31 March 2019

East Sussex : Once was a railway

Every time I visit my friend Jill in East Sussex we go walking along part of the Cuckoo Trail, which runs very near where she lives.

This was once a railway line, running from Heathfield in the north to Polegate in the south, but the line was closed on 13 June 1965, a victim of the Beeching cuts. The railway was known as the Cuckoo Line because of an old tradition, dating back to the 1300s, whereby a cuckoo was released at the Heathfield Fair to celebrate the coming of Spring. The fair continues to this day but now, thankfully, the cuckoo bears more than a passing resemblance to a pigeon! 

As has happened with many of the railway lines that were scrapped as a result of the Beeching cuts, the tracks were removed and the land converted to a now-very-popular walking and cycling trail. And, though the trains are long gone, the Cuckoo Trail still retains many hints as to its former use. These are some of them.

The dotted line on my map marks the approximate route (hand drawn by me, so not entirely accurate). In Hailsham, the Railway Tavern sits opposite where the station used to be and, just along the appropriately named Station Road, is the former Station House, now a private residence.

As you head north from Hailsham, you pass under some of the sturdy old bridges that carried traffic across the railway line.

Concrete bollards can be seen at various places along the trail, some with numbers on top. I’m not sure of their purpose, though I did find one that was definitely a milepost, marking a distance of 21¾ miles from or to somewhere.

At Hellingly, you can see several reminders of the trail’s railway past. A bench has been cunningly crafted using old carriage wheels, and there’s a post with an intriguing jumble of ironmongery attached – purpose unknown.

Through the scrub and small trees, you can catch glimpses of the former Hellingly Station building, now a private house, and part of the old platform remains.

As far as I’m aware, the old location where the full platform has been retained, at least on one side of the track, is further north at Horam. Here, there is another fine old brickwork bridge and more old paraphernalia – perhaps this post held lights or a signal of some kind.

I haven’t yet walked the full 11 miles of the Cuckoo Trail but, if I do, I’ll certainly be on the lookout for more fascinating paraphernalia and interesting signs of the trail’s past life as a busy railway line.

24 March 2019

East Sussex : the Argos Hill windmill

I visited the Argos Hill windmill, near Mayfield in northern East Sussex, on Sunday 12 March, its first open day of 2019, when staying with my friend Jill, who's another windmill fan. This was the first windmill open day I'd been too and, though this particular mill no longer functions, it has been much restored so we were able to take a good look at its inner workings on three separate levels.

The Argos Hill windmill, one of only 50 post mills still extant in England, began its working life around 1835, with its two pairs of milestones being used to produce both fine flour for human consumption and a course meal for animal feed. A post mill, for those who are not familiar with windmill terminology, is one where the entire body of the mill rotates on its immensely strong central post to face into the prevailing wind.

During its working life, the Argos Hill windmill passed through the hands of three separate milling families – the Westons, Mr G. Wickens, and Mr Richardson of the Neve family – and continued production right through until 1927, when all work ceased. The fantail blew off in a gale in 1928, and the shutters were removed from the sails in 1932, after which the mill sat abandoned until its first restoration began in 1955. Since then, the mill has suffered damage by lightning and gales and the 1987 hurricane but, since the Friends of Argos Hill was set up in 1999, it has been extensively conserved, preserved and maintained.

For the open day, much of the ground-level space inside the mill building had been cleared to allow for a milling demonstration using small quern stones and the energy of eager youngsters wanting to show off their upper body strength. Wheat was poured into the top hole, the stone was rotated (which obviously took some effort) and the crushed wheat spilled out from the gap between the stones. For a finer result, the mixture was swept up with a paintbrush, poured back in the top and the process repeated. I still wouldn't have wanted to let the flour anywhere near my teeth though.

The ground level also had a few interesting historical images and instructive signboards on display, and tea, coffee and cake were being sold as a way to raise money for the ongoing restoration work. Amazingly we didn't indulge!

Behind the mill structure was an intriguing device that I had never seen at a windmill before – the fantail. The Friends of Argos Hill Mill's website explains   

The fantail assembly is of traditional Sussex design. The fantail is fastened to the tailpole, which is independent of the steps.
The fantail drives the two wooden cart wheels on the track around the mill, to keep the sails facing into the wind.

Even if it had already been fully restored, the fantail could not function as it used to as there is no longer sufficient space around the building. How amazing it must once have been though.

Clambering up the steps by the fantail we reached the spout floor and I was immediately struck by the intricacy and ingenuity of the engineering, as well as the impressive craftsmanship that had obviously gone into making and restoring everything. The spout floor, as you might have guessed, houses the spouts down which the milled flour pours into bins for bagging.

The next floor up, reached by a near vertical ladder, was the stone floor where the grinding actually took place. I can scarcely imagine the noise that must have made many a mill worker deaf when the mill was in full swing. We didn't venture up to the very top level, the bin floor, on to which the sacks of wheat were hoisted and emptied to begin the milling process.

Keen volunteers were on hand at each level to explain the mechanics of the windmill with true enthusiasm, and the windmill – and their well-run open day – were a wonderful testament to their backbreaking conservation efforts and their commitment to preserving such important parts of England's early industrial heritage. The Friends run a series of open days each year – see here for the dates – and I’d highly recommend a visit if you’re in the area. 

22 March 2019

East Sussex : the Chailey windmill

You can tell that a friend knows you well when they collect you from the station at the start of your visit and, as a lovely surprise, take you to visit a new-to-you windmill on the way to their home. My friend Jill knows me very well indeed!

Our surprise visit was to the Heritage Mill at Chailey in East Sussex, and what a charming windmill it is. Though in need of a good wash down to clean off its winter accumulation of green mould and lichen, it’s easy, I think, to see why this is labelled a ‘smock’ mill – its grubby white, weather-boarded, slightly A-line body shape bears a very strong resemblance to the blousey type of shirt worn by male farming workers in years gone by and that is exactly how this design of windmill acquired its name.

Windmills came in three types, the post mill, the smock mill and the tower mill. The diagram below, which was actually photographed at another windmill (more on that one in my next blog post), gives a brief explanation of the differences in design but, basically, in a smock mill it’s the top part only, the cap, that rotates -- with the aid of its fantail (the attachment at the top) so that its sails face into the wind -- rather than the entire body of the mill rotating around a central post (that would be a post mill).

Occasionally, luckily only very occasionally, a freakishly strong wind gust can catch that fantail and spin the top section around against the wind – in windmill-speak, the mill gets tailwinded – and that's exactly what happened to this mill, not once but twice in its working life.

In fact, this windmill has had a particularly interesting history: it was originally constructed in 1830 at Highbrook, near West Hoathly, then was dismantled and moved, in 1844, to serve as a navigation marker on the south coast at Newhaven, before being moved again, by bullock cart, to its final resting site in 1864.

Once re-erected at Chailey, the windmill operated as a flour mill for the local community, though the windmill's life was still not without incident. The first of the tailwindings I mentioned above, which resulted in the top cap and sails being completely blown off the mill, happened during a violent storm on 5 January 1928, and in 1935 another violent weather event caused the second tailwinding, effectively bringing the mill's working life to an end when the sails blew away and the windshaft snapped. The mill machinery was dismantled, its interior gutted, and the building served a variety of purposes, from tuck shop to emergency accommodation for World War II nurses, until being taken under the wing of the Friends of Chailey Windmill in 1986.

Though the building was not open when we visited, it now houses a Rural Life Museum, containing photographs and displays about past times in the Chailey area. You can find out more about the museum and its opening times on their website.

06 March 2019

Barry: the Fry’s sign

What a treat this was to see!

I was slipping and sliding down the rain-wet pavement in one of Barry’s many steep streets, Canon Street, when I looked up and spotted this fabulous old advertising sign on the side of one of the houses, on the corner with Romilly Road.

The house didn’t look to have been a shop and it’s not exactly a prominent street, so I don’t know why this particular site was chosen to advertise the products of J.S. Fry and Sons, chocolate-makers extraordinaire. I’m sure every chocolate aficionado knows their name: Joseph Fry and John Vaughan began the chocolate dynasty, when they purchased the chocolate business of Walter Churchman, in Bristol, way back in 1761. The company passed through various family hands and name changes, becoming J. S. Fry & Sons, the biggest commercial producers of chocolate in Britain, in 1822.

Dentists have a lot to thank them for, as they produced the world’s first mass-produced chocolate bar in 1847 and, in 1873, Britain’s first chocolate Easter egg. Fry’s merged with Cadbury in 1919 so their famous name has almost disappeared, though Cadbury (now part of the Kraft empire) still produce at least one Fry’s-branded product, Fry’s Chocolate Cream.

As the trademark for Fry's Pure Concentrated Soluble Cocoa was first registered in 1885, I imagine the Barry sign dates from some time in the late 1800s or early 1900s. Certainly, in the newspapers of those years there are many advertisements for the product, at that time designated a food and endorsed by the medical profession. The examples above are from, left, the Chepstow Argus of 18 September 1899 and, right, the Weekly Mail, 10 February 1906.

Now, all this talk of chocolate has made me peckish …

01 March 2019

Here be more dragons!

Back in September 2015, after I’d only been in Wales a couple of months, I blogged about the dragons that could be seen all around the city, on lamp posts, in sculpture, as street art, in coats of arms and, of course, on the country’s flag. I promised more and failed to deliver … shame on me! So, as today is St David’s Day, it seems an appropriate time to bring you more Welsh dragons …

The dragon on the left is in Cardiff Castle, the weathervane dragon is on a house in Llandaff

Sculptural decorations at the University of Wales’s Glamorgan and Bute buildings

From a headstone at Llandaff Cemetery

The turret decoration on top of the University of Wales's Main Building