The great pestilence
Apart from Alfriston, almost all the villages and hamlets in this part of the Downs show signs of a reduction in population and in some cases have all but vanished. Whilst not the only factor (a declining climate and French coastal attacks were also to blame), the influence of the Great Pestilence or Black Death in 1348/9 and returning in 1361/2, 1387 and 1396, which it is suggested killed between a third and a half of the population, was a major factor in this decline. Alfriston Clergy House is open to the public. For more information on the Alfriston Clergy House go to the National Trust website.
LENGTH – 8.5 miles
TIME – 4.5 hours
START – Alfriston Church, The Tye, Alfriston, BN26 5TL.
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 and Berwick
This walk contains stiles.
Alfriston, as the main “town” of the Cuckmere valley, was and is a prosperous settlement. However, shortly after leaving the village, this walk passes through Winton. The “tun” (settlement of) place name shows a village founded in Saxon times and expanding into the medieval period. Today, the village street is lined with attractive medieval houses, but also features large gaps between the houses where others once stood.
Moving on to Berwick, the field to the north of Church Farm and east of the village road is now empty, but obvious earthworks show where houses once stood; the village having reduced in size from its medieval peak. This pattern is repeated along the base of the Downs all the way to the Ouse valley, including Tilton and Charleston (reduced to single farms), Heighton (deserted), Preston (single farm) and Beddingham (a hamlet). Only Firle, boosted by the presence of the Gage family has recovered to true village status.
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. However, the village around has shrunk. Formerly large enough to have a separate south and north town either side of the monastic buildings; today the south town consists of only three house and the north town shows many gaps between the existing properties.
From the top of the Downs, the entire Alciston estate owned by Battle Abbey can be seen; originally comprising holdings at East Blatchington (17 families), Lullington (37) Tilton (9) as well as 34 at Alciston itself, a total of 97 families in all. In an average year the number of heads of households dying across the whole estate was just 3. In spring 1349, the plague arrived in the area travelling along the coast. At the April court, 14 heads of households had died at Blatchington, 5 at Lullington, 2 at Tilton and 3 at Alciston. In the next three months the plague spread inland up the Cuckmere valley with more deaths at Blatchington (5), Lullington (13), Tilton (6) and Alciston (6). Finally by August 1349, another 1 had died at Blatchington, 7 at Lullington and 1 at Alciston. These figures are for heads of household only; their families were dying in equal numbers.
The Greenway track, along which the walk proceeds, originated as a link between the Battle Abbey owned properties of Alciston and East Blatchington near Seaford. Unfortunately, as people and goods moved along the tracks they became a means of spreading the disease.
Just a year later in spring 1350, this view along the Cuckmere valley, would have shown ruined houses and unfarmed land. The settlements at Blatchington and Tilton had effectively ceased to exist and Lullington had lost two-thirds of its people. Strangely the parent settlement at Alciston had been the least affected with “only” one-third of its inhabitants dead.
As you descend the steep hill from High and Over, the footpath runs straight through an area of earthworks. This comprises a courtyard enclosure with the site of at least six buildings within and has been interpreted as the location of one the two manors of Frog Firle. The less substantial peasant housing was probably adjacent. When described in the Doomsday Book they had a population of around 67, but having seen the losses in the Cuckmere valley for the Battle Abbey estates, no doubt they were just as catastrophic here.
For those who had lost loved ones and particularly the working members of the family in a basically subsistence economy, the Black Death was devastating. However, it also acted as an agent for change. For some, the previous unquestioning belief in the Christian church began to waver and this would influence the religious changes and schisms of the Tudor period. With far fewer mouths to feed, the price of land fell drastically, allowing the survivors to buy or just take over deserted land and expand their own holdings to the eventual benefit of their descendants. The medieval practice of peasants paying rents in kind and having to work in their Lord’s fields for nothing was broken and a new class of yeoman owning their own land or paying lower cash rents eventually emerged. Such yeoman wished for better housing, a good example being the four bay Old Clergy House built between 1399 and 1407 with its large central hall, service rooms at one end and the family accommodation at the other. The house was the first ever property brought by the then new National Trust in 1896 (for a tenner) and is open to the public.
Local examples of these changes can be seen at Alfriston. By 1353, tolls were being levied on a fledgling market in the village and in 1406 this was formalised by means of a Royal Charter. Part of the money raised went towards a rebuilding of the church in the 1360s. Despite losing the head of household and his son, the Potman family of Alciston began to buy up derelict land in the other settlements, becoming the owners of 70 acres in Alfriston. Within another generation they would become the estate bailiffs. On a less creditable note, one branch of the Plot family died out and the other lost all her property by a bad marriage, whilst in 1357, James Archer was fined for tearing down and carrying off building materials that he did not own from abandoned houses in Blatchington.