It gives its name to the stretch of marshland that runs from the village to Winchelsea. Wild and none too attractive. A bit like the eccentric brothers Daniel and Edward Thurston, who lived here.
The brothers occupied a tumbledown shack on the foreshore at Pett Level and travelled the area in a pony and trap specialising in mending leather bellows. Old, unkempt and peculiar, they were given the cold shoulder by many of the locals and their shack, made from an old boat and driftwood, became known as Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
The Thurstons would supplement their income with a little fishing and they kept a few sheep on the free marshland. But it was not enough to keep them out of debt. Sussex Life recorded that one night local farmers cornered the brothers in their cabin demanding payment for hay and feed. One of the Thurstons tore a patch from his jacket, stuffed it into his pipe and lit up. The resultant stench in the confined space put all the creditors to flight.
A folly on the grand scale ends at Pett. The Royal Military Canal, running from Cliff End to Shorncliffe in Kent, was conceived as a sort of moat to keep out the French invaders. It cost Pitt’s government £200,000 but was barely finished before the craziness of the operation became apparent: that an army that had crossed Europe’s great rivers (not to mention the English Channel) would be thwarted by a canal barely 30 feet wide. It is a pleasant spot for walking though, and must have provided plenty of employment in its time.
The evils of the demon drink cost villagers their pub for a period of about 70 years. The Royal Oak Inn was closed by landowner Mrs Lucal Shadwell, of Fairlight, in whose estate it was included. It was at the annual tenants’ ball at the big house that the behaviour of some of her Pett tenants upset her; they were having too much of a good time it seems, so she turned the pub into a temperance hotel and the sale of liquor was banned. Trade soon fell away but there was no relenting and the village stayed dry’ for a generation and more. Happily, alcoholic beverages can be bought at the bar today.
The Department of Trade had to get tough with unofficial salvage teams and souvenir hunters attracted in 1974 by the wreck of the Anne, a British frigate lying in the sands off Pett Level. They were threatened with a maximum fine of £400 for tampering with the vessel, which was beached on the coast and burnt by her captain after a battle off Beachy Head between the British and Dutch fleets and the French fleet in 1690.