The history of Eastbourne
PUBLISHED: 10:32 20 June 2017 | UPDATED: 10:32 20 June 2017
Sussex Life has asked Clive Agran to get the inside story on the county’s best-loved towns and villages by being taken around by the people who know them best. He launches his new series in Eastbourne
Since Eastbourne is a seaside town I not unreasonably assumed the Old Town, which is where I am meeting my guide for the day, would be somewhere along the front, near the pier perhaps. It isn’t. It’s back up on a hill some distance from the sea, which fazes me somewhat.
Jo Seaman seems equally flustered as he jogs the last few strides to our rendezvous outside the Lamb pub on the High Street. Eastbourne Borough Council’s heritage service manager fears he’s late, but isn’t. “This is where Eastbourne began,” he announces somewhat breathlessly as we stroll into Motcombe Gardens. Staring into the surprisingly clear water of a pretty duck pond fed by a spring that bubbles up in one corner, he reveals: “This is the source of the Bourne, the stream from which Eastbourne gets its name.” It’s a pretty spot and I can understand why the Saxons chose to settle here. So Eastbourne’s earliest origins were as a downland village rather than a seaside town.
Just a few yards back from the pond stands an imposing flint dovecote with a conical tiled roof. Jo pulls an impressive bunch of keys from his pocket and unlocks the door. Staring up at the hundreds of empty nest boxes, it’s easy to see where the term pigeonhole comes from. Originally constructed around 1300, the holes have been hewn from chalk. The ones within three feet of the floor, explains Jo, were removed around the middle of the 18th century to prevent brown rats, which had recently arrived in this country, from climbing up and devouring all the birds. The dovecote would have stood in the grounds of a manor house and been something of a status symbol enabling the owner to impress his friends by serving enormous pies stuffed with month-old baby pigeons called ‘squabs’. “My hunch is the house was somewhere over there,” says Jo, pointing towards a smart suburban street.
On our way to St Mary’s, we pass a handsome Tudor building. Formerly Netherin Manor and built around 1550, it is now known as the Parsonage. “I want to show you some medieval graffiti,” says Jo as we enter an impressive Norman church. “Can you see the fish?” he asks, pointing to a scratchy looking mark on a pillar. He shines a torch on it and the fish leaps out at me. There are dozens of fish, curious daisy wheels and various squiggly lines seemingly on every column. Rather than the mindless doodles of bored choirboys, they are protection symbols deliberately drawn to ward off evil. Somewhat less mystical was one near the font which had a heart with an arrow through it and read: “William Dodd, Rebeckah Dodd 1799.”
Jo likes it because there’s obviously a story behind it. He has a great fondness for stories, especially those that fire the imagination. As an archaeologist he understands the importance of bringing to life what to the uninitiated can sometimes appear rather dull. In the interests of truth he occasionally has to spoil a good story. As we pass the Lamb he explains there is a vault beneath it and what looks likes the end of a tunnel that some liked to believe was used by smugglers. The rather less glamorous interpretation is that the ‘tunnel’ was in fact a cesspit beneath a garderobe or medieval toilet.
A healthy dose of scepticism is clearly a valuable quality in the make-up of an archaeologist and Jo raises his eyebrows at the Lamb’s claim on the sign outside to have been built in 1150. He also expresses doubts about a blue plaque opposite which states: “Charles Dickens made several visits to this ancient house in the 1830s”. “Probably dropped by once,” speculates Jo. Occasionally his scepticism proves unfounded. He admits he was doubtful that Horse Mound in Gildredge Park contained the remains of a horse belonging to the Davies Gilbert family. But a modest excavation four years ago uncovered a genuine horse bone.
Like a lot of the real estate around here, Gildredge Park was formerly owned by the Davies Gilbert family. But the Duke of Devonshire is the major player in the property stakes today and our next visit is to his imposing Compton House. Once the home of British aristocrats, it now functions as a language school for overseas students improving their English. Walking in via the tradesmen’s entrance, we quickly whizz around the outside. Jo points out where the carriage drive used to be while I gaze wistfully at the fairways of the adjacent Royal Eastbourne Golf Club.
Clearly a sensitive man, Jo detects my slight concern that we’ve not looked at any of the town’s more familiar landmarks yet but my anxiety eases as we continue downhill towards the sea. After stopping by the late Victorian town hall to admire the sweeping staircase and stained-glass windows, we consider some of the famous names associated with the town. A few are literary figures: Arthur Conan Doyle was a regular visitor as was Lewis Carroll and HG Wells; Theresa May was born in Eastbourne; George Orwell, Henry Longhurst and Eddie Izzard went to school here; and Sir Ernest Shackleton and Tommy Cooper lived here. Jo tells a good story about Tommy Cooper. “Here,” the comedian would say, pressing a tea-bag into the palm of whoever took him home after an intoxicating evening out, “have a drink on me.”
Along the front we pass, according to the banner: “The Busiest Bandstand in the UK”. Jo clearly likes the bandstand and describes it as: “An iconic seaside building.” A little further on we enjoy a much-needed rest on a bench by the entrance to the pier. Jo reveals the astonishing news we’re possibly sitting on top of a massive Roman villa. Beneath the formal flowerbeds, which are justifiably the pride of Eastbourne, Jo suspects there are Roman remains every bit as spectacular as the ones at Fishbourne. A few clues have been found and he intends to exploit the two weeks of the year the flowerbeds are empty to literally dig a little deeper.
Our final stop is the extraordinary Redoubt Fortress, which is a few hundred yards further east along the promenade. An important link in the chain of Martello towers along the south coast designed to repel Napoleon, the exceptionally solid and circular structure was built more than two centuries ago but was more or less redundant from the start. The mighty cannon have only ever fired three shots in anger, all of which missed a French frigate. Inside it today is an exhibition which recreates the unappealing living conditions soldiers would have had to endure. Jo has a great idea about putting the remarkable space inside the fortress to more imaginative and creative use but that’s another story for another day. Meanwhile, I have to walk back to where it all began… the Old Town.
• Things to do in Eastbourne - Forget the tired jokes about God’s waiting room – Eastbourne has been both a thriving tourist centre and popular place to bring up a family for decades. Duncan Hall finds out the reasons why.