Haywards Heath in West Sussex is probably best known for being followed by the words ‘where this train will then divide’ in announcements on the London-to-Brighton line. A commuter town more or less from the beginning (it sprang up around the railway station, which opened in 1841), it’s a boxy settlement with a determinedly dowdy high street and a giant Sainsbury’s on a former cattle market site to serve the socially atomised exurbia surrounding it. Once it had a certain reputation locally on account of the Sussex County Asylum, later known as St Francis Hospital, on Colwell Road. Robert Hounsome, a Brighton-born journalist, writes electrifyingly in his autobiography: ‘In late 1929 my sisters let slip a family secret; my father had been “in Haywards Heath”.’ But long before 1999, when the asylum was made over as a luxury development, the place was mostly celebrated as ‘the average sized town between London and Brighton on the A272’, as it’s styled on thisishaywardsheath.com.
Ignoring the jokers behind that website, which also offers an evocative pictorial tour, Haywards Heath seems happy to be seen that way. Though it has its share of celebrity connections, being the hometown of two members of Suede and the actor who played Doctor Who’s sidekick Adric, it isn’t the sort of place that seeks the limelight. It’s mentioned a few times in Patrick Hamilton’s novels, but without the mysterious implications he attaches to, say, Hassocks, and among contemporary writers only Julian Barnes shows a persistent interest in it. In Metroland a teenage character maintains that London’s sexual energy ‘gradually dissipated as you moved away from the metropolis, until, by the time you got to Hitchin and Wendover and Haywards Heath, people had to look up books to find out what went where.’ Barnes’s introduction to Clive James’s Reliable Essay also mentions the possibility that a published review-essay ‘may draw only a green-ink letter from Haywards Heath’. The important point is that, even in the context of a punchline, the town has a reticent, downbeat quality: it doesn’t mind being overshadowed by places like Bognor, Godalming and Basingstoke.
I grew up near Haywards Heath and, in December, bought some toothpaste and razor blades in the Boots on South Road. So it was with a mixture of alarm and deep-rooted local knowledge that I read what a Twitter user from the Daily Telegraph called a ‘great scoop from the Mid Sussex Times on the pharmaceutical industry’, published on the Middy’s website on Monday:
Early shoppers at Boots in South Road, Haywards Heath, found the store closed this morning.
A sign on the door said: “Due to unforseen circumstances we do not have a pharmacist at present and so are unable to open this store.
“The store will open as soon as a locum pharmacist arrives, unfortunately we don’t yet know what time this will be.
“We apologise for any inconvenience caused and thank our customers for their patience.” The store later opened.
My alarm was caused by the spectre raised in the opening sentence – that the Boots might have gone the way of Mr Video up the road, a great place to rent Beverly Hills Cop in the 1980s that’s now, I think, a fast food joint. Local knowledge suggested that toothpaste and razor blades might be had from the Co-Op (next door but one to Boots), though it’s a fractionally longer walk from the Mid Sussex Times’s office (nine doors down in the other direction).
Further research by the more than 46,000 people who’d come across the story on social media by Wednesday established that this isn’t the first time early shoppers have been inconvenienced. There’s also been some slipping of journalistic standards: an older report – published in 2011 under the headline ‘Haywards Heath shop reopens after “lack of pharmacist”’ – has telling quotes from both a ‘disgruntled customer’ (‘who did not want to be named’, however) and a spokeswoman for Boots (the branch ‘is licensed as a pharmacy and it would be illegal to trade in the absence of a pharmacist’).
In the meantime, the West Sussex County Times took what appeared to be a parodic swipe at its neighbour, and I began to feel concerned about how my hometown would cope with the unexpected attention. I needn’t have worried: the ensuing ‘tremor through Twitter and web fans’, as doggedly reported by the Middy, was, in its way, true to the spirit of the place (the story ‘made page 3 of a national freebie’). By yesterday the paper was back to doing what it does best: revealing that Davy Jones of the Monkees ‘lived for several years in the Forest Row area, about eight miles from Haywards Heath, where he enjoyed his love of horse riding and was popular with locals.’