A road map of East and West Sussex, with its many arterial routes running north to south, is a reminder of the magnetic pull of the coast and the South Downs for visitors from London and the M25 diaspora.
Lured by the excitement of Brighton, or the prospect of dramatic views from Beachy Head and the white cliffs of the Seven Sisters, most make a mad dash for the coast at holiday times. What they miss as they fly down the M23 is a very different Sussex. A pastoral landscape of winding lanes, small streams, gently rolling wooded hills and valleys, and hidden ancient houses.
A once mighty oak forest
For Sussex has an ‘interior’ – a back country – with a history quite as fascinating as that attached to its more visible and dramatic coastline. Tucked between the North and South Downs and running from Kent in the east to Hampshire in the west, the Weald was once entirely covered by the great oak forest of ‘Anderida’ mentioned by the Romans. For many centuries, Sussex existed in comparative isolation from the world, protected by the dual barriers of sea to the south and the impenetrable forests of the Weald to the north, and well into modern times Wealden roads were often so impassable that visitors would prefer to arrive by boat.
In 1086, when William the Conqueror commissioned the Domesday Book, the Weald was the largest remaining area of woodland and heath in England, but over subsequent centuries as the area was settled, the landscape evolved into one of small fields, stretches of woodland, deep valleys cut into the Wealden clay by fast-running streams and rivers, and narrow winding lanes.
Over time, the great oak forests were cut down to provide building material, and later for the ships of the British navy – the Royal Navy still has as its anthem ‘Heart of Oak’. The few great houses of the 16th and 17th centuries that still remain, many tucked away down long drives, hint at the burgeoning wealth of the Weald during that period, but little evidence of its source remains. Until, that is, you start to study the Ordnance Survey maps of the area.
Historical iron industry
Names like ‘Furnace Wood’ ‘Millpond Wood’, ‘Hammer Pond’ and ‘Pond Bay’ crop up frequently. If you are intrigued and investigate further, a little-known history of Sussex opens up before you, and the present peaceful Wealden landscape is filled with acrid smoke, shouted commands, the overwhelming racket of gigantic hammers on anvils, and the sound of the saws steadily stripping the Weald of most of its ancient oak forests.
For the Sussex and Kent Weald was the site of one of the most important industries in Britain – the iron industry – a precursor to the 18th century industrial revolution. Areas of the Weald would have been deeply scarred by iron workings and criss-crossed by muddy byways made almost impassable in winter by the frequent passage of heavy carts loaded with iron ‘pigs’ and manufactured items.
The Sussex Weald offered both the raw material – iron ore – that occurs in the Cretaceous clay beds of the High Weald, and the oak needed for smelting it in close proximity, so was an ideal environment for a burgeoning iron industry. Quarries and mines, furnaces, smelting works and small manufactories developed across Sussex from the Middle Ages onwards. Britain’s involvement in the many wars of the 17th and 18th centuries led to a high demand for iron cannon, oak wood for ship-building, and a thriving trade in iron tools and implements. With the advent of new technologies came the rise of the immensely wealthy ‘iron masters’. They built themselves magnificent houses, of which a few remain – Batemans, later the home of Rudyard Kipling, is one fine example.
Exploring the Weald today
Yet the Weald today bears almost no discernible traces of its past. Unlike the post-industrial landscapes of Cornwall or the north country, there are no ruined chimneys or glowering slag heaps, which makes the detective work needed to hunt down the remaining evidence of old iron works enormous fun and the process of discovery even more rewarding.
Walking is the only way to really explore this Wealden past, and there are endless possibilities for designing your own routes. The many footpaths that criss-cross the High Weald offer not only glorious landscapes but also glimpses of that lost industrial past. A stream dyed a deep brown can be evidence of the presence of iron ore; a series of small ponds and earthworks can indicate where digging went on in the past – Tugmore Shaw near Hartfield in the High Weald is a good example.
Unlike the often-crowded South Downs Way, you will find yourself almost always alone, with just the sounds of the woodland around you, and sometimes the rush of a mill stream or brook. The landscape of the Weald changes with the seasons and every one brings different delights: the blue haze of a bluebell carpet through woodland in the spring; the lush green of the fields and high hedges in summer; and vistas across the many small lakes in winter. And just for a moment you might catch the echo of a rhythmic tapping from an iron-worker’s hammer….