Historic villages of Sussex

PUBLISHED: 16:58 29 November 2010 | UPDATED: 18:03 20 February 2013

Historic villages of Sussex

Historic villages of Sussex

Clive Aslet's new book tells the history of the countryside through their most noteworthy settlements. Fifteen of the 500 are in Sussex. Here he tells us about three of them.

Clive Aslet, the Editor at Large of Country Life, has written a new book Villages of Britain which tells the history of the countryside through their most noteworthy settlements. Fifteen of the 500 are in Sussex. Here he tells us about three of them

Home of the Sussex trug
Life is full of little pleasures, and one of them is holding a Sussex trug. This boat-shaped wooden basket, used to carry secateurs, seedlings and freshly pulled carrots around the garden, can become, quite literally, a friend for life. Enthusiasts will take these hardy receptacles, after what may have been forty years of good service, back for repairs. It isnt that their owners cant afford a new one, but, like other pieces of craft made from natural materials, the trug enjoys an intimate relationship with the person using it. They have shared happy garden hours together, at the rising of the sun and its going down, during misty mornings and golden afternoons. You cant throw a trug like that on the bonfire, any more than you would put down an old Labrador before its time.
Trugs came only from Sussex. The epicentre of production was, and remains, the village of Herstmonceux. It was here that this form of basket was invented in the 1820s by Thomas Smith. There had been trugs before. The word derives from the Anglo-Saxon trog, meaning a boat-shaped vessel. The old trogs had been circular, like miniature coracles. Then, as now, their dimensions were determined by the amount of grain they held, farmers using them to measure out bushels, gallons and pints. Smiths innovation was to add the handle to carry it by, and little feet on which it could stand without rolling over. It was the dawn of what the encyclo-pedist and garden theorist John Claudius Loudon* would call the Gardenesque, with its emphasis on individual, exotic plants. The Sussex trug was ideal for carrying cut flowers, plants and vegetables. At the Great Exhibition of 1851, Smith won both a gold medal and an order from Queen Victoria.
Once, trug-makers abounded by the dozen around Herstmonceux, taking their raw materials from the chestnut coppice and cricket-bat willow that grew locally. Now, the only place where they are made in the village is The Truggery, found behind the veranda of an unassuming brick house on the A271. Trugs have been made here since 1899. Some of the old ones, with green trim, are displayed in a glass-fronted cupboard in the shop, with little tickets attached by string explaining their history. The baskets, mostly of the standard half bushel, supplemented by a few long cucumber or sweet-pea trugs, are everywhere piled on the floor, hung from the ceiling, marching along the keyboard of a piano. Overlooking fields at the back is the sap-smelling workshop, its window blinds permanently down so that sunlight cant distract the craftsmans eye.
Stripped to the waist, Pete Marden a bald man, orange-bearded is splitting chestnut. Once split, it is steamed with the bark on for twenty minutes in a converted iron pipe, until it can be bent to form handle and rims. Willow, cut into thin boards and shaved smooth, is used because it is light. Having been soaked in water, the boards become pliable enough to curve into shape. Where does the straight, knot-free willow come from? Offcuts from cricket bats made at Robertsbridge.

Where King Harold had a hall
Bosham, pronounced Bozzum, is a seaweedy sort of place, positioned like a wisdom tooth in the jagged mouth that is Chichester harbour, with a sailing club, various tea rooms and nautically named dwellings, such as Galleon House. One of them must have been occupied by Grey Wornum, architect of the Royal Institute of British Architects building in London, that elegant piece of 1930s Swedish moderne. His last work was to design the gates of Holy Trinity church at Bosham, in memory of his daughter Jennifer, who was drowned, aged 23, in 1950. Many waters cannot quench love, reads the inscription on a tablet set into the flint wall.
An image of the church features in the Bayeux Tapestry. The future King Harold, who owned a manor here, is portrayed riding up to it, a hawk on his wrist and a pack of hounds in front of him. He is about to set out across the Channel, on the mysterious but certainly disastrous expedition of 1064, which left him shipwrecked on the Normandy coast. (While Harold was being entertained by Duke William, the latter tricked him into swearing away the succession over a hidden box of holy bones.) The lower part of the tower and the chancel arch survive from the church Harold knew. While the needlewomen showed the Ecclesia diagrammatically, they used the name Bosham, unusually spelt the same way as today.
Sussex means the land of the South Saxons. In 477, a Saxon warrior called Ella led an army to invade what was then the island of Selsey, near Bosham, and eventually ruled all the provinces south of the Humber, according to Bede. But the moment of glory did not last. During the struggle between Mercia and Wessex, Sussex seemed to be on a limb. This left the South Saxons to get on with their lives in relative peace. Sticking tenaciously to the culture they had brought with them from Germany, they were slow to adopt the new religion of Christianity. Bede wrote that the Scottish monk, Dicul, set up a small monastery at Bosham in the 660s, but none of the local inhabitants could be persuaded to convert. It took another churchman, the rebarbative bishop Wilfrid of Ripon, exiled from almost everywhere else in England, to do the job in the 680s. Wilfrid established his cathedral at Selsey, but like the rest of the Saxon town there, it has been lost to the waves.
Harolds manor house at Bosham has also disappeared: the Bayeux Tapestry shows him feasting in an upper hall. It is a pleasant scene. After 1066, however, the sleepy, traditionalist South Saxons were in for a rude awakening. Being so close to France, Sussex was the first part of England to be systematically Normanised.


The countryside at war
In 1944, shortly before D-Day, General Montgomery came to address the troops gathered on Broadwater Green outside Findon. What he said has not been recorded, because the likelihood is that it was not Montgomery at all, but a pseudo Monty in the form of his double, the actor Clifton James, deployed by MI5 as a ruse to confuse the Germans. Sussex, like much of southern England, was intensely engaged in preparations for the Allied invasion. It was a wonderful time to be a child.
At Findon, Canadian troops practised the assault techniques that they would unleash both in the bungled dummy Operation Fabius and the genuine landing on Utah beach. The German position was represented by the Iron Age hill fort of Cissbury Ring. Villagers from Findon put their hands over their ears as the defending machine guns put up their continuous clatter, while the attacking forces inched nearer behind a barrage of high explosives and phosphorus. Bren guns mounted on tank tracks had been converted to flame throwers. At other times, genial Canadian soldiers were happy to give boys a ride on these armoured vehicles. After manoeuvres, local children would assemble alarming caches of shell cases and shrapnel, even guncotton and gelignite. It was all good fun until one lad was badly burned by a thunderflash that exploded unintentionally, and the building of arsenals stopped.
In the early part of the War, the south coast had been overflown during the Battle of Britain, and local people could watch Spitfires and Hurricanes fighting Messerschmitts and Heinkels in the sky. As the prospects of an Allied invasion of France increased, coastal towns were sporadically bombed by the Luftwaffe, which could cross the Channel in minutes. Before D-Day, gliders that would be used to transport troops behind enemy lines were a more common sight; one of them crashed, part of its plywood frame being converted into a hard-wearing gun case by a local shooting enthusiast.
Soldiers would play football with the Sussex youngsters to stave off boredom. Amid the beauty of the South Downs, it must have seemed strangely unmartial, more like a holiday camp than a war. And then they were gone. The countryside emptied; the bangs and flashes ceased. The noise of bombardment was now echoing around beaches on the French side of La Manche. The earthworks of Cissbury Ring had been replaced by the dunes of the Normandy coast.

Clive Aslet
Clive Aslet joined Country Life in 1977 and is now Editor at Large. He writes extensively for national newspapers and often broadcasts. His most recent books were the highly acclaimed Landmarks of Britain and The English House.
He has strong family connections to Sussex. His mother is from Chichester and one of his earliest memories is visiting a family beach hut at West Wittering. He also visited relations in Battle regularly and once seriously considered living here.
At one point we were going to move to Lewes. Its got beautiful architecture and good schools. I couldnt actually manage it but I thought it would be a great place to live.
He says that there are more villages from Sussex in the book than from any other county. Its full of absolutely remarkable villages. Its fascinating how they have survived in Sussex.
Clive feels that the future of the village is secure especially as new technology allows more people to work from home.

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