The Long Man of Wilmington towers above the village on Windover Hill. This faceless outline of a man carved into the chalk, standing 227ft high with two staves in his hands slightly longer than himself, still remains a mystery. Was he created by the monks at the priory? Is he of Roman origin? Or do his roots lie in the Neolithic period?
There are many theories about his identity, from a giant killed on this spot by a hammer thrown by another who lived at Firle to an ancient god throwing open the gates of dawn, but the Long Man is giving nothing away as he faces sightless but serene across the Weald. Unlike the Cerne Giant in Dorset he is sexless, and this has prompted enthusiastic attempts to remedy the situation. The offending additions to his anatomy have been hastily removed.
Wilmington has lost its baker, butcher, blacksmith and general store. Even the village pond where the carters used to water their horses has been filled in and the cottages of the farmworkers and craftsmen have a new breed of occupants. But if the days of self-sufficiency have gone there have been compensations. The old buildings have been lovingly restored to form one of the most picturesque village streets in the county.
The priory was established in the 13th century with additions in the 14th and 15th centuries. It was an ‘alien’ house, belonging to the Abbey of Grestain in Normandy, and therefore suspect, and it was frequently seized during the wars with the French. It was suppressed in 1414 in common with all the other alien houses and eventually fell into ruin. The priory was acquired by the Sussex Archaeological Trust and now forms an attractive feature at the end of the single street. It stands beside the church which boasts one of the oldest yew trees in the county. It was growing before the arrival of the Conqueror and its 23ft girth is now supported by posts and chains. The strange ‘Wilmington Madonna’ in the chancel was removed from an exterior wall and its rather gargoyle-like appearance has led to the suggestion that it could have pre-Christian origins as a pagan fertility symbol.
The old Sussex family of Ade have had strong connections with Wilmington down the centuries as their many resting places in the churchyard testify. Mr Peter Ade owned the site of the ‘tin chapel’ of the Congregationalists, now demolished, where the district council built the Ade’s Field estate.
Between the wars Wilmington would ring to the band music of the Territorials, who camped on the Downs, and other visitors were the gipsies (Didicais to the locals, a name of respect meaning gipsies of the better sort, not like Mumpers or Pikers). They used to camp on the green while they helped the farmers through the summer’s heavy workload.
The artist Harold Swanick and his wife lived in the village for many years, mistletoe growing in the apple trees of their garden at Street Farm. Hollywood star Ronald Colman was a frequent guest of the Swanicks and the actor Percy Marmont lived in
Wilmington before the Second World War.
Several ghosts have also favoured this place. There was a peg-legged sailor who sat in a chair in the village street smoking a clay pipe, and the eerie light which haunted one of the cottages and led the beholder into outbuildings before disappearing. The residents of The Chantry were so alarmed when they saw the spirit of an old lady gliding down the garden path that they slammed the door and locked it. There was a strange twist. They made inquiries and established that the apparition they had seen, which was certainly not tangible, was of somebody who was still alive. A living ghost, if that is not a contradiction in terms.
The Chantry, which has a stone face above the front door said to be a caricature of one of the village’s clergymen carved by sculptor with a sense of humour or an axe to grind, was once a school. It was run by an elderly woman who had a tough approach to young offenders. They were tied to a beam with a cord and threatened with a visit from the blacksmith to pull out their teeth with his tongs.