Se­cret Sus­sex

Clive Agran goes home to Bodiam, Nor­thiam and Ewhurst Green

Sussex Life - - Inside - WORDS AND PHO­TOS: Clive Agran

Fol­low­ers of this series will be fa­mil­iar with the for­mat. After the ed­i­tor tells me which town is next, I seek out the in­di­vid­ual who knows most about the place and then try to per­suade him or her to ac­com­pany me on a factfind­ing stroll around the streets with no big­ger in­cen­tive at my dis­posal than a half-pint of shandy when it’s over.

After nearly two years trav­el­ling from Bat­tle to Bog­nor Regis and plenty of places in be­tween, not only is the for­mula look­ing as durable as Desert Is­land Discs but I’m also ac­quir­ing so much in­for­ma­tion that, were I ever to be a con­tes­tant on Mas­ter­mind, I might drop Spurs, 1961-2001 as my spe­cial­ist sub­ject and sub­sti­tute, Lit­tle-known Facts About Sus­sex, 1066-2018. Then, pos­si­bly sens­ing com­pla­cency on my part, the ed­i­tor hurls a wicked curve-ball in the shape of Bodiam and Nearby Vil­lages be­fore slop­ing off on ma­ter­nity leav­ing me, if you’ll par­don the ex­pres­sion, hold­ing the baby.

My first prob­lem is geo­graph­i­cal – which nearby vil­lages? The se­cond is even more se­ri­ous – I can’t find an ex­pert! Fear­ing reprisals from irate read­ers, I’m re­luc­tant to re­veal pre­cisely where I live but – let me put it like this – Bodiam isn’t all that far away and since I’ve been liv­ing where I am for 25 years per­haps I know enough to man­age this as­sign­ment on my own. After much ag­o­nis­ing and with sin­cere apolo­gies to res­i­dents of Roberts­bridge, Hurst Green, Sta­ple­cross and Cripps Cor­ner, I shall be fo­cus­ing my at­ten­tion on Nor­thiam and Ewhurst Green as well, of course, on Bodiam.

Built to­wards the end of the 14th cen­tury, Bodiam Cas­tle, with a drum tower at each cor­ner and a wide moat, is ev­ery­one’s idea of what a cas­tle should look like; that’s per­haps why it ap­pears on so many cal­en­dars and the front cover of qual­ity mag­a­zines! My very own de­tailed re­search re­veals that last year it was the 147th most vis­ited at­trac­tion in the UK.

Give or take a crum­bling stone or two it looks, from the out­side at least, very much as it did 600 or so years ago while the sur­round­ing coun­try­side has changed dra­mat­i­cally, es­pe­cially in the last half-cen­tury. In 1946, no fewer than 1,183 acres in and around Bodiam was leased to Guin­ness. Hops were grow­ing ev­ery­where and an es­ti­mated 2,000 hop-pick­ers trav­elled down from Lon­don, alighted the train at Bodiam and en­joyed a cheap sum­mer hol­i­day gath­er­ing in the har­vest.

By 1961 the acreage un­der hops had been re­duced to 500 and by 1976 Guin­ness had gone. Nowa­days, the hops have pretty well all dis­ap­peared as well and bines have given way to vines, es­pe­cially on the south-fac­ing slopes, as Bodiam makes a bid to be­come the new Bordeaux. This year’s scorch­ing sum­mer prom­ises a bumper har­vest and al­most cer­tainly a vin­tage crop.

Watch­ing the slim Rother flow gen­tly un­der pretty Bodiam Bridge (built in 1797), it’s hard to be­lieve that a Vik­ing fleet of 250 ships sailed this far up the river 1,100 years ago. In 1822 there was great ex­cite­ment a cou­ple of miles down­stream in Newen­den when the re­mark­ably well-pre­served re­mains of a very an­cient ship were un­cov­ered in a field. It was 65ft long and 14ft wide and, even more ex­cit­ing, in­side was a hu­man skull with a pair of goat horns at­tached to the cra­nium. Sadly it tran­spired not to be Vik­ing but a 14th cen­tury ves­sel of the type used for coastal trade. It might well have been de­liv­er­ing stone to the then un­der-con­struc­tion Bodiam Cas­tle.

Run­ning more-or-less par­al­lel with the river and also fol­low­ing the lie of the land is the Kent and East Sus­sex Rail­way line. Closed in 1961 but sub­se­quently lov­ingly re­stored by an army of en­thu­si­asts, the steam rail­way has been pro­gres­sively edg­ing its way fur­ther west from Ten­ter­den since the first two miles were com­pleted in 1974. It reached Nor­thiam in 1990, Bodiam in 2000 and is now hop­ing to ex­tend all the way to Roberts­bridge.

Nor­thiam has wel­comed a num­ber of fa­mous vis­i­tors. It can claim two his­toric houses and one re­mark­ably old tree. On her re­gal way to Rye on 11 Au­gust 1573, Queen El­iz­a­beth I stopped to have lunch un­der an oak tree in the vil­lage and to change out of her green damask silk shoes. The tree, which some be­lieve could be 1,000 years old, is still stand­ing but looks rather dead. The shoes were left be­hind as a me­mento of her visit and were kept in a

“Bodiam Cas­tle is ev­ery­one’s idea of what a cas­tle should look like”

nearby Ja­cobean man­sion called Brick­wall un­til 1972 when the mag­nif­i­cent prop­erty, which was al­ready func­tion­ing as a spe­cial­ist school for dyslexic chil­dren, was do­nated to the Frewen Ed­u­ca­tional Trust. Now called Frewen Col­lege, it is be­lieved to be the first such school in the coun­try, pos­si­bly the world.

Not only roy­alty but also prime min­is­ters have vis­ited Nor­thiam; four of them and all on the same day, 12 May, 1944. Win­ston Churchill, Wil­liam Mckenzie King (Canada), Field Mar­shall Jan Smuts (South Africa) and Sir God­frey Hug­gins (South­ern Rhode­sia) in­spected the Al­lied troops gath­ered there in prepa­ra­tion for D-day. A pair of field gates and two plaques by a recre­ational field in the vil­lage com­mem­o­rate the oc­ca­sion.

Every year thou­sands of gar­den­ing en­thu­si­asts make a pil­grim­age to world-fa­mous Great Dix­ter on the north­ern edge of the vil­lage. There’s a splen­did, 15th cen­tury, tim­ber-framed house that was re­mod­elled by Ed­win Lu­tyens in the early 20th cen­tury for Christo­pher Lloyd, who sur­rounded it with a breath­tak­ingly beau­ti­ful gar­den.

Trav­el­ling west from Nor­thiam through nar­row coun­try lanes we ar­rive at the ex­cep­tion­ally pretty vil­lage of Ewhurst Green. Crowned The Best Kept Vil­lage in All Sus­sex back in 1979, it has a Nor­man church (St James the Great) and many im­pres­sive houses.

One of them, Ewhurst Place, was rented by Scout founder Robert Baden-pow­ell and his wife Olave in April 1913. All three of their chil­dren were born in the house and the 1st Ewhurst Scout Troop was in­au­gu­rated on the lawn with Olave sworn in as lady scout­mas­ter.

The Baden-pow­ells’ land­lord, a young lieu­tenant in the army by the name of Arthur Wid­dring­ton Herd­man, had in­her­ited the house from his un­cle. Sadly, he was killed in the trenches on 25 Oc­to­ber 1914. Be­fore leav­ing to fight in World War I, he made a will in which he left a three­acre field that ad­joined Ewhurst Place to the vil­lage: “To be used as a vil­lage recre­ation ground. Also 300 pounds which after de­duc­tion of the cost of fenc­ing etc to be in­vested and used for the up­keep of the said field and for the pro­vi­sion of Christ­mas presents for the ben­e­fit of the chil­dren at­tend­ing Ewhurst Green vil­lage school.” Although the school has gone, he would doubt­less have been de­lighted to know that the field still in ac­tive use, and now has a smart new Arthur Herd­man Pav­il­ion which was opened on the cen­te­nary of his death.

Although it was of­fered to them, the Baden-pow­ells de­clined to pur­chase Ewhurst Place. “Even if we could have done (raised the cap­i­tal), it was not as con­ve­niently sit­u­ated as we should have liked,” re­marked Olave, for whom the rather tricky train jour­ney from Lon­don was a sig­nif­i­cant neg­a­tive.

In par­tic­u­lar she didn’t like chang­ing at Roberts­bridge to the then Rother Val­ley Rail­way. “It was a funny lit­tle line,” she re­called. “One bought one’s ticket on the train. The con­duc­tor would move pre­car­i­ously along the out­side of the coaches, even when the train was in mo­tion. One would be sit­ting in one’s seat when sud­denly the car­riage door would open, let­ting in a blast of wind and rain, and there was the con­duc­tor. After col­lect­ing our fares, he would climb out through door and pro­ceed to the next com­part­ment.”

If the Kent and East Sus­sex Rail­way are suc­cess­ful in their ef­forts to reach Roberts­bridge, it will be in­ter­est­ing to see if they re­vive this slightly haz­ardous but en­ter­tain­ing prac­tice.

“On her way to Rye, Queen El­iz­a­beth I stopped to have lunch un­der an oak tree in the vil­lage”

LEFT: A Kent and East Sus­sex Rail­way steam train passes Bodiam Cas­tle

LEFT: The 1,000-yearold oak in Nor­thiam

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