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A guide to Alfriston
And the Long Man of Wilmington
By Alex Askaroff

Most of us know the name Singer but few are aware of his amazing life story, his rags to riches journey from a little runaway to one of the richest men of his age. The story of Isaac Merritt Singer will blow your mind, his wives and lovers his castles and palaces all built on the back of one of the greatest inventions of the 19th century. For the first time the most complete story of a forgotten giant is brought to you by Alex Askaroff.

 

 

 

 

 

 

                Alex I Askaroff

 

Alex has spent a lifetime in the industry and is considered one of the foremost experts of pioneering machines and their inventors. He has written extensively for trade magazines, radio, television, books and publications world wide.

 

Al’s Alfriston Guide

Take a trip with me around one of the most beautiful places on earth.

I wonder if you have ever thought about the word -breathtaking? It is one of the words that I occasionally use to describe a place. I do not use the word lightly, it is one of the words that I hold in highest esteem. I use it when I am describing somewhere that really does take your breath away. A place where you stop, stand and stare. A place where, for a few seconds, you really do stop breathing.

 

I am blessed that the area where I was born has several of these places. Places that are simply magical in their quality. We all know places that are like that, some are world famous like the Grand Canyon, Victoria Falls or the Pyramids at Giza. Some can be just around the corner from your home and are magical to you. There are also times of day, sights and sounds that are magical. Sunrise and sunset, a full moon over the ocean, dawn over a desert, the Northern Lights, a shooting star, a warm wind through a field of ripe grain, rain after a hot dry spell and a thousand more, all priceless.

 

After I finished book two in the Random Threads trilogy Skylark Country, a publisher Nicholas Battle from Countryside Books, asked me if I would like to write a travel guide for him about East Sussex. I thought about it for a long time while writing this book and then an idea came to me. I thought, why don’t I write about one of my favourite journeys around my area and see how you like it. I may well write the travel guide. After all, it is not often that a publisher of such esteem comes to your house and asks you to write a book!

 

So, after much consideration, I decided to describe a journey from my local giant, the Long Man of Wilmington that I have mentioned many times, to just beyond the village of Alfriston. A short journey of some 4 miles or so that takes in the most breathtaking scenery in East Sussex and a lot of history to boot. This piece will be quite long but broken up into sections and mainly descriptive. You know what they say, the Devil is in the details. I hope you enjoy it. Anyway, I won’t give up my day job just yet!

 

Wilmington

 

To start off we are going to walk from The Giant’s Rest, a great country pub just off the A27 that is the Lewes to Eastbourne road, to the pretty Sussex church of St Mary & St Peter. It is a wonderful walk on a quiet day, through the village of Wilmington, a village that has changed little in centuries. Wilmington gets its name from a Saxon that settled and farmed the land called Wilma—now that name sounds familiar—Wilma I’m home! Hey, how did Hollywood get hold of his name?

 

The narrow village road is one of the most picturesque in my part of Sussex. Although all the old traders of earlier years have long gone, the cottage names sometimes point to the trades that were carried out there. Bakers, blacksmiths, butchers and candlestick makers. The road still has its drainage ditch, running along side the houses, where you would slop out your undesirable waste each day. It is a real joy to walk along the shaded street looking at all the lovely country houses and cottages.

 

Many ghost stories abound in this area and it would not be too hard to imagine some ghostly figure floating along this old lane late at night. One ghost was said to be that of an old, one-legged, sailor who was supposed to haunt the road. Many times his wooden leg has been heard clonking along the cobbled street after dark but, when people would go to look no one was there. Then there is, of course, the traditional old lady who is supposed to glide along through the gardens following spectre-like images into the night. All these old stories were probably made up by mothers to make sure their children were in before dark and home in time for supper.

 

Mind you, I say that but one of my customers, who lives in the shadow of the old Priory, has had several unexplained encounters with the ghost of a young girl. In fact, one day the ghost became so annoying, what with all the locking of doors and the turning of pages in her books that she shouted at the ghost to grow up and stop fooling around. It must have upset the young girl for she has not been to visit since.

 

St Mary and St Peter

The beautiful flint church of St Mary and St Peter was built around the 12th century right next to a Benedictine priory known as Wilmington Priory. The priory was one of the casualties of Henry V's wrath. Although the priory survived from the 13th to the 15th century, it finally fell into ruin. Many priories suffered at the hands of our kings, especially Henry VIII. This was because they held tremendous lands and thus power over the common people. In the olden days, land was not just wealth but power. All wealth came from the land. For the Stock Market and white-collar workers in huge cities it would have been the stuff of dreams. He who controlled the land controlled the country. So Henry decided to gain control by the simple task of flattening all opposition. A ruthless but successful tactic. Hence, our poor Benedictine monks fled back to Normandy and the priory was destroyed. The few buildings and flint walls that remain are testament to those turbulent political times and to the quality of building techniques. The dilapidated walls that once resounded to the rejoicing of monks, now provide shelter for pigeons.

 

The pretty little church is such a sight to behold. Nestling in a small coppice of woodland almost unseen from the road. There will be many books that tell you all about what was built, when and by whom. What I want you to see is the charm and peace of the place. Inside there is a feeling of quiet rest, of harmony and great age. It is easy to imagine how many couples walked up the aisle, starting their married life together. The bride would be wearing a garland of flowers picked from the hedgerows and fields outside. The bridegroom, with a glowing smile, would wrap his arm in hers and walk the short walk to the doorway while all the villagers, young and old, cheered and clapped. The happy couple would be showered with flower petals as they made their way to the local pub for food and drink and dancing late into the night.

 

If you ever visit the church, take a second to stop and think about the people who lived here. How many times would all of the local community have come together in times of joy and grief? Think about all the priests that would have knelt before the altar to give praise for a good harvest or a long life. Wonder how many times the church bell would have been tolled to summon everyone to prayer? The church was the centre of village life. As I have said many times, communities would revolve around the main focal points of village life like the church and the pub.

In Wilmington you are walking through history. Stepping in the footsteps of old Sussex folk and seeing what they would have seen. They are but shadows and dust now but their toil, their work in the fields and along the hedgerows, their presence in the buildings and landscape is still here for all to enjoy. Take a moment to stand in silence. Walk outside amongst the gravestones and read out the names of villagers, like Ade who probably would have travelled, in their entire lives, no more distant than to the markets at Hailsham or Lewes. Those villagers knew little of the outside world but everything about the area in which they lived and died. They were in tune with the seasons and ran their lives by the daily rising and setting of the sun. Amongst all of this, in the centre of Wilmington village life, was this little church.

In the church graveyard is a magnificent yew tree. Possibly the oldest in the country. It has stood there since well before King Harold was slain at Hastings in 1066. It stands with outstretched limbs sagging. Like an old man resting on crutches it just manages to keep upright.

The tree has known more than a thousand years of recorded history. I wonder what sights it has seen and what graves have been dug beneath those aching limbs. It keeps its secrets. Did it not cry out as the gravedigger’s spade caught those strong roots as he cut into the fertile soil to lay another local to rest? Old and tired it stands, guarding the souls of the departed. It is part of our pagan heritage that has been allowed to continue into Christian times and legend has it the limbs help guide the spirits of the departed to the afterlife.

Out the back of the churchyard is a magnificent view of the Sussex Weald. The view is a slice of heaven. If you take a deep breath you can smell the Sussex air and taste the rich soil. Great isn’t it? I once bumped into an old man that had come all the way from Canada to see the place where his dear departed wife had spent her childhood. He was sitting on a stone bench just behind the graveyard all on his own. Typically, I was sneaking around the back of the church with a meat pastie that I had bought from Polegate and was looking for somewhere tranquil to enjoy it. 

He told me that he had to come and see the place that his wife had described with such love and passion. They had always planned to return together but fate had intervened. He was so happy to meet me as I could tell him where all the places were that she had mentioned. We ended up sitting for an hour on the hard seat sharing my pastie and reminiscing on life. Meetings like those with complete strangers who, just for a brief second, share their life with you are so fascinating.  

 

The Long Man of Wilmington

Six miles north-west of Eastbourne, Ordinance Survey TQ543034. Looked after by the Archaeological Society since 1925 after it was gifted by the Duke of Devonshire and painted regularly by the Long Man Morris men. Right, that's enough of the tech stuff I remember the Scouts painting him.

I am going to take you up the small hill past the remains of the old Priory to what is now a car park. This is where we get the best view of our white giant clothed in green. After living near him and visiting him all my life I will tell you everything I have ever learnt about the mystical old man of the downs. Don’t be scared he does not bite! He always looks his best with the afternoon sun on him. What is his name I hear you ask? He is now called The Long Man of Wilmington. What his real name was has been lost through the folds of time.

What we know of our local giant is scatty to say the least. There are a hundred different theories that have come up over the years. The first documentation of him comes from an illustration from 1710 and what a different character he was, hair, eyes, armed with tools and a beard.

So we must ask ourselves is he older than that? Because of the regular maintenance of his outline over the years it is impossible to date him using traditional carbon dating. Also, in the summer of early 1870's the Archaeological Trust decided to enhance his outline with white painted bricks and re-cut his outline. Did they enhance or change it? Reading University have dated him to around 1545 but it is all really educated speculation?

I mean you could date finds from around the Giant to Bronze, Iron, Roman or just about any age. Because what we see is not original but inspired and built over the original, it is educated guess work.

Don't get upset I am only giving my opinion...Something of interest is that at the base of The Old Man there are several hand-cut chalk blocks scattered around. they are roughly hewn out in rectangular form and you can make out the chisel marks on a few. They are rare now but in the summer of 2009 there were still a few there. Too heavy for tourists to steal. These were probably from the original Giant.


    Long Man of Wilmington

Before the renovations his form would go unseen for long periods of time. Locals would be working in the fields and the light and wind would be just right, they would look up and see the giant appear then disappear just as quickly. It must have given the magnificent old man of the hills a magical touch. 

We must wonder why people would make such a giant.

Lets look at the facts. The facts are simple. He is almost 230 feet (70 m) tall and carved out of the chalk hillside with a significant degree of skill. This only becomes apparent from standing close at the base of our giant. The proportions are so cleverly devised that, from a distance, he is a very good outline of a human and you do not realise how huge he is until you are right next to him. When you are at his feet he is almost invisible.

Standing at his feet looking up you can see that he has been elongated on the sloping hillside. He is one of the largest representations of the human figure in the world and the tallest in Europe. Not bad, eh?

Is he an ancient god or a giant that lived long ago? Is he holding staves, divining rods, measuring staffs, or battle staffs? Could he even be holding open the gates to another world? Could he be striding across the swollen River Cuckmere, with his staves for support, to rescue villagers from a great flood? The Cuckmere valley has a tidal river, at its centre, that is prone to flooding. Strangely both his feet used to point outwards but someone moved his left foot!  

Was he carved to pacify old demons, an ancient deity or was he carved to celebrate a grand victory or just as a local hero or simply to ensure a healthy harvest? There are certainly many more questions of him than answers available. But if you are ever there as the sun drops, and Windover Hill becomes dark against the night sky, there is a magic in the air, a power, that you can feel through your very bones. 

He is set into an unnaturally flat-topped North-facing hillside that has been flattened and lays at 28 degrees. The Giant lays on a slightly concave mound in concave hillside that has superb acoustics rather like an amphitheatre in ancient Greece. Being concave he is visible from  much larger angles than if he were flat. It all looks well to thought out to be a simple piece of work like the White Horse a little further down the lane.

Was it an old flint site of Neolithic man or a chalk pit used by the Romans to make their favourite building ingredient, concrete? There are flint pits above him and even older Bronze age Long-Burrows on Windover Hill. Also to the left of the Giant are chalk pits. So we can see all around human have been busy.

The Long-Burrows above the Long Man are from the Bronze Age. Some say that the largest Long Burrow in Sussex must have something to do with our giant even though that would mean he over 1,500 years older. Makes sense when you think about it. If people were going to take the time to build a great burial mound upon a high place to an ancient chieftain, why not mark the special place with a giant protector of the dead! 

Then we have the Romans. Did they make an outline of one of their great emperors to impress the locals? Did a marauding Viking army carve out one of their warring gods to frighten the population for miles around. Did Odin walk amongst us in days of old!

Could the hillside have been dug for chalk and flints leaving a blank landscape just itching for an enthusiastic artist to create a giant? Could a few of the monks from the abbey be filling in some spare time by carving out a giant?  Interestingly the Giant does pick up the sun at different times of the year leading a few to surmise that he was actually a solar almanac.

The truth is that the list is endless. You could get a wonderful selection of quite plausible answers by going to a pre-school classroom and asking all the children where he came from.

When the stone blocks were put in they dug up a lot of Roman pottery and that gave some credence to the old legend that the giant was placed above the grave of a Roman general killed in battle. They say that his grave is covered with golden artefacts. hey where's my spade and metal detector

If this even had an thread of truth the whole place would have been dug to nothing by the Victorians whole loved nothing more than a picnic and a dig, long before the protection of such ancient monuments.

There is one, rather rude, point worth mentioning. If you happen to see The Long Man early in the morning after a sharp frost, a rather impressive appendage appears, showing that his original form was far more revealing than his present one. It disappears quite quickly. I have only seen it three times in 40 years. Over the years he has often been defaced or rather repainted by visitors in the night that have added his grand assets back. Are they subconsciously putting him back to how he really did look?

If he was originally a well-endowed fellow then he certainly would not have been carved in the prim and proper Victorian era when showing an ankle was deemed inappropriate, let alone his six-foot (2m) attribute! Also, to back this theory up, when the Australian and New Zealand troops were stationed at nearby Peacehaven. Peacehaven was formerly known as New ANZACS -because of the Australian and New Zealand troops. Many of the soldiers who helped clear local scrub and downland went back and told their families of the giant that, when properly cleared, included his full manhood. And why would old descriptions of him say He stands naked before the shires? Even Kipling used this phrase. No that his dingaling has been removed we can state that the Long Man had an early sex change? 

During WWII our giant was camouflaged to avoid the enemy using him as a landmark but was soon sparkling again with a coat of white road paint. Before he was covered up a reconnaissance aircraft took a picture of him showing his large appendage in its full glory! So it is on record.

In 1874 the Reverend William De St Croix marked out the Giants rough outline in yellow painted bricks but they were replaced in 1891 with white ones. You can get a picture of the amount of work going on here. Every few years there is someone renovating the old chap.

In 1969, just before earlier bricks were replaced with concrete blocks, archaeological digs by Reading University pronounced that the old man of the hill could be no more than early 1600's.

For every one of these opinions there is an opposite opinion, so the quest goes on. The famous actor Dirk Bogarde spent several happy years around this area as a child as in his biography, Great Meadow, puts the Long Man of Wilmington as seventh century. 

White witches—the friendly sort that have strong roots with mother earth, Gia—have held ceremonies at the foot of the our Old Man of the downs, as have the Druids. Presently celebrations are held on the closest Sunday to the eight Wiccan Sabbats throughout the year. The biggest are Beltaine or May Day and Lughnasadh or Lammas Day when people give thanks to nature for her bounty and life.

On May Day the Long Man Morris Men mark their dancing season start by a special dance performed at dawn at the foot of the Old Man of the downs.


May by Eric Ravilious 1925

There are plenty that believe he has healing powers and many have claimed our Long Man as their own. Making love on the Giant is supposed to bring you a child of your choice! 

In my mind I have no doubt that he is of ancient origin but proving if he is 500 or 5,000 years old is a impossible task. I have seen him, all of my life, lying quietly in the soft green of the downland and serenely gazing over the farmlands below. He watches us, as we rush through our hectic lives, as no more than ants below his feet.

If you ever get the chance go and stand where the Old Man of the downs is and see what he sees. You will be looking at one of the most beautiful sights in Sussex. Be careful though as it is a steep climb. I remember getting to his head and turning around and a wave of vertigo flooded over me.

All around this area it is rich in pagan history. In Berwick churchyard, hardly a stone’s throw away, stands a pre-Christian worship stone. Neolithic man was known to have flint mines near this spot and their burial grounds along with Bronze Age Long-Burrows are dotted over the high places of the Downs. Ancient man cleared the slopes of forests thousands of years ago for fuel, shelter and tools.

Let us sum up. So far we have Stone Age, Bronze Age, Roman, Viking, Middle Age, Georgian, Victorian and more,  all responsible for our grass art!

Celtic Tales

My favourite fable comes from an early Celtic tale. Two giants, brothers, lived on the highest places of ancient Sussex, and elsewhere going by other tales. One at Firle Point, later to become Firle Beacon one at Windover Hill.

They were jealous and violent always arguing about who had the most land and who was the most powerful. They would grumpily survey their lands from these Sussex high-points. One day a furious row broke out over a grazing cow that had wandered from one giants land to the other. The hills thundered as they fought an epic battle to finally prove who was the most powerful.

The Firle Giant seized his brother after beating him senseless with his hammer and hurled him high into the sky over the downs. He fell onto the side of the hill dead as a doornail. The local villagers, sad at the lose of their protector and scared that they would not have his protection anymore came up with a cunning plan. They painted his outline in the hill to scare away strangers. 

The Firle Giant having no one to argue with simply sat on his hill-top and miserably faded away. Today he is no more than  a large mound of grass atop Firle Beacon.

Great story. Oh how I love the old stories that flow through this land like well-aged wine.

In my opinion the most likely origin of our giant is Celtic. I mean they had a harvest god called Lugus. He was very similar to our Giant, right down to the measuring staffs and spot on the time when the Celts were in this area. It is also interesting to note that one of their most religious Celtic trees, the yew, is in the churchyard. It is said to be one of the oldest yews in the world. Some say dating back to the fourth century AD. 

The yew held great importance in the Celtic year and it has always been thought that the church was placed on a pre-Christian worship site.

I do believe that ancient man gazed upon our giant, as we do today. there is just something mystical about the area where he lays. There is just too much going on there what with ancient burial sites, lay-lines, early settlements, Pre-Christian monuments, monks, churches, witches, and all.

The area is special but who can really tell us why?

Although our Giant's origins has been lost to us over the centuries and his secret history hidden for now, there is no doubt that today our white colossus stands proud as the protector of these superb and ancient lands.  

Well, we are going to leave him to rest now and head forward on our journey. Come with me for we have many miles to travel and no time to waste.

Lullington and Litlington

From Wilmington we are going to travel along the narrow road towards the hamlet of Lullington, which then leads on to Litlington. The name comes from a Saxon farmer who settled here. He was apparently a tiny fellow known, not surprisingly, as Little. He had a tun or farmstead, so hence the name tun. When English was standardized by the printers it became ton and so, as a quick guide to the area, if you see a sign finishing in ton, like Alfriston, then it is safe to assume that many years ago Alf—originally Aelfric—had his farm there.

In fact most of our country was named after the people who lived in the area or a feature of the countryside that was easy to identify, like a bridge, a wood, a rise in the land, a marsh, or a pool. Easy when you think about it. If you were trying to tell a traveller where to go you would describe the places he had to pass. It could be a farmstead or a hollow, eventually the place would gain the name that would be common to all folk.

When William the Conqueror decided to tax the people properly, he commissioned the first official survey of the country. Scribes and officials were sent to every corner of the land to find out who owned what, what monies were earned in rent, who fished which ponds for eel and pike and a thousand other details. The names that were locally referred to were, from then on, documented in the Doomsday Book. Hence, simple names like Wilma’s farm became part of the written word and ended up, a thousand years later, as Wilmington.

I guess you get the picture so I won’t rattle on too much about it. I am always wondering where the names of towns and villages come from and, even more so, the names of people. So many names were just from their trades. Sawyer would have been a woodsman. Cooper a barrel maker and so on. Arrowsmith, Blacksmith, Butcher and Baker, all referring to their trades. Fletcher was originally the man who attached the feathers to arrows, so Mr Fletcher always lived near Mr Arrowsmith. True! How many people do you know whose name tells of their old family’s trades? There are plenty around when you start to look. I suppose our most famous was former Prime Minister, Maggie Thatcher, no prizes for guessing what her ancestors did for a living.

Once beyond the Priory and Long Man farmland rolls before the road for miles. The fabulous South Downs fold out for a hundred miles towards the West Country and the Dorset coast. I always look upon the South Downs as the heart of Sussex. You can feel her pulse as she beats in time with the seasons. You can almost see her moods as she changes with the weather. Sometimes dark and brooding, sometimes light and carefree, always beautiful. On clear days you can have almost magical views of the downs and farmlands, which are so pretty that they have been called God’s heavenly acre. In high summer, with the swifts gliding over the farmland and the corn swaying in the fields, it really is a breathtaking view.

 

Lullington Church

 

On a little further, we come to Lullington Church, built around 1220, once known as the smallest church in England. Guess what? A farmer called Lulla worked the land here over a thousand years ago. At one time the church—known as The Church of the Good Shepherd—was much larger. Fire destroyed the main building leaving only the entrance standing. The vicar, not wanting to lose his parish, converted the remains into the church we see today. With 20 seats and standing room, the church is nestled into the downland up a small path, a twitten. It is a lovely little church and easy to miss driving down the narrow lane but well worth a visit.

 
The small but superb church at Lullington, the Church of the Good Sheppard

Right, let us get off to Alfriston. We are going to skip along past Plonk Barn and over Long Bridge where, on lazy summer afternoons, I would watch the mullet glide up and down the murky river and the swans drifting along, doing little other than looking elegant. In July of each year the Queen has a special task force that counts the Royal birds on the Thames. It is called the Swan Upping. The swan is a protected bird that, officially, only the Royals and their dignitaries are allowed to eat hence they need to be counted. It is called Swan Upping as they invariable chase the swans up river to count them.

 

It is a lovely walk along the riverbank from Plonk Barn to Alfriston because much of the village’s charm and the superb village church can be seen from the river walk.

 

Drusillas

 

Before we get to Alfriston I must mention the excellent wine centre, and Drusillas Zoo, just along the road a smidgen. If you are interested in wine then this is the place to visit as it has many fine examples from some of the 400 British vineyards that produce fine wines.

 

Drusillas is the most perfect place for children of all ages, from 4 to 104! You can while away the day, seeing all the animals and attractions they have to offer. Winner of the best small zoo, Drusillas really does put on a great show.

 

Alfriston part one...I did tell you this was a long piece!

 

I am going to go into quite a bit of detail with Alfriston as it has a fantastic amount of history. The village nestles into the Cuckmere valley with ample grazing and the river close by. It really is the most ideal place for a village. If one were not there it would be created. Parking is not too good in the village so if you are visiting, park in the main car parks that you come to on the outskirts of the village at the bottom of North Street. Then walk into the village from there. It is only a short walk up to the High Street and there is lots to see on the way. In the car park you will notice the strange, conical, flint, building. There are many ideas as to what it was used for, everything from a lock-up for the village drunks, to a furnace to produce lead shot in the Napoleonic wars. To me it looks like the many conical-shaped smoking sheds that are found up and down the country. Smoked eel was a delicacy that few would deny and the river is still an excellent source for eels.

 

If you ever get to Alfriston, on your way to the centre of the village note all the enchanting names of the houses and cottages. Cinder Cottage, Pump Cottage, Chestnut Cottage, Twitten House, Lavender Cottage, Flint Cottage and many more. They fit this pretty village perfectly. Alfriston is so full of delights that it would bring a smile to Ebenezer Scrooge. If you are at Alfriston when the first rays of sun rush up the Cuckmere valley and lift the drab-grey colours of the night with its orange glow, you could be forgiven for thinking that you had been transported back in time, to a place the world had forgotten.

 

The great chestnut tree that shelters the Market Cross beneath its boughs in the High Street is not quite so great now as they keep hacking it back to allow traffic through. In the winter it looks like a large, hairy, hand with its fingers chopped off. The tree was planted to mark the ascension of Queen Victoria to the throne in 1837. Though some doubt that this is the original tree, only a chainsaw could prove the argument conclusively!

 

The tree is a good place from which to describe Alfriston. It is a delightful, picturesque, village. One of the finest in the land and from the vantage-point of the market square you can see some of the village assets. I just love the charming little Post Office with its bright red facade. It just begs you to pop inside and buy some goodies, like a child with pocket money. Now where’s my fudge money?

 

Alfriston, once again, gets its name from the first well-known inhabitant, a soldier who settled and worked the land called Aelfric. Apparently he was granted the land for services to his king, Alfred the Great, and his lands were certainly mentioned in the Doomsday Book. There is a legend that King Alfred (of burnt-cake fame) who had his stronghold down the coast in Winchester was actually hiding out in Alfriston when he made his famous error of falling asleep instead of looking after the cakes he was supposed to be minding. From then on, whatever the great king did, he would be remembered for burning the cakes and being chased off by a very unhappy maid.

 

King Alfred, famous for chasing those nasty spiked-helmeted Vikings out of Southern England to places like Normandy—Norse lands—was said to have had a palace around these parts. He may well have done. In those days a fire behind a stone-wall, with a bed of straw raised off the floor, could have been called a palace. In the period between Roman and Norman rule know as the Dark Ages there were few buildings of note. It was not until the French invasion with William that our architecture really exploded in grand style.

 

To enjoy Alfriston to the full you need to stroll around the village. There is an excellent selection of stopping places, from small coffee shops to inns. Many of the former offering a wonderful afternoon cream tea of jam scones and cream. Oh, I should not mention food, it makes me so peckish! Luckily, I have not managed to type and eat at the same time—yet. The Wingrove Inn, Deans Place, Moonrakers, The Star Inn—-one of the oldest inn’s in England—The George Inn, White Lodge, Badger’s Tea Rooms and many more. Check out the bright-red ship figurehead on the corner of the Star Inn. It apparently came from a shipwrecked Dutch ship lured onto the rocks by false signal fires, then ransacked by infamous bands of smugglers…. Well, that’s the locals’ story.

 

The Smugglers and Market Cross

 

The Market Cross is next to the chestnut tree, opposite The Smugglers’ Inn where they make a steak sandwich to die for. But make sure if you visit and have been tramping along the South Downs Way that runs straight through the village, that you take your muddy boots off. Many a traveller has had a funny look and a harsh tongue-lashing for tramping mud into the pub.

 

The pub was once a haven for gangs of smugglers that slipped up the river in the dead of night with illegal produce from France, Spain and the Caribbean. If you get the tide just right on the Cuckmere, you can float up-river with the surge of incoming floodwater with little effort. The inn was not always called The Smugglers’. It would have been a bit of a giveaway really—especially to the excise men looking for the guilty parties involved in their illicit, nightly trade. It used to be called, appropriately, The Market Cross Inn.

 

The Smugglers’ Inn has a profusion of doors, at least 47, that all lead to visions of smugglers running off, leaving half-finished pints of ale, their goods tucked under their arms as excise men came-a-knocking

 

I should say a little about the small unobtrusive Market Cross that coach drivers and lorry drivers curse. It is a very rare cross, indeed, with only a few left in the whole country. Built over 500 years ago, it was originally a much larger monument with a speaking platform from where the village crier would announce up and coming events, news and the twice-yearly village fairs. The Market Cross is in Waterloo Square that gets its name from the soldiers billeted around the village during the Napoleonic Wars. One point to note is that most mobile phones do not work in the village, because Alfriston is in a dip and signals are poor at best. If you need to phone someone, do it before you get into the village or use the pay phone.

 

See now. How many other travel guides would be so helpful? I think I am getting the hang of this now.

 

Each shop and dwelling in the old part of Alfriston has a story to tell. You could spend days examining every house and visiting every shop. They are all special. Opposite the Market Cross is an old-world gift shop that has a small history of Alfriston, as does the Clergy House that I shall get to in a jiffy.

 

St Andrews

You must take a visit to the gorgeous St Andrews Church, sitting upon a slight rise at the back of the village in front of the green known locally as The Tye. St Andrews, built around 1360, is just one of those simply perfect examples of an English church. Once again stories tell us that, when the building was first started, the stones were mysteriously moved each night to the present site of the church. Eventually the builders put it down to godly interference and built the church where it is today. Others say that four oxen were grazing on the Tye and when they sat down in the summer heat, to rest, they sat with their backsides facing each other in a perfect cross. Surely an omen!

 

That is why the church is built in the pattern of a Greek cross today. One other story is that St Anthony ordered the church of St Andrews to be built here after he had travelled up the river—which was much larger centuries ago. It even had barges with goods until 1915, hard to imagine today. St Anthony set foot on the soil at Alfriston and decided that there could be no finer place for a church, to be closer to God, than here in this beautiful garden.

 

St Andrews has been described, by many that have gazed over her ancient stones, as the Cathedral of the Downs. It is easy to see why. The church enjoys one of the finest positions for a church in all of southern England. The church was completed all in one go, which is unusual, as most churches have had many additions over the centuries. The centre of the church houses the bells. This means that ropes fall into the middle of the church, impractical to say the least, as the ropes are smack in the middle where the seating ought to be. That is probably why you do not see churches of this design very often. Pleasing on the eye, but impractical for daily use. Mind you, saying that, no one would ever change St Andrews for it really is a gem, a little cathedral.

 
the Cathedral of the Downs, St Andrews Church, Alfriston

In spring snowdrops grow in profusion over the banks of the graveyard where many a soul has come to rest. I could not imagine a more pleasant spot in which to lay my bones than at this church. Talking of bones, they say that long ago, around the end of the 7th century, a young girl called Lewinna died for her beliefs. Apparently she was hacked to death by ferocious Saxons who were often up to no good. She was laid to rest at the old church over which St Andrews was later built. When she was canonized, her remains were a popular visitors’ attraction, much like Becket's in Canterbury. Many pilgrims believed her martyred body had sacred healing powers. Unfortunately, centuries later, her bones were stolen by a Belgian monk and taken abroad. So that was the end of the tourist trade in Alfriston for a thousand years or so. In the chancel are two carvings, one of a woman’s face, it is said to be that of Lewinna herself.

 

If you ever get the chance, take a peek at the square-napped flint from which the church has been built. It is an old and skilled craft. Check out the excellent saints in the stained glass windows, and for the architects amongst you, check the 14th century King Post and chestnut beams. The north transept windows also have their original stonework. After you have admired the inside and all its charms, take a walk around the back of the church and sit awhile. Let the tranquillity of the area sooth your troubles away as you gaze across the green downlands of Sussex.

 

Alfriston Tye

 

Standing at the entrance to the church you get a marvellous view back over the Tye towards the village. The rooflines of all the properties are snuggled together and provide an architectural feast for those of you that love old buildings. They look like a scene from an old Victorian novel. There is an old, explosive, sea mine on the Tye that floated up the river one high tide. As you can imagine it caused quite a fuss and the village had to be evacuated until the mine was disarmed. Now it is just another harmless reminder of troubled pasts. The summer fayre held on the Tye is a sight to behold. The old games all come out, like shove-ha’penny and tossing the hay bale, even tug o’war returns, with feisty villagers pulling their heart out amidst cheering crowds.

 

Tables of homemade cakes and jams are on sale, plus many more things. All the money raised usually goes to needy local causes. The whole Tye, that can seem empty for so many months of the year, heaves with enthusiastic humanity as the fayre takes over village life for a whole week.

 

The Clergy House

 

Just next door to St Andrews is the 14th century Clergy House. The very first property ever purchased by the National Trust. In 1896 it cost the extortionate sum of £10. You don’t get bargains like that any more. To be fair, it was in appalling condition at the time. This wattle and daub—don’t ask what daub is near supper time, it contains some smelly ingredients—thatched, timber-framed building is now the jewel in Alfriston’s plentiful crown and an excellent example of early Weald building techniques. The floor was reproduced using an age-old method of crushing chalk and combining it with sour milk as a binding agent. I would not liked to have smelt that for a few weeks after completion. Still, it worked like a charm in many buildings.

 

Alfriston Revisited

 

Alfriston also had a thriving racing set. Even, once, having its own horse-hero when Longset won the Lincoln National. One of the village’s flamboyant visitors was the Victorian entrepreneur, Horatio Bottomley. Although Horatio was raised in a modest family he set about burning a bright flame in his hectic and sometimes fraudulent career. He was considered to be the founder of tabloid journalism after buying the Sun newspaper in 1898 and founding the publication John Bull in 1906. Once tipped to be prime minister he had a lovely mansion at Upper Dicker, that is now part of St Bedes School.

 

Horatio’s star burned bright but was fuelled with illegal dealings. During his prime he had several of his horses around Alfriston, though never managed to win any prominent races. Eventually his paper world—sorry a bit of a poor pun there—crumpled around him. He was declared bankrupt no less than four times during his colourful and turbulent career. The former Member of Parliament, once dubbed the Napoleon of Finance, lost everything and, in his failing years, was even refused an army pension. It was a sad end to a charismatic and popular local character. 

 

Ghostly Goings On

 

Just before we leave Alfriston the village that has been described as all things to all people, I must tell you more about its ghosts of which there are several. 

 

Of course, an ancient and colourful village, such as this, would have its fair share of ghouls. Most of the ghost stories are attributed to grisly deaths that have happened over the centuries. These, unfortunate victims, are not based so much on historical accuracies, but on word-of-mouth passed down over a pint of the frothy stuff around the fireside on cold winters’ evenings in the local taverns. But, having said that, they all make a good story and you know what they say? There’s no smoke without fire!

 

Many moons ago, one dark and windy night, a wealthy local boy and his dog made their way home along White Way. Suddenly he was set upon by a band of robbers. During his brave resistance he was cudgelled to death. The cut-throats hastily buried him near the roadside but, as they started to leave, they heard his faithful dog sitting beside the hidden grave, howling for his master. They returned and killed the dog. Then the haunting started.

 

When eve’n closes upon the day

And nightly shadows blend with grey

Then ghostly vapours haunt White Way

 

Every seven years the hound would appear and howl on the spot where his master met his death. If the dog was approached it would melt into the earth. On the deathbed confession of an old vagrant the bones of the young man were dug up and given proper burial at the church. However the sightings continue. 

 

What about old Mildred Reed? She was heard calling for help. Nothing unusual there, except that she had been buried three days earlier. Her grave was hastily opened, only to find her departed corpse well and truly dead. But that did not stop the sounds continuing.

 

In many graveyards, in Victorian times, you could find graves that had a small bell above the headstone. The bell was attached via a string to the inside of the coffin. Just in case the inhabitant decided they wanted to get up. Now that would give a grown man a fright if one of those bells started ringing!

 

Then there was the old groom who worked the stables near the forge he made spectral appearances around the stable block on several occasions, looking for his horses.

 

What about the kind old dear that tucks up visitors in their beds, only to disappear through the wall. How about that for extra service? And the elegant silk-dressed lady that often pops into Dean’s Place. Dean’s Place was once part of the 12th century Wilmington Priory, so it has early roots in the area. Around the turn of the last century the bones of a woman were discovered there. Could they have been the remains of our ghostly guest?

 

And last, but by no means least, The Smugglers’ Inn has had its spectral visitors. Some are attributed to the infamous smuggler and former owner of the Inn, Stanton Collins—a devious smuggler. It is said that Stanton may even have led an excise man to his death over the cliffs on the coast. Several of his Alfriston gang met untimely deaths and some were deported to Australia. Was the figurehead on the corner of The Star Inn one of his predecessor’s terrible deeds? Is the long-gowned lady, that has appeared, one of his acquaintances from long past?

 

We shall never know. But what we do know is that Alfriston has as many ghosts as an apple tree has apples in autumn and some just as colourful. I remember one of my customers telling me that a big burly builder came rushing in as white as a sheet, out of the back of the Smugglers, where he was working. He downed two double whiskys before telling everyone how he had just said good afternoon to a woman who promptly disappeared through the wall.

 

High and Over

 

Well, that’s it for Alfriston. Now I am going to take you to a spot that will simply take your breath away. We are on our way from Alfriston towards Seaford on the coast. We are going to stop at a place known as The High and Over.

 

One of the best ways to really see the superb downland and stunning countryside is on foot. From the car park at the highest point above Seaford, there is a short walk through a small spinney to the beauty spot at Frog Firle known as Hindover Hill. We call that place the High and Over as you go up, Hi—nd—over, down the other side.

 

The best time to visit this majestic place is in the late afternoon. As the sun starts to cool and melt into the distant horizon behind you it lights up the Vale of Cuckmere. It surely is one of the most inspiring and beautiful places God put on this earth. Because we drive up some 400 feet (110m) to the viewpoint, we stand like Olympians surveying the lands below. Cattle grazing in the Vale look no more than small, toy-size, shapes and the swans in the river look no more than specks of white.

 

Miles of open land, hills, forests and sea open out before your eyes in a heavenly blend of nature at its best. The scene is dominated by the Cuckmere river—which meanders through the landscape below, wriggling its way out to sea some four miles away at Cuckmere Haven.

 

In early morning, the light from a low sun throws a trillion diamonds into the sky off the sea. And in the late afternoon the same sun bathes the whole panorama in a soft golden glow. I have probably visited Hindover Hill a hundred times and each time I am awe struck. In winter the winds can come up the valley so cold and fast that they can cut you in half. Some days the whole view is lost in mist. I have been there on a morning when a thick fog obscured everything below—but above me was a clear blue sky. After heavy rain is always the best time for a good view as the rain cleans the air, removing all the tiny dust particles that make any view hazy and ill-defined.

 

The High and Over is one of those places where you can just stand and stare for an eternity, it really does take your breath away. It’s panoramic vista could never be captured on film. However beautiful you imagine this place, times it by ten and you will be close to the beauty that it holds.

 

Well, how did I do? Did my description of Alfriston and the Giant make you want to pack your bags and come and see this tiny corner of the world I call home? Did you get an urge to rush down to your travel agent, grab him by the throat, throw your hard earned cash at him, and demand the next flight to England? If you have just woken up from forty winks and found this book resting on your lap, keep it to yourself I’ll be round to fix your sewing machine later!

This Guide is in Book III High Streets & Hedgerows available at all good bookshops  ISBN: 0-9539410-3-5

So what did you think? Please do let me know: alexsussex@aol.com

 

If you would like to read more stories like this they are in my Random Threads trilogy.

 

 For more information on how to order and prices just mail me anytime: alexsussex@aol.com
 
                                                

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