Hamsey

Walk down the narrow lane that ends at the church, perhaps framed at dusk by the neon glow of Lewes to the south, and it is ajourney straight out of Charlotte Bronte or Charles Dickens at their atmospheric best, with perhaps a shade of Hammer Horror. This mysterious place with its medieval church, complete with gargoyles, standing on a lonely island in the middle of the Ouse valley, is hardly big enough to be called a hamlet. But it was not always so isolated and remote. Once it was the ham of the de Say family and it was perhaps a village that died and disappeared by choice.

Near the site of the beautiful old church a fortified manor house once stood and a thousand years ago the Saxon King Athelstan held a meeting of his counsellors at Hamsey, so it must have been a well established centre of some significance. Legend says the village was almost completely wiped out by the plague and that the surviving inhabitants chose to sacrifice themselves by refusing all contact with neighbouring areas for fear of spreading the disease. Food supplies dwindled and the village slowly starved to death. Did it ever happen? The experts say there is no real evidence to suggest that it did, but it is a romantic yarn in keeping with the enigmatic feel of Hamsey. Certainly Offham, a mile or so away from the flatlands, became the new village and Hamsey church fell into disuse, being reduced eventually to the status of a mortuary chapel. It was not until the 1920s that parishioners rallied round and raised the money for a thorough and sensitive restoration. The building is now closed during the winter but takes on a new lease of life in the summer when monthly services are held there by candlelight and coachloads of people descend on Hamsey to savour the special charm of the place.

The church remembers three generations of one family who each lost a John by war in the space of just over a century. John Bridger Shiffner died fighting under Wellington in 1814, another John Shiffner fell in the Crimea in 1855, John Shiffner, the sixth baronet, was killed at Gricourt in the last year of the Great War.