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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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!
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.