“O rare Norgem! thou dost far exceed Beckly, Peasemarsh, Udimore and Brede.’
A proud little jingle from the old days. The neighbouring villages probably resented the put down, but certainly Northiam has everything expected of a village: rich in old houses and history, with even a parish pump still on the green.
The village’s water supply was always a headache. Farthings, a late 16th century home reputed to be the first house in the village to have a bath, was where the locals were allowed to take a bucket of water from the pond next to the house by the owner, on payment of a farthing. The name Farthing Pond appears on some of the early maps.
A survey in 1876 revealed that 69 dwellings relied on wells for their water, 44 on pumps, nine on spring water and six on ponds. Twenty years later it was reported that several houses were without any water supply at all. Some had to bring their drinking water from Stawberry Hole while water for washing was fetched in ‘bodges’ from the pond at Higham at a rate of 6d a bodge. In 1932 piped water arrived in Northiam but it was not until 1958 that it was supplied throughout the village.
Bark stripping was an important industry in the past, the bark being stripped from oak trees and then taken to the tannery at Tenterden. There were tanyards here, too, and in 1562 one John Robinson along with two others was charged with selling tanned hides in his own house which was illegal.
Excavations in the 1930s confirmed the presence of a glass furnace in Glasshouse Field and further probing unearthed the shed floor and small fragments of pale green window and vessel glass typical of the 16th century. Hops, in addition to the more conventional crops, were a source of income but the most profitable one was, of course, smuggling. There were hiding places like the smallest house in Sussex’, a one-up, one-down cottage (a family of five once lived there) and secret passages. It was maintained you could get from Newenden in Kent to Northiam and Rye without using a single road!
Not even the Frewen family vaults at the church were sacred when it came to storing contraband and it was also established that children were daring each other to run down among the coffins. The entrance was bricked up to put an end to these affronts.
The railway reached Northiam in 1900 and closed 54 years later because it did not pay. The early London commuters would walk, or run, the 1% miles from the village to the station to catch the 7 am train up to town. Sometimes they arrived too late, but more often than not their absence was noted and the train would stop and come back for them. Easy-going days, those, when the passengers were allowed to get off at the station and pick bunches of flowers before being chivvied back aboard when the train was about to depart.
A carrier nicknamed Hard Times used to drive to Rye to pick up the mail and bring it back to the village. He livened up his return journey with a glass or two which led to a little song from the children:
“Have you seen old Hard Times Coming home from Rye, First he calls at Peace and Plenty, Then at Hare and Hounds, Then the Cock and Old Jemima, Then the Rose and Crown.”
John Frewen, a sturdy puritan who became rector in 1558, baptised his first two sons Accepted and Thankful, perhaps in recognition of his appointment. Accepted pursued a glittering academic career and was made Archbishop of York in 1660.
The time-battered oak on the village green is the spot where Queen Elizabeth I stopped on her way to Rye and enjoyed a meal made by George Bishop and his family from Hayes Farm. The Virgin Queen left Northiam with a lasting memento of her brief stop – her green damask shoes. She changed into a pair worn by one of her handmaids (it is not recorded how the poor girl managed to continue on the royal progress). – Four Prime Ministers gathered on the playing field in May 1944 for a final inspection of the troops of Southern Command before D Day. Their names were recorded on the gates erected by the parish to commemorate the visit: Rt Hon Winston S. Churchill (Great Britain), Rt Hon. Mackenzie King (Canada), Rt Hon Field Marshall Jan Christiaan Smuts (South Africa) and the Hon Sir Godfrey M. Huggins (Southern Rhodesia).
Travelling fairs were held on the green and in the field behind The Crown and Thistle, and on the frequent visits of the circus it was customary to cause a little consternation by letting lion cubs loose among the crowds. The Crown and Thistle was the destination of the all-male Northiam Slate Club on their procession through the village on the first Thursday in May wearing white smocks and bowler hats. At the pub they had bread and cheese, and then it was on to the green where dinner was served in a tent.
This ceased in 1904. Gone too is the Summer Cycle Parade with lavishly decorated bicycles, and the spring visit to homes by youngsters carrying a flower-decked maypole and chanting:
“Penny, penny poppy show. Give me a penny I’ll let you see?”
The St Francis Hospital for animals flourishes at Northiam on land given to the Sussex Blue Cross Branch of Our Dumb Friends League by Miss Kitty Comport in memory of her father and brother. The first residents were two donkeys, Aunt Rose and Midge.
There are few tales of ghosts in the village despite its great age, but former organist Mr Holdstock had two strange experiences while practising in the church. He heard men’s voices in the vestry though he knew no-one was there and the outer door was locked; and on another occasion when he was playing there came the strong fragrance of arum lilies, though there were no flowers to account for the heady scent.
The jubilee of Queen Victoria in 1897 was marked in a practical if strange way by the purchase of a Pony and Hand Hearse, made by Mr H. Kemp of Hawkhurst for £27. Funerals were conducted with it until recent years. The hearse, a magnificently ornate affair, has found its own final resting place at the village’s Perigoe Workshop Museum.
All garden lovers or people who study pretty pictures on calendars will have heard of Great Dixter, with its beautiful grounds and timber-framed medieval house. It was bought by Mr Nathanial Lloyd in 1910 and he employed Mr Edwin Lutyens (later the architect of New Delhi, for which he was knighted) for restoration and additions. One day the pair were driving through Benenden in Kent when they saw a derelict 16th century hall about to be pulled down. It had a seedy past and was known as ‘The Old House at Home’. Mr Lloyd bought it, the timbers were numbered joint by joint and it was brought to Great Dixter and reassembled as part of the additions on the south side.
Northiam is the birthplace of the Sussex Scone, larger than the usual variety and incorporating cinnamon and honey among other things in the old recipe. Makers Pat and Brian Cutler used to sell more than 7,500 in the space of six months, with visitors to Great Dixter accounting for a large proportion.