Where is it?” – An oak leaf on the beam – Solution

PUBLISHED: 09:58 20 May 2014 | UPDATED: 16:27 22 May 2014

Alfriston Clergy House - The Tye, Alfriston, Polegate, East Sussex

Explanation of embedded clues

Alfriston Clergy House was the first building purchased, in 1896, by the newly-formed National Trust. (The very first acquisition had been five acres of clifftop at Dinas Oleu in Wales). The vendors were the Ecclesiastical Commissioners, the house having been in the ownership of the nearby Michelham Priory for the previous five hundred years. The purchase price was ten pounds, a nominal sum even in today’s equivalent, but necessary to satisfy the legal requirements of a sale. Next door to the ‘humbler house’ stands the Church of St. Andrew, known as the ‘Cathedral of the South Downs’.

The thatched, timber-framed 14th Century Wealden ‘hall-house’ was not originally built by the Church however. It was built in 1350, the ‘Pride of a survivor’, of a yeoman farmer who prospered after the Black Death. By reducing the working population by up to one third, this had increased the wages and profit-margins of the survivors. It wasn’t until 1395 that the Priory was able to add the house to its extensive estates.

Over the next 500 years the house was modified and extended several times. Tenants came and went, but by 1885 the house had become a liability and the Church Authorities sought permission to demolish it once the existing elderly occupant, Harriet Coates, had died. This happened three years later, however the local Vicar, the Rev. F. W. Beynon, campaigned vigorously to save the house. In one initiative he contacted a group of three friends who, first separately and then together, were deeply committed to saving unspoilt countryside and ancient buildings threatened with destruction.

The ‘Reformer’ in the poem is Octavia Hill (1838-1912), the 8th daughter among twelve children, who, starting work at the age of fourteen, had tirelessly devoted herself to social reform. She was shocked by the terrible living conditions of the poor East End children in ‘the raggedy school’ where she helped out. Funded by John Ruskin, who acquired the leases, she set about renovating and letting out previously run-down houses. In a short time she had 15 housing schemes under her management with around three thousand tenants. ‘Open space for all’ was another campaign, successfully leading to the acquisition of Parliament Hill Fields and Hampstead Heath through the Commons Preservation Society.

The ‘Vicar’ in the poem is Canon Hardwicke Rawnsley (1851-1920). With the support of the others he had successfully campaigned to stop the construction of railways to serve slate quarries in some of the most beautiful parts of the Lake District.

The third member of the group, the ‘Lawyer’ in the poem, is Sir Robert Hunter (1844-1913), who was to become the first Chairman of the Executive Committee of what he christened ‘The National Trust for Places of Historic Interest or Natural Beauty’. Being a bit of a mouthful this was shortened to ‘The National Trust’, and it was under this name that Sir Robert Hunter secured its permanent status through the 1907 National Trust Act.

One of the first actions of the Trust was the launching of the successful appeal, by Octavia Hill, for funds to restore Alfriston Clergy House, which by then (1895) was in a dreadful state of repair. ‘The pleading voice (of the old building itself)’ is taken from Octavia’s text.

On the corner of a beam in the original hall of the house is a spot-lit carving of an Oak Leaf. It is thought that this may have been the original inspiration for the National Trust’s emblem.

Outside, the garden, laid out by the first NT tenant, Sir Robert Witt, is bordered by the River Cuckmere. The orchard contains old apple (‘forbidden fruit’) varieties like Sussex Duck’s Bill, Lady Henniker, Lady Sudeley, Crawley Beauty and the local Alfriston Apple. Also perhaps ‘forgotten fruit’ are the mulberry and medlar trees. The ‘betrayer – blood on its branches’ refers to the Judas tree (Cercis siliquastrum), so called because it is a tree of this mediterranean species from which Judas Iscariot is believed to have hung himself. Clusters of dark pink flowers appearing around Easter time, on bare branches, are traditionally said to resemble drops of blood.

In 1995, the Centenary of the National Trust was celebrated by the installation of a special sundial, sitting on a balustrade from the old London Waterloo bridge (‘a bridge from the past’) and the naming of a new rose variety ‘Octavia Hill’.

Finally, the last line, ‘telling their stories to days yet to come’, again belongs to Octavia Hill whose dedication and tenacity accomplished the seemingly impossible for generations to come.

Acknowledgement of sources:

National Trust Handbook and Website.

‘Alfriston Clergy House’, NT visitors pamphlet.

‘Open Churches in Sussex Country’ pamphlet, (Wealden District Council).

‘England’s Thousand Best Houses’, Simon Jenkins, Allen Lane, 2003 (page 746).

‘The RHS New Encyclopedia of Plants and Flowers’, Christopher Brickell (Ed.), Dorling Kindersley, 1999.

Relevant websites found by searches for ‘Alfriston Clergy House’, ‘Octavia Hill’, ‘Sir Robert Hunter’, ‘Canon Hardwicke Rawnsley’.

Latest from the Sussex Life