While the exact details of Williamson’s ceremony may never be known, it is known that Ashdown Forest was the site of Aspidistra, a radio mast used to transmit this kind of wartime “black propaganda”. The site is now a Sussex Police training facility.
So what is it about East Grinstead? Some of the locals will tell you the answer lies beneath the earth in the form of powerful ley lines and their intersection with the Greenwich Meridian, which passes through the centre of town. “We lie here at the intersection of the High Weald sandstone ridges – whose quartz crystalline structure enhances cognitive clarity – with the Greenwich Meridian,” said Creightmore. “Lots of good stuff has happened all along the meridian, as well as in the High Weald,” he added, “but the esoteric spirituality appears to be most concentrated at the conjunction of both, in the hub around East Grinstead and Forest Row.”
Even for the more mystically minded, though, this theory can be a little hard to swallow. Davina MacKail, a teacher of shamanism and feng shui, told me: “I believe the energy surrounding the East Grinstead area is enhanced by the ancient woodlands. There has been much reported about its plethora of ley lines, but I think the real reason for its attraction to weird religious sects has more to do with its close proximity to London, and the fact that since the Scientologists moved in in the late 1960s people accept alternative lifestyles here. It’s east England’s answer to Glastonbury. People can carry out their alternative practices in peace and find support within the local community.”
Other locals agree that the answer is more prosaic. “East Grinstead has traditionally been a meeting place over the millennia,” said the town’s tourism officer Dawn Spalding. “People met here, travelling along droving lanes to sell their wares. It was seen as quite a safe place to be.” Father Gaskin, of the Church of Our Lady and St Peter, explained it in even less romantic terms in the 1994 documentary Why East Grinstead?, claiming: “People have gravitated to this part of the world because of Gatwick Airport.”
Certainly the area’s proximity to London, coupled with its abundance of stately homes with far-reaching views over the High Weald, makes it attractive to moneyed types of a bohemian bent. Saint Hill Manor, the reason the Scientologists came in the first place, is just one of these; another is Hammerwood Park to the east of town, an elegantly crumbling Greek Revival pile once owned by Led Zeppelin. The comparison to Glastonbury’s boho brand of gentrification is apt; the fact that the area around East Grinstead and Forest Row is celebrated both for its biodynamic farms and its world-class golf course rather sums up the spirit of the place.
One episode in East Grinstead’s history, though, predates the arrival of L Ron Hubbard and sheds more light on the town’s character than any wild theory about unconventional religions and supernatural energy. During World War Two, the town’s Queen Victoria Hospital was the site of pioneering plastic surgery by Sir Archibald McIndoe, a New Zealander employed by the Royal Air Force. McIndoe’s innovations in the field of cosmetic surgery (his speciality was the “McIndoe nose”) became foundational to the field and gave a new lease of life to dozens of airmen who had suffered horrific burns and other injuries in combat.
They were told not to stare and it has become ingrained
His medical expertise, however, was matched by an understanding of his patients’ mental health that was decades ahead of its time. He did away with the clinical outfits traditionally worn by recovering patients – known, appropriately, as the Hospital Blues – and allowed the airmen to wear their own clothes instead. McIndoe formed a support group for them – which was christened, in the tradition of wartime gallows humour, the Guinea Pig Club – and set about ensuring that East Grinstead would be a tolerant and welcoming home during their rehabilitation. Encouraging those who were well enough to venture out into town, he implored the local residents to make them feel at ease – and they obliged so readily that East Grinstead became known as “the town that didn’t stare”.
“The work to rebuild the shattered minds of the badly burned airmen required East Grinstead people to accept the men with all their disfigurements without drawing attention to them,” explained Spalding. “They were told not to stare and it has become ingrained; many famous people come to town and shop quite happily without fear of being disturbed.”
The area’s attraction to well-heeled buyers in pursuit of peace and quiet shows no signs of abating; in 2017, Adele became the latest megastar to lay down roots here, in a Grade II-listed manor house. It seems that now, just as in the days of Archibald McIndoe and his Guinea Pigs, East Grinstead is a town that knows when to look away. It’s no wonder people of all stripes feel so at home here.
If you liked this story, sign up for the weekly bbc.com features newsletter called “The Essential List”. A handpicked selection of stories from BBC Future, Culture, Worklife and Travel, delivered to your inbox every Friday.