Long after the Alfriston gang was transported, Hilary Macaskill looks for traces of 19th-century contraband culture
A FEW days before I went to Alfriston there were newspaper reports that smuggling into Britain was at record levels. But where was the glamour and excitement in stashing bottles of beer into the recesses under car seats? It all sounds very humdrum. Whereas smuggling in Sussex was full of derring-do and swashbuckling, devilry and danger. My imagination was full of midnight landings, isolated bays and silent, nocturnal marches over the downs to nearby villages.

That's what I thought before going to Alfriston, which was one of the centres of smuggling in the the 18th century. It is easy enough to guess at its associations, with a pub called The Smugglers Inn, a restaurant called Moonrakers and streets and houses named after the local industry. The Alfriston Gang was one of the many groups of smugglers which operated in the South of England in the 18th and early 19th centuries. Due recognition is being given to their exploits next May with a day school on Sussex Smugglers organised by the University of Sussex.

Once in Alfriston, it was at first hard to summon up any images of such exploits. The village looks altogether too nice to be involved in these shady goings on. The tranquil stream which flows beyond the High Street does not look much like a river up which barges from Cuckmere Haven could steal at night to unload their illegitimate cargoes. But the River Cuckmere was wider then.

Alfriston is the biggest village in the part of the South Downs that lies between Lewes and Eastbourne; indeed, it was once a market town. Its narrow streets are remarkably pretty. Mellow brick steps lead up through lavender-crammed gardens to creeper-covered cottages with whitewashed walls. The half-timbered 14th-century inns of the Star and the George face each other on the High Street. The village green, known as the Tye, stretches down towards the River Cuckmere. By the Tye is the unexpectedly large church of St Andrew's, justly known as the Cathedral of the Downs, and the Clergy House.

This is Alfriston's other particular claim to fame. The Clergy House, a 14th century timber-framed house, was the first property bought by the newly formed National Trust, in 1896, for the sum of pounds 10. It is closed in winter months, though the NT shop is open until December, and so are the gardens, with the wicker-fenced, raised vegetable plots, the bed of 16th century roses, the Judas tree with its heart-shaped leaves and habit of flowering and podding along the branches (astonishingly, it is a member of the pea family) and the beds of herbs. Late Autumn is perhaps the best time of year to see Alfriston. The flowers might not be out, but nor will the tourists. Coaches are discouraged from detouring to Alfriston because of its impossibly narrow streets, but this is nevertheless a "tea and wee stop". The local borough council is planning to take action on this next year.

But now the streets are empty, though there is, incongruously, a traffic warden on duty. He is a most unstereotypically jolly and friendly type. On this clear autumn day he has little to do other than cross the diminutive market square to talk to a shopkeeper on her doorstep. A forlorn sign attached to a wall on a wrought-iron bracket announces the local bus service. The pace of life in Alfriston, at least at this time of year, is sedate.

On the west side of the market square is a reminder of the village's more turbulent past. The Market Cross Inn, as it is called on a hanging sign, is also known, according to the lettering along the black and white clapboard frontage, as Ye Olde Smugglers Inne. It received this title because it is said to have been the headquarters of the Alfriston Gang; it belonged to its leader Stanton Collins. If it was not actually the headquarters (some accounts have the gang meeting in The George, just along the street) it certainly should have been. It is a maze of 21 rooms joined by 47 doors, some false, and six staircases. You can get a sense of this from the large bar with its ingle-nook fireplace big enough to seat several drinkers, and the sharp-eyed on the way through to the garden tables will spot the remains of a staircase high up by the ceiling and another little flight that appears to go nowhere.

For years in the 19th century, before it became an inn, it was used as an abattoir. A couple of years ago, said the landlady, Maureen Ney, the blood tank was found in the garden. The pulley, still clearly visible, was used for suspending the dead beasts. When Stanton Collins took it over from his father, he turned it into a bar - and a smugglers' haunt. There are tunnels, one of which led under the floor of the bar down towards the river, though it was filled in a few years ago after the landlady dropped a pencil on the floor and it disappeared down a crack into a void. If the customs men came into the bar the smugglers could escape through the roof space beside the chimney into a hideout. When the customs men departed, so the story goes, allies could let those in the hideout know by calling up the chimney.

The smuggling romance, Sir John Dering, was written here when the popular historical novelist of the 1920s and 30s, Jeffrey Farnol, stayed here for three months in the slanting room (accurately named - you have to walk uphill to get to the window and there are chocks at the end of the beds to prevent them sliding). Even now there are discoveries, to be made, like the tiny room hidden behind layers of scrim (a mixture of cow dung and horsehair) under the rafters.

The Alfriston Gang had dispersed by the 1830s. The three Huggett Brothers had been tried for highway robbery and transported. Stanton Collins was eventually arrested and transported to Australia - but for barn burning rather than for smuggling.

At the George, formerly a coaching inn with its own secret bolthole to the next building, all the bedrooms are named after members of the Alfriston gang, but the one to ask for is room 18, The Old Smugglers Room. It has a hideyhole over the fireplace just big enough for a rolled chart or secret map, soot on the beams and, in one alcove, the original painted wattle and daub, recently exposed by a local decorator who fortunately realised that it was worth preserving. But it is a risky business, being in charge of a heritage like this. The landlady pointed to a bare patch on the wall about two-by-three inches - a piece taken by a pair of honeymooners as a memento.

Across the road, The Star has medieval carvings on the wooden pillars of its half-timbered facade and under the latticed windows, one said to be of St Michael fighting a dragon and another of a bishop, perhaps St Richard. The inn is better known for its religious associations as it was on the route of the pilgrimage to Chichester to honour St Richard. In those days the Star was owned by monks of Battle Abbey, but now it is owned by Forte, which has left intact the sanctuary post in the bar. Traditionally if a fugitive from justice grabbed it he would get three days free bed and board. It has not been put to the test in recent years. The other distinctive feature of The Star is the fearsome and famous red lion at the end of the building, a figurehead from a Dutch ship wrecked in Cuckmere Haven 300 years ago. It has only recently been restored to its characteristic scarlet. The manager of The Star recalls the procession of residents who greeted him on his first day, saying "What are you going to do about the lion?" The previous manager had, to the horror of all, painted it brown.

That night we went on a ghost walk, following our guide, Robert, who was equipped with a lantern and a broad stock of yarns. Ghosts have their uses. Down by the bridge he told the story of a ghost of a white lady who could often be seen at midnight floating across the field to a nearby farmhouse in search of her bones - an excellent cover story, as he pointed out, for smugglers. (Herstmonceux in Sussex was another smuggling centre, and from the battlements of the castle, the ghost of a drummer was sometimes heard at night. This is said to have been the gardener, who used the device either to scare people off while smugglers were about, or to warn of the arrival of customs men.)

The next day we went to Seven Sisters Park to meet another guide, Bob Allen. Dressed in breeches and jerkin, customary attire for such walks, he marched us up the hill along the bostalls (the medieval sunken tracks used by farmers and then smugglers) to Exceat, the site of a lost village. (It was burned down so many times by French raiders that the villagers gave up and moved elsewhere.) From here there was a wonderful view of the meanders of the Cuckmere river; of High and Over, and Beggars Barn, which were important signalling points for smugglers; and, down in the dip, Foxhole Cottages, used in the film of the Kray brothers as their Hertfordshire hideout.

En route he gave us glimpses into the history of owling, when wool tax was imposed and the wool fleeces were loaded onto the backs of packhorse and thence onto French barges at night, and of the later smuggling in of brandy, tobacco and other luxuries. He told tales of the well-paid but short-lived "tubmen", who wore specially shaped casks to fit on their fronts and backs; of smuggler Jevington Jigg, landlord of the Eight Bells in Friston; of the excise men who might have colluded because of family connections; and of the dragoons who came from other parts and had no local loyalties.

He also sketched a vivid picture of the farm-workers eking out a living by smuggling, and the clash in 1780 between 300 farm-workers and the customs and excise men sent over from the barracks at Seaford, which in medieval times was the country's 11th largest port. It was no surprise to learn later that Mr Allen was part of a theatre group called Footprints, which specialises in dramatised history.

But it is enough just to browse in Alfriston. We walked up to Lullington Church, the smallest in Sussex but still used for services once a month. It has a tiny, white, clapboard belfry and is approached by a narrow redbrick path with a wooden handrail, climbing between stubbled fields and allotment gardens of a particularly rural sort, with apple trees and wooden huts.

When I told a friend of this excursion to Lullington, she recalled that as a child she had gone up to Lullington, but along a bostall, one of the sunken lanes arched over by trees used by smugglers to shift their contraband. When she had returned recently, she had discovered this was now overgrown and impassable. And I hadn't even noticed it.

FACT FILE

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Where to stay

Hotels in and around Alfriston have grouped together to do special three- nights-for-the-price-of-two breaks - valid until the end of February (excluding Christmas and New Year). They include b&b at Riverdale House, the 14th century Dean's Place, formerly a manor house, the Star, the George, Crossways at Wilmington, and the Silverdale Hotel in Seaford. A leaflet is available from Sussex Country Tourism, c/o Wealden District Council, Pine Grove, Crowborough, East Sussex. (tel: 01892 602000). Alfriston Youth hostel is at Frog Firle Manor where Edward Austen-Leigh, the last descendant of Jane Austen's family lived until 1950. (tel 01323 870 423).

What to see

Alfriston Clergy House shop open until 4 December every day except Monday and Tuesday from 11am to 4pm.

Sussex Smugglers Day School is on 22 May 1999. For more information call the Centre for Continuing Education at Sussex University. (tel: 01273 678 926).

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