21 August 2016

East Sussex: Priory Park, Lewes

Mention ‘ruins’ and, in the blink of an eye, my camera bag is packed, and I’m in the car, ready to go! So, when Jill suggested we visit the site of an old priory, I said yes immediately (and, even better, it’s in a public park, so no entrance fee).

This from the signboard at the entrance:

The Priory of St Pancras, founded about 1078, was one of the largest and most powerful monasteries in England. It was of international importance as the first Priory in England linked to the influential Abbey of Cluny in Burgundy, France. What you see today are the ruins of this once magnificent establishment. After nearly 500 years most of it was deliberately destroyed in 1538 during the Reformation on the orders of Henry VIII.

As the sign goes on to say, it’s difficult now to imagine how grand and imposing the whole site must have been in its heyday – there were approximately 100 monks living and worshipping here in the 12th and 13th centuries, though there were only 24 at the time of its demise – but the frequent signboards around the site do a good job of helping the visitor imagine how the huge buildings once dominated this landscape (like the image below).

As  well as the enormous Priory church and its cloister, and the lodgings, a huge kitchen and the refectory for the monks, there was also a guesthouse, an infirmary and accompanying physic garden (and there’s still a small herb garden to give you an idea of what the monks used for their herbal remedies) and, of course, a reredorter (I love this fancy word for the toilet block), as well as a water mill and brewhouse, granary and bakery, forge and stables.

Though it is certainly difficult to imagine the grandeur, archaeological evidence shows that the church walls were decorated with frescoes, the floors were clad with fine glazed tiles, and the ceiling soared to grand heights under enormous curved stone arches.

Also on the site is a monument, unveiled on the occasion of the 700th anniversary, to commemorate the Battle of Lewes, fought on 14 May 1264. The English barons, led by Simon de Montfort, were fed up with the extravagance and bad governance of King Henry III, and fought to have England ruled by a council rather than the king – very forward-thinking of them! The barons won the battle and forced the king to sign the Mise of Lewes, a treaty restricting his authority, but, as history shows, royal power was later restored.

Designed by Enzo Plazzotta and perfectly sited to view the Lewes Castle tower through the facial slits, the helmet sculpture is a very impressive and very appropriate artwork, and there is something rather haunting about its empty shell. When engineers were building a new railway line through Lewes in 1845 (sadly, right through the northern part of the site!), they uncovered the burials of hundreds who died in the Battle of Lewes, so it’s fitting that those early pioneers of democracy be remembered here for their courage.

There is a mound near the entrance to the park, which, when climbed, provides wonderful views over the Priory ruins, some of Lewes township and across the surrounding countryside. Though we didn’t have time to explore on this occasion, Lewes itself looked old and interesting so that’s on my list for a future visit to East Sussex.

16 August 2016

East Sussex: Seven Sisters Country Park

Gigantic chalk cliffs that can crumble and drop in an instant.
The Cuckmere river that snakes and winds and meanders its way to the sea.
Sheep chewing, gulls cawing, waves crashing.
Cliff tops carpeted in a myriad of blooming wildflowers.
Water birds so well camouflaged that you scarcely notice them until they scurry down to the water’s edge to wash the mud from their next mouthful.
Wave-rounded pebbles of flint and chalk and limestone that scrunch with every foot fall.
Huge concrete bollards and hollow pillboxes that remind of war and grief and devastation.
Stunted trees that grow sidewise from the force of the prevailing winds.
A landscape so grand and a sky so wide that you feel humbled by the sheer majesty of the place ... 

This is the Seven Sisters Country Park. This is a little slice of heaven on earth!

To walk the landscapes of the Seven Sisters Country Park as they appeared in August 2014, click here, and to see some of the wildlife we discovered last week, follow this link

15 August 2016

East Sussex: a pocketful of Rye

At the end of our wonderful wander around Rye Harbour Nature Reserve I was feeling a little peckish – all that sea air and exercise, you know – so we headed to the nearby town of Rye, partly for a little exploration and partly to find somewhere to enjoy an early dinner.

Built on a hillock that was once surrounded by the sea, Rye is an ancient town. It was probably a shipping port in Roman times; it was gifted to a Norman Benedictine Abbey by King Aethelred and remained Norman property until 1247; and it was part of the Cinque Ports Federation, an important port in cross-Channel trade and commerce.

During the 18th and 19th centuries Rye was a strategic base for local smuggling operations – apparently the two pubs shown in the photo above, the Mermaid Inn (right) and the Old Bell Inn (left), had a secret passageway between them for use by the smugglers.

The steep and narrow streets are very photogenic, if a little tough on old leg muscles after a long day’s walking. However, as I might never go there again, I just had to walk up to the top of the hill, where sits St Mary’s Church, and back down the cobblestones to the quay alongside the River Brede. It was very lovely, awash with beautiful black-and-white buildings and with the type of charming old houses that look like they cost a fortune to own (I checked property prices later – a fortune, indeed!).

However, I do have one negative comment to make about Rye. In the middle of summer, at the height of the tourist season (and there were a lot of visitors about), the local cafe and restaurant proprietors should not be shutting up shop at 5pm! I’m quite sure we weren’t the only people looking for a riverside cafe to enjoy a bite in the late afternoon sunshine. Rye’s loss was Battle’s gain – we enjoyed a delicious cod-and-chips dinner at The King’s Head pub on the way home.

14 August 2016

East Sussex: Rye Harbour Nature Reserve

For the first full day of my holiday in East Sussex, Jill took me to the magnificent nature reserve at Rye Harbour. The reserve encompasses a large triangular piece of land, bordered on the east by the River Rother, on the south by the English Channel, extending west to Winchelsea beach and reaching north to the River Brede.

Our day began with a welcome cup of tea at a cafe alongside Rye Harbour, where fishing boats sat askew in the mud of low tide and, remarkably, a grey seal frolicked in the muddy tidal river water.

Refreshed, we headed along the road that leads down towards the sea. Over the millennia, millions of pebbles have eroded from the chalk cliffs all along the English Channel and a huge proportion of them have been deposited by the tides and fierce storms all along Rye Bay, which now forms the largest area of coastal shingle in Europe. In the past, enormous amounts of shingle were extracted from the area for use in building and road construction; now, those large extraction pits have filled with fresh water and form important habitats for local and migrating birds.

Looking left, we could see crowds of holidaymakers enjoying the sunny weather on Camber Sands, with the rather ominous silhouette of Dungeness nuclear power station in the background.

After a brief look at the Lime Kiln Cottage information centre and a glimpse of some wading birds from the first of five bird hides, we walked west along the concrete roadway that runs parallel to the coast. There were many other people enjoying the reserve but it is large enough not to feel crowded.

Looking to the northeast, a picturesque hut made a colourful highlight amongst the shingle banks, with the 26 turbines of the local wind farm as a backdrop.

About half way along the length of the reserve, we stopped for our picnic lunch at the edge of the beach. These are the views east, of Camber Sands and Dungeness, and west towards Winchelsea, showing the now-eroding wooden constructions that were once intended to hold the shingle banks in place.

Perhaps surprisingly, the shingle banks are home to a wide variety of plants and insect life, some rare and found only in this environment. The fresh water ponds were edged with lush reed growth, making the perfect home for the rare and often elusive bittern.

After turning inland and crossing between the ponds, we enjoyed the shade of a leafy woodland before emerging on to the farmland that runs along the northern edge of the reserve. Here we got our first sight of Camber Castle, built between 1539 and 1544 as part of Henry VIII’s coastal defence system.

During Henry’s reign, the castle was on the seashore but, almost as soon as construction was complete, the shoreline began to recede and today the sea is more than a mile away. No wonder, the castle was abandoned in 1642. Although we couldn’t get inside, a wander around the outside of the castle was the perfect way to end a superb day at Rye Harbour, though it’s a place I could easily imagine exploring over and over again.

For a look at some of the birds, insects and wildflowers we saw at Rye Harbour Nature Reserve, check out my Earthstar nature blog.

13 August 2016

East Sussex: a little cuckoo

I’ve just returned from a short holiday, staying with my friend Jill in East Sussex. It was a wonderful few days of walking and talking, delicious food and excellent company, with visits to some of the local scenic attractions.

When I arrived late Monday afternoon, after 3½ hours in a bus from Cardiff to London, followed by another 3 hours and two trains making my way south during the Southern Rail strike, I was in desperate need of some fresh air and exercise so we had an early dinner and headed out for a wander.

Jill lives very near part of the Cuckoo Trail (a former railway line, see more here) so we followed that for part of our walk and also meandered along a local footpath that took us near some wonderful old buildings – barn conversions; a rather posh old house with its own moat; an old mill now converted to a house. 

We  also walked through the delightful and extremely picturesque little village of Hellingly, with its old church surrounded by a graveyard-come-village green, edged by lovely old houses.

The architecture in this area is simply stunning: the steep ski-slope-shaped rooves clad in lichen-covered terracotta tiles, the rustic red brick, the traditional exposed timber framing, the flint-encrusted stone walls.... These are just a few photos from our evening stroll.