This passage is taken from Chapter VI ("Alfriston and Wilmington") of Louis Jennings' Field Paths and Green Lane (1878). It is of special interest because, as David Morphet writes, it shows Jennings' "great feeling for beautiful old buildings and a corresponding dismay at the encroachment of villadom and the insensitive 'restoration' which Victorian parsons were carrying out on so many medieval churches" (147) — though, in the Victorians' defence, their work has since mellowed with age, and is much better appreciated now. Page breaks in the print edition are indicated in square brackets, to allow readers to cite or locate the pages in the original text. The excerpt has been formatted and illustrated by Jacqueline Banerjee, who took all the photographs except the last one. This comes from the Oast House Archive on the Creative Commons Licence. You may use these images without prior permission for any scholarly or educational purpose as long as you (1) credit the photographer or source, and (2) link your document to this URL or cite the Victorian Web in a print document.
eneath these noble hills [the South Downs] there are still villages to be found which are almost as they were three or four hundred years ago, and towards one of them I was bending my steps — to Alfriston, the "Aluriceston" of Domesday Book, a parish in which there arc more British and Roman barrows to be seen to-day than new houses. At every stage of the road there are abundant signs that you are travelling in an old country. The farm houses and barns have never known the hand of the modern builder. And when, [74/75] about two-and-a-half miles from the station, you come to the village, and see the ancient up-hill street, with the long sloping roofs of the houses, aod the remains of the market cross, which may have stood there five hundred years or more, it is difficult to realise that one is living in commercial England, in the midst of a driving and pushing age.
Alfriston in our own times. Left: The old market cross. Right: The Star inn. At the far right is the lion figure mentioned below, painted bright red. [Closer view of the lion]
About half-way up the street there is an inn which will gladden the heart of any man who takes an interest in the traces which are still allowed to exist of the old times in England. This inn is called the "Star" and it must have been standing here at least three hundred and fifty years, with no great change inside or out. At each side of the door, and along the front of the house, there are carved figures, one of St. Julian the friend of travellers, another of a priest, a St. George waging a gallant fight with the dragon, two animals supporting a staff, and other figures or devices which are more delightful to look upon than all the pictures in the Royal Academy put together. At one corner of the house there is a rude figure of a lion leaning against the wall, but this is only the figure-head of a vessel which was wrecked on the coast some time last century. All the rest is old, from the roof which is half sunken in wdth age, to the bow windows with their small panes of glass, and the narrow doorway guarded by St. Julian and, as some suppose, St. Giles. Alfriston is believed to have been formerly a much larger place than it now is, and Mr. Lower thinks that the Star Inn was "a house of call for pilgrims and the clergy who were wending their way to the tomb of St. Richard and the [75/76] Episcopal See." So the house has a somewhat religious character, and ornaments were adopted which "appear at first sight rather incongruous with the objects of a road-side inn." However this may be, the figures are well worthy the notice of the modern pilgrim, who will find few such ancient hostelries as this left in merry England, although he will come in the way of plenty of abominable "gin palaces" and flaring bar-rooms.
St Andrew, Alfriston. According to the church's own website, this fourteenth-century church has had "no major additions," so Jennings' fears were ill-founded.
While seated in the little parlour of the "Star," at an enormous distance, as it seemed, from the world of the present day — railroads, telegraphs, newspapers, being all like some dim recollection of a disturbed dream — I noticed a circular upon the wall, with an engraving of the old church above it. In this I read, with great sinking of the heart, that progress to a most alarming extent had been made with the work of "restoring" the church — that wooden seats had been put in, "cut from the old large timbers of the south transept interior roof," a new east window made, and the chancel windows repaired. This was sad news, and when, after diligent search, I found the old woman who had the keys, and we entered the church, my worst anticipations were confirmed. Three parts of the edifice had been made to look spick and span new — the other part remains in its old state, simply because the funds have been exhausted. The famous east window is new; it all looks like a lecture hall just finished. Would it not have answered every good purpose to have mended the roof, so as to keep out the wet, and "repair" rather than "restore" the other parts of the building? [76/77]
"The famous east window" — this is a later one by James Powell (1904). Left: Whole window. Right: The figures of St Alphege and St Andrew. Few would want this magnificent window changed now.
"We liked the old church best, sir," said the woman, who was wheezing away dismally. "This don't seem to us as if it were the same church like. See, yonder is the old house where they say the vicars used to live — I would come and show you, but my chest gives out." "Gives out" — a true Americanism if there ever was one.
The Clergy House, The Tye, Alfriston. © Oast House Archive. Dating from c. 1530, this Grade II* listed building, a timber-framed farmhouse typical of its time and place, was the first ever bought by the National Trust. In 1896, it cost the organization £10 ("The Clergy House").
The old house, at least, was uninjured — a simple timbered cottage, or, as one may read, "an ancient vicarage of post and panel, a specimen of the lowly abodes with which our pre-Reformation clergy often contented themselves." As I stood looking at this house, and thinking that old as it was I would rather have it than many a new one I had seen, an old woman came to the door and I wished her good morning. Presently she asked me if I would please to step in and sit down.
It was a low ceilinged room, that parlour of hers, with an immense fire-place in it, in which she had got her arm-chair and foot-stool, and other little comforts.
"We ha' no minister here now," said she, after we had talked a bit, "and of course Ave miss 'un a good deal. I wish we had e'er a one to come and sit and read a little to a body. Three have died here the last few years."
"How do you manage to kill them off so fast?" I asked.
"Oh," said the old lady very seriously, "it aint us as kills 'em off; they are worn out when they do come. That's the reason of it, sir. The last one as was here was a nice old gentleman, but his breath was bad, and so he could not get about much. We want a young [77/78] man, if so be as we could get one, and I should not care how poor he was."
"The churchwarden told me," she went on, "this very marning that he was goin' to write to the Lord Chancery or something and try to get us a minister, and I hope he will, for it is bad to be without one. A gentleman comes over from Eastbourne, bat I can't understand what he do say. Perhaps it is because I am old."
"How old are you?"
"I am seventy-seven, sir."
"And live here all alone?"
"Oh, yes; I have only two children myself, but how many they have I really do not know. I have the rheumatism very bad, all down my side. No, sir, it is not this old house as gives it to me, and I could not bear to leave it now. I have lived in it a-many years. I want for nothing, sir, for God is good to me."
"And so this is the house where the minister used to live in old times."
" Yes, sir; I have heard say that the Popes of Rome did vise to live here." What on earth could have put that notion in the old lady's head? It fairly took my breath away.
" I do wish, sir," she continued, "that we could get a minister here, but no one seems to want to come. The place be too poor, I suppose. Oh, no, sir, I am not afraid to live here alone. God is good to me, sir, and I am very thankful."
She repeated these words very earnestly. No doubt there are some who would have gone into that room, [78/79] and looked round, and seen very little for anybody to be thankful for; but it is not always those who have all the good things of this life who are the most grateful for what they get.
"I am very glad you are comfortable," said I, as I turned to go away. "From what I can see in this world, those who believe as you do seldom come to much harm."
"They do not, sir, for if you trust in God he never deserts you, sir; no never."
The landscape was rather blurred to my eyes when I left that little room.
"The Clergy House, The Tye, Alfriston, East Sussex." Geograph. Web. 15 February 2016.
Jennings, Louis. Field Paths and Green Lanes: being Country Walks, Chiefly in Surrey and Sussex. 2nd ed. London: John Murray, 1878. Internet Archive. Contributed by the University of California Library. Web. 15 February 2016.
Morphet, David. Louis Jennings MP, Editor of the New York Times and Tory Democrat. London: Notion, 2001.
"St Andrew, Alfriston, East Sussex." Church Album. Web. 15 February 2016.
Created 15 February 2016