14 October 2014

England: Pevensey, East Sussex

My last stop in the UK (except for a couple of days in London before I left) was visiting my friend Jill in East Sussex, another part of the country I hadn’t been to before, so we spent our days out exploring the beautiful countryside in that neck of the woods.

Pevensey is a small settlement about one mile inland from Pevensey Bay – it was once on the edge of a tidal lagoon and marshes but the shoreline has moved rather a lot over the centuries. The bay was the first landing point for William the Conqueror when he invaded England in 1066 but the Romans had invaded this place long before Willie pulled his boat ashore.

The Roman fort – and the Norman castle built inside its walls – was the main reason we visited Pevensey. Dating from around 290AD and in constant use until the Romans withdrew from Britain around 410AD, the Roman fort of Anderita was one of a chain of ten built along the southern British coastline to protect against Saxon pirate raids.

Built to the shape of the peninsula jutting into the lagoon, the walls are not as rectangular as most Roman forts, but they are still in remarkably good condition. The main entrance, through a western gateway flanked by tall towers, is particularly imposing.

The Roman walls

Aerial view, taken from one of the signboards

Inside these protective walls, the Normans built their own defences – a large castle which has a long and colourful history of warfare and defence. Four times it was besieged and survived. In 1088 and 1147, starvation rather than damage to the castle forced the defenders to surrender, in 1264-5 supporters of Henry III held out against the forces of Simon de Montfort, and in 1399 those loyal to Henry Bolingbroke held out against the supporters of Richard II.

From the top of the castle walls looking back to the Roman fort walls

The Norman Castle
Although largely obsolete by the 16th century, the Elizabethans installed light artillery defences at the castle during the threat from the Spanish Armada in 1588. And, as recently as 1940, pill boxes were concealed in the walls to defend the south coast against potential invasion by German troops, and both British and Canadian troops were stationed in the castle.

On the right is the postern gate, the rear entrance to the castle leading down to the harbour

The castle is well sign-boarded and has a small exhibition room, with clear well-illustrated explanations of the castle’s construction and history. Given the castle’s violent past, it’s no surprise to see a large cannon in the inner bailey – well, a late-16th-century demi-culverin gun, to be more precise   and a large stack of trebuchets, the big round stones used in slingshot machines. The stone foundations of the wooden chapel are also easy to see, and the font still sits in place in what would have been the nave.

After exploring the castle, up the towers and down the dungeon, we circled the outside of the Roman fort and wandered around the streets on either side. To the east is the tiny village of Pevensey, and to the right is Westham (the HAMlet WEST of the castle, hence the name). Each has its own church and historic buildings. The Anglican Church of St Nicholas in Pevensey dates from the early 13th century and is a splendid example of early English Gothic architecture, with fine medieval stained glass windows above the High Altar. I was particularly taken with the tall Victorian spiral staircase in the bell tower. In Westham, St Mary’s Church may well be the first Norman church in England, with the earliest parts of its construction dating from the late 11th century.

Church of St Nicholas
St Mary's Church
As well as the church, Pevensey also boasts The Courthouse, the smallest town hall in England, many ancient domestic buildings and The Old Mint House. As the name implies, coins were once minted in this 650-year-old 28-room building but it has a long and colourful history which also includes the visits of kings and tales of hauntings. The Smugglers Inn, built in 1527, is also supposed to be visited by a young lady ghost.

The Old Mint House
Westham also has its share of historic buildings, with both the timber-framed Oak House and the Old Dial House dating from 1500 and both are Grade II listed. Several properties in both of these towns were for sale, so if you fancy a small slice of historic England for yourself – and you have plenty of money – now’s your chance.

Left, the Oak House and, right, Smugglers Inn