This is the home of the trug, the oval shaped wooden basket that is a Jack-of-all-Trades in the garden and home. Trug making is a traditional craft that has been established in Sussex for at least 200 years but was first brought to the attention of a wider audience by Thomas Smith of Herstmonceux, who displayed his wares at the Great Exhibition in 1851. Queen Victoria showed such an interest that she ordered several trugs in various sizes which were delivered in person at Buckingham Palace by the enterprising Mr Smith, who travelled all the way there and back on foot.
The word trug is derived from the Anglo Saxon ‘trog’, meaning a wooden vessel or boat shaped article. The industry thrives to this day. Work begins with the rim and handle of sweet chestnut which is split with a cleaving axe and smoothed with a draw-knife. All the waste wood is then used to fire a copper, to create steam, which is used to bend the sweet chestnut around wooden formers. The boards that form the base of the trug are made from cricket bat willow, cut thin, and then shaped and shaved smooth. The willow boards are dipped in water to make them pliable and then nailed into the chestnut frame.
The village was also once known for its Sweets. But the little factory has, alas, ceased to produce the colourful hard-boiled creations here.
The moated Herstmonceux Castle, which in 1946 became the home of the Royal Greenwich Observatory, is one of the earliest important brick buildings in the country. It was built in 1441 by Sir Roger Fiennes following the fashion that was popular in Flanders, and it is likely that the bricks were made by Flemish workmen specially imported for the job.
Sir Roger’s descendant Thomas, Lord Dacre, received Anne of Cleves on her arrival in England in 1540 but, being a right towardly gentleman’, was executed on Tower Hill at the age of 23, ostensibly for having caused the death of one John Busbrig while poaching with friends at Pikehay (see Hellingly), but more probably because of his great estate, which greedy courtiers gaped after, causing them to hasten his destruction.’
Like all castles, Herstmonceux has had its full share of drama down the years: creepy stories (like the heiress who was starved to death in her room by the governess), double dealing to match (like the cunning second wife who plotted a scheme by which the estates would pass to her own family), and ghosts (like the 9ft high phantom of Agincourt who walked the battlements beating a drum). This latter phenomenon was held by many to be one of the Dacres, long thought dead, but living in concealment and drumming to keep potential suitors away from his wife. The most plausible explanation is that those indefatigable smugglers made the noise to scare people away while they went about their business.
But the story most likely to find a place in today’s popular press concerned Georgiana Shipley, beautiful daughter of the Bishop of St Asaph, and Francis Hare-Naylor, handsome but reckless eldest son of the Canon of Winchester and heir to Herstmonceux Place, which had superseded the castle. The Bishop tried to discourage their relationship and on seeing Francis arrested for debt while out in the family coach completely washed his hands of him. Francis returned disguised as a beggar and in 1785 he eloped with the lovely Georgiana. They lived in Italy and had four children before Francis inherited Herstmonceux Place on the death of his father. Georgiana was as eccentric as she was beautiful. She was often seen riding about the grounds and village on a white ass; insisted on the family conversing in Greek at mealtimes; and went to church accompanied by her white doe, which rested at the end of her pew.
Also animal mad was Rosslyn Bruce, rector here from 1923 to 1956. At Oxford he was forbidden to keep a dog, so he rented a cow and paraded it around the quad. It was the first of many ‘pets’ which later went on to include everything from pigeons to elephants. While at Herstmonceux he wrote books on animals and their care, and his most extraordinary achievement was to breed a green mouse.
The castle, which had become ruinous after the building of Herstmonceux Place, was restored in 1929 by Colonel Claude Lowther, who had raised three battalions in the Great War known as Lowther’s Lambs, the task being completed in the 1930s by Sir Paul Latham. With the coming of the Observatory, telescope domes like vast mushrooms sprang up in the castle grounds but were not allowed to impair the romantic loneliness of the russet red building.
Herstmonceux is at the heart of a galaxy of tiny satellite hamlets like Flowers Green (where The Welcome Stranger was famous for only selling beer), Stunts Green, Gingers Green,
Windmill Hill and Cowbeech. Folk used to pour into the village from the outlying areas on a Saturday night in the days when it had its own cinema.
They are a waggish lot at the Merrie Harriers in Cowbeech and a few years back the regulars thought it their public duty to form the Marsh Mountain Rescue Team (Pevensey Levels, as flat as the proverbial pancake, are only a couple of miles away).
The intrepid band were ready for action though, complete with alpine hats, leather shorts, climbing boots and plenty of rope. In the event of fog on their rescue missions a bugle, which made a noise like a pig in torment, was carried to ascertain the
whereabouts of the team’s leader.