The price of being picturesque can be a high one. Alfriston, at the head of ‘millionaire’s valley’ where the Downs give way on either side to the meandering course of the Cuckmere, has the sort of olde worlde charms that make it a magnet for visitors, but their presence means a massive traffic snarl-up in the narrow main street during the summer months.
Coaches full of day-trippers are blamed as the main culprits for the congestion which causes something of a rift in the community. Some residents are all for the quiet life but the folk with antique, gift and tea shops to run depend on tourists for their livelihood. A proposed ban on coaches entering the village from the south caused uproar among traders in 1985, who maintained it would affect the economy of the village.
Tourism has brought a boom in Alfriston’s latter day fortunes and is in many ways a renaissance of the heyday during the Napoleonic Wars when the threatened invasion by the French brought a large number of troops to the area. The village catered for them with such traders as a brewer, cooper, glover, harness maker, maltster, ropemaker, shoemaker, soapboiler, tallow chandler, tanner and even a peruke maker, who all prospered. The bubble burst with Wellington’s decisive victory at Waterloo in 1815.
There was another trade for which the village was notorious. Most of the population seem to have been involved in smuggling, but the best-known exponents were the desperadoes who followed one Stanton Collins, leader of the Alfriston Gang.
Collins was the son of respectable parents and lived at The Market Cross Inn, now (what else) The Smugglers. This unique building, with its 21 rooms, 48 doors, six staircases and various hiding places and hidden exits, was the ideal headquarters for the illicit business to be carried on without fear of discovery. With the Cuckmere flowing beside the village and the coast only a mile or two away at the river’s mouth, they were in an ideal spot to bring booty ashore and hide it away ready for transport and distribution inland. The gang was never caught but it was broken up when Collins was, ironically, arrested for sheep stealing in the 1830s and sentenced to seven years’ transportation. The last of the gang was Bob Hall, who died in Eastbourne Workhouse in 1895 at the age of 94.
Where other smugglers acquired something of a Robin Hood-like persona, the Alfriston Gang were a far more sinister bunch with a reputation for stopping at nothing. An old tale states that on one occasion the smugglers were in hiding on the cliffs overlooking Cuckmere Haven waiting for a signal from the boats that the cargo had been landed. Just as they were about to make their way down to the shore a Revenue Officer appeared on the cliff top, picking his way through the darkness by the large lumps of chalk set at intervals along the path. The smugglers had prepared for such a possibility and had moved some of the rocks so that they led directly to the cliff edge. The officer tumbled over with a cry but somehow managed to throw out an arm and cling to the edge. He looked up at the gang as they rushed from their hiding place and begged to be hauled up to safety, but one of the smugglers callously stamped on his fingers and sent him plunging to his death. Only a deathbed confession revealed the truth of what happened on that dark night; it had until then been held to have been an accident.
A more light-hearted incident occurred when a smuggler was hiding in a cottage near Market Cross with the Revenue men hot on his heels. There lived a woman who was expecting a baby. Friends hauled a pig from their sty and hid it with the man under the woman’s bed. The officers searched the cottage and were about to enter the bedroom when the smuggler gave the pig a squeeze – it let out a squeal like a new-born babe and the officers discreetly departed.
Not surprisingly, the Alfriston Gang were behind the revels which got out of hand in November 1828, and ended in near riot. It was the day after Bonfire Night, an event celebrated, of course, with enthusiasm throughout the county. Perhaps they didn’t want the fun to end because two gang members, Samuel Thorncraft and Lewis Aucock, together with John Adams and bricklayer Richard Wilson, lit a huge bonfire up against the walls of Charles Brooker’s handsome house, of which the present post office forms a part. What presumably began as a high spirited, slightly drunken continuation of the previous evening’s activities soon took on a more sinister aspect. The constable failed to appear and, with no-one to stop it, the riotous behaviour lasted for six hours. Not surprisingly, the good Mr Brooker and his family were greatly terrified’. When the four ringleaders were brought before the court, Thorncraft – later to be hanged for arson! (see Milton Street) – received a month’s hard labour, and Adams and Aucock three weeks apiece. Wilson was discharged.
Alfriston’s battered market cross at the end of the main street makes it unique in East Sussex and the only other in the county is the far better preserved example at Chichester. It was probably erected here early in the 15th century for in 1405 Henry IV granted to the King’s town of Alfryston’ the right to hold a market on Tuesday in each week and two fairs annually on 30 April and 29 November. The original cross was hit by a lorry in 1955 and was so badly damaged that only a small portion of the stone could be used in its replacement.
The Star Inn, with its fascinating carvings and colourful ship’s figurehead incorporated in the front of the building, has its origins in the 13th century as a resting place for pilgrims on their way to and from Chichester, and so lays claim to being one of the oldest inns in the country. The Old Clergy House, beside the village green known as The Tye, dates from the 14th century and was the first property bought by the National Trust in 1896 for the slightly ridiculous sum of £10. Restoration work cost more than £300. It has a separate room with no direct access to the house, which was provided for the housekeeper of the priests, who before the Reformation were celibate. In the days before the Conquest the bones of St Lewinna, a virgin Christian martyr killed by the Saxons, were kept at the church or monasterium at Alfriceston’, and were held to have brought about many miracles. Their fame attracted a Belgian monk, one Balgerus, who stole the holy relics and brought them back to his own monastery at Bergue. There they remained until they were lost in the religious upheavals of the 16th century, though a rib bone of the noble Sussex maid was said to have survived in Flanders.
Maybe it was the memory of St Lewinna that gave rise to the village custom of placing a wreath of white flowers upon the coffin of a virgin and afterwards hanging them in the church. Even at the end of the last century as many as 70 ‘virgin garlands’ were hung at one time in St Andrew’s, famed as the Cathedral of the Downs.
While on the subject of the mortality of man (and woman) Alfriston is the last recorded place where a shepherd was buried with a piece of wool in his hand. It was done as a sign to St Peter that it was the shepherd’s trade, not his lack of piety, that had made him an irregular churchgoer.
So persistent was the rumour that Mildred Reed had been buried alive on 12 January 1816, that her body was exhumed 11 days later in the presence of the minister of the parish, one of the churchwardens … and a grand multitude of people.’ Poor Mildred was found to have been quite dead when she was buried though an old man, who was notoriously deaf, insisted he had heard noises from the grave two or three days previously. An entry in the burial register on 13 July 1832 makes sobering reading: ‘Samuel Bussey, aged 21. Buried in the night without service having died of smallpox, being in a dreadful state. The young man’s parents had nursed their son at home rather than send him to the village Pest House at Dean’s Place. They had waited until darkness fell on that summer night before wheeling the body out in a cart to the churchyard where, by the pale light of a lantern, Samuel was buried deep in the ground.
The length of road leading from Dean’s Place to Frog Firle is known locally as White Way and has a ghost story connected with the Chowne family. The words of an old song suggest the spirit is one of the Chownes:
“When evening closes in with shadows grey, And ghostly vapours overhang White Way, And Th’ Crescent moon hangs gloomy in the west, ‘Tis then the spirit of young Chowne can’t rest, But walks abroad with melancholy stride, Adown the path that skirts the chalky hill-side”
Another version asserts it is the ghost of the young man’s dog that was seen. In the latter part of the 18th century the heir to the Chowne estate at Place House went for a walk one summer night with his pet and was set upon by thieves. Young Chowne resisted and was killed by a blow from a cudgel. After robbing the body the murderers hastily buried it, and also despatched the dog and buried it in the bank beside the road.
Seven years after the heir’s disappearance a couple were out walking the same road when they saw a small white dog which to their amazement vanished into the bank. The phantom hound appeared every seven years after that until in the early 19th century the skeleton of a young man was discovered during road widening work near the spot where the dog had been seen to vanish. The fact that an old tramp had confessed on his deathbed to being one of the thieves left little doubt that the bones were the remains of the lost heir and they were taken to the churchyard and reburied. No phantoms have been seen along White Way since then.
Many years ago Alfriston had its own racecourse on the Downs, and long after it had ceased to be a haunt of the punters the village had a reputation for racehorse training. When James Harry Batho’s Longset won the Lincoln in 1912 the whole village joined in the celebrations and the triumphant trainer presented every family in Alfriston with a joint of beef.
There was not such excitement again until 27 October 1943, when an enemy sea mine was discovered in the Cuckmere near the church. Most of the population was evacuated while the Royal Navy rendered the mine harmless.