Abbots and Artists
Alciston village forms a lasting memorial to the medieval village. The church, manor house, dovecote, fish ponds and tithe barn, once owned by Battle Abbey, still dominate the village. By contrast, Berwick church contains a full set of medieval-style paintings executed in 1942 by the Bloomsbury group of artists from nearby Charleston.
LENGTH – 5 miles
TIME – 3 hours
START – Alfriston Church, The Tye, Alfriston, BN26 5TL (NGR 522 030)
PARKING – The Willows or The Dene car parks, Alfriston. Pay and display.
TOILETS – The Willows or The Dene car parks, Alfriston.
REFRESHMENTS – Pubs, tea rooms and restaurants in Alfriston. Pub in Berwick.
St Andrews Church is known as the “Cathedral of the Downs”. It is said its location, on the side of the green called The Tye, was determined by the sight of four oxen lying in the shape of a cross. Just outside the churchyard is the original priest’s house, the Old Clergy House, which was the first building to be saved by the fledgling National Trust back in 1896.
Markets have been held in Alfriston since the reign of Richard the Lionheart and the main road still broadens to form a market place. The sculptured market cross in the centre was snapped off in 1780, but restored 50 years later and still stands today. Nearby there is a wealth of fine wooden carvings on the Star Inn with strange, pagan designs, including dragons, serpents and green men. This is somewhat surprising as the inn originally belonged to the Abbots of Battle and served as a hostel for travelling monks. Also outside the pub is a much larger carving of a red lion, which is the figurehead of a Dutch ship wrecked near Cuckmere Haven in the late 17th century.
The discovery of a pagan Saxon cemetery at the top of Winton Street reflects the early origins of Alfriston. Typically sited on a gentle spur below the Downs, its inhabitants had yet to be converted to Christianity. For their journey to Valhalla the men were buried clutching swords and spears whilst the women had jewellery and household objects. The level of artwork is high and includes amber beads brought from the Baltic countries, silver broaches and necklaces and a rare conical glass vessel perhaps used for toasting.
At Alciston the manor was owned by Battle Abbey who operated it as a self-contained grange or farm providing wealth to be ploughed back into the Abbey. Being a Downland estate it specialised in sheep farming on the Downs themselves and the growing of cereal crops on the lower slopes. To do this the Abbey invested in a steward’s manor house, a dovecote and fishponds (to provide food throughout the winter) and a huge barn some 170 feet (52 metres) long to store the produce of their labours. All these are still in existence today forming a unique tribute to the strength of their original design and construction.
Nearby is Alciston church. Despite also being owned by Battle Abbey, it is tiny compared with the barn and might suggest that monastic farming was accorded a higher status than religion at this location. A strange feature of the church is no less than five sundials very close to each other around the southern door.
Berwick church stands proud on a reused prehistoric mound, visible for many miles. This is a most unusual position for a round barrow since they are normally on top of the Downs. The location may suggest a Saxon burial similar to the famous Sutton Hoo mounds in Suffolk, in which case who knows what riches and artwork might be found within. Unfortunately, this location made the church an easy target for bombs in World War II, leading to the destruction of much of the stained glass and its replacement with plain glass. Seeking some advantage from this event Bishop Bell invited the nearby “Bloomsbury” group of artists from Charleston to paint the interior of the church in 1942/3. The result is a unique series of medieval-style wall paintings by Duncan Grant, Vanessa and Quentin Bell, executed in a contemporary manner and incorporating local people and views.
Whilst we have taken reasonable endeavours to ensure the information is up to date and correct, you will be using the information strictly at your own risk. If you come across any inaccuracies whilst you are on your walk, please contact Wealden District Council’s Community and Regeneration team.
The self-guided walk descriptions are provided to help you navigate your way, however we recommend that you plan your route prior to walking the route and that you carry an Ordnance Survey map of the area being walked and follow your position on the map as you proceed.
Please note, we cannot be responsible for the conditions of the footpaths and land and you are responsible for your own safety.