A walk in the park
This walk looks at an area of the Cuckmere Valley which was used, by the monks of Michelham Priory for hunting and fishing, perhaps surprisingly as they should have been devoting time to their prayers. But then these same monks were not adverse to making unauthorised visits to their local watering hole either. The Priory itself is now owned by the Sussex Archaeological Society.
LENGTH – 4 miles
TIME – 2 hours
START – Arlington Church, The Street, Arlington, BN26 6SE.
PARKING – Roadside parking in vicinity.
TOILETS – No public toilets available.
REFRESHMENTS – Pubs at Arlington and Upper Dicker and café in Upper Dicker
This walk contains stiles.
Arlington village has a long and fascinating history. It began as a small Roman town on the east-west road, Farne Street, about ½ mile (1 kilometre) south of the present village centre. By medieval times, the village appears to have been sited just to the south-west of the church. Although this site may have been affected by the Black Death of 1348, a map of 1629 still shows some houses in the area being inhabited. Combining this with the name of the field in which the earthworks are sited – The Sluices – suggests that this site may have been lost to increased flooding during the climate deterioration of the 1600s, the so-called mini Ice Age, when the present more dispersed pattern of settlement in the parish became established.
The route briefly passes along a track called Sessingham Lane to enter the land owned by Michelham Priory in a field with obvious earthworks. This is the former Doomsday settlement of Sessingham with a population of about 70 in 1100. When the priory was established in 1229, the village was destroyed and the inhabitants evicted to provide the necessary “solitude” for the monks. The village watermill (possibly represented by the earthworks) paid a rent of 10 shillings and 500 eels and may have been retained to supplement the new mill adjacent to the Priory.
At this point the route abuts Park Wood whilst Parkwood Farm can be seen a little to the east. This reflects the use made of the land by the monks as a hunting park. Whilst possibly a strange activity for monks to modern thinking, it provided food supplies all year round, was used to graze animals and to provide much needed timber for the church building programme. The park was certainly resented by the former inhabitants of Sessingham, who were found guilty of killing deer in 1278 and of mass trespass in the Park in 1294 for which they were imprisoned.
A short detour from the route leads to the actual buildings of Michelham Priory. The surviving parts mostly date from the era of Prior John Leem (1374 – 1417) who rebuilt the then 150 year old original priory and constructed the moat. The latter, reflects the increased French raids along the coast during the Hundred Years War and the chance that they might sail up the Cuckmere to attack the Priory. Leem combined his spiritual duties with his roles as the local bailiff for the Lord of Pevensey Castle and as a “commissioner of array to resist the invasion of the French”. Unfortunately the huge sum of money needed for these works put the monks in the hands of Sir Roger Fiennes of Herstmonceux Castle, as when the mortgage could not be repaid, the keys and seal of the Priory were seized by Fiennes in lieu.
Just to the east of the footpath here is a chain of fish ponds. Fish formed an important part of the medieval diet, since they could be obtained fresh at any time of the year. Such ponds were managed as a modern fish farm is, with a chain of ponds containing fish of different ages. Unfortunately, by the 1440s, the Priory was not being as well managed, with the number of monks falling and the buildings deteriorating. Repairs were needed to the kitchens and barns and the Prior was ordered to reduce his number of personal servants to 6 and his fine riding horses to 4 and spend more time recruiting monks and getting the books up to date for audit. However, it then became apparent that the prior had been funding his retinue by selling a silver goblet, 38 oxen, 6 cows, 12 horses (once kept in the park), all the millstones and several valuable books. The poor monks in contrast had “scarcely enough to keep them in food and drink”.
The route now leaves the Michelham Priory hunting park and the bank and ditch forming the park boundary can be clearly seen at this point. This was originally topped by a wooden paling fence to stop animals escaping from the park; hence the modern expression “beyond the pale”. So was the condition of the Priory and monks by about 1500. The dormitory and two mills were in ruins with the money needed to rebuild them locked in a legal dispute with Bayham Abbey. The prior was “poisoning the whole convent with his strange and evil arguments”; the sub-Prior was carrying out an “association” with Alice Ford, one of the priory servant’s wives, “to the prejudice and scandal of the monastery” and the remaining 9 monks were “frequenting the tavern outside the gatehouse”. Such practices provided ample excuse for Henry VIII to close down the Priory in 1537 as part of the Dissolution of the Monasteries.