My visit to Alfriston Clergy House may be in contention for the quickest of the challenge so far and is probably just about tied with the Tudor Merchant’s House in Tenby. On that occasion, I padded out the visit with a friendly chat with the volunteers on the way out, while this time, the rapid tour of the house was extended by a wander around the very pretty cottage garden.
Certainly, Alfriston is a very small house, with just a handful of rooms to look at but I don’t want to detract from it at all as I recognise that it is a significant example of a 14th century ‘Wealden’ house and it will be a delight to architectural enthusiasts with an interest in ancient building practices. And it can’t be denied that it is ‘chocolate box’ pretty. But for me, with my greater appetite for impressive buildings inhabited by a cast of fascinating characters, Alfriston was never going to set the world alight.
I knew this before I went, however, so I can’t say that I was surprised or disappointed. In fact, I had scheduled the visit as a quick stop on the way to a funeral in Eastbourne and a quiet wander around the ancient building and pretty garden was a perfect way to distract the mind from the day’s gloomier prospects. I certainly wouldn’t deter anyone from visiting Alfriston particularly if they combine it with other activities in the area or simply a walk around the extremely pretty village. (I will also stick my neck out here and recommend the Singing Kettle tearooms in the centre of the village for post-visit refreshments – excellent food and very friendly staff).
Before my visit, perhaps the one important thing I knew about Alfriston was that it was the first building acquired by the National Trust* and this is still one of the most important things I know about it! However, as usual, even with a very small property like this, there were still a few other interesting facts to be gleaned.
Those architectural enthusiasts I mentioned before will immediately be satisfied on entering the house as the first room provides details of the building’s construction and how it has been altered since it was first erected in 1350. I am not particularly interested in this kind of thing but I was struck by the fact that a combination of chalk and sour milk was used for the flooring of the main hall – I can only imagine how that smelt when it was first laid! In this same hall, visitors’ attention is also drawn to the oak leaf carving where the cross beams meet and it is suggested that this may have provided inspiration for the famous National Trust logo. Fact or fiction? Who knows, but it could well be true and the romantic historian in me would like to think that it is.
My thirst for interesting historical characters was also satisfied while reading through the timeline of the house, which is presented along the wall of the back corridor. It appears that the house once fell under the ownership of nearby Michelham Priory and was part of this estate when Henry VIII gave it to Thomas Cromwell (ironically as a reward for removing such monastic properties from a supposedly avaricious Church). So, Alfriston was once indirectly owned by Thomas Cromwell. Although there is no clear evidence that Cromwell ever even came here, I’m going to let my imagination run wild anyway and will picture Cromwell sitting on his horse on the Alfriston village green surveying the lovely little clergy house that formed part of his estates. It could have happened!
While we’re on the subject of interesting characters from history, the founders of the National Trust need to be mentioned as they are discussed in another display about how the Trust came to purchase Alfriston for the lowly figure of £10 (apparently around 1,000 of our current British pounds). Another character to mention is Harriet Coates, a former tenant whose pleas to end her life in her old home helped to stave off its demolition in 1885. I’m sure she would be very surprised (and probably delighted) to know that her home still stands to this day.
And this leads me on to one last person who played a tremendously important role in the survival of Alfriston’s clergy house: the Reverend F W Beynon who drew the attention of the newly formed National Trust to the dire straits of the property and who worked tirelessly to save it. His is perhaps a slightly bittersweet tale, however, as he ultimately ended his life burdened by debts incurred through his campaigning. It seems he was also scorned for his ‘hobby and his folly’ by others in the parish but as the guidebook points out, it is this kind of commitment to the cause that has saved many a building and is at the heart of the Trust’s success, so no one will be scorning the Reverend Beynon today. In fact, I only learned from the guidebook when I returned home that he is buried in St Andrew’s churchyard just opposite the clergy house so he is perhaps still watching over the fruits of his labour to this day. If I’d have known he was there at the time, I might have paid him a brief visit instead of going for lunch and an ice cream in the village. After all, Alfriston Clergy House might not be everything I want from a National Trust house but I’m glad that it’s still with us.
* I’ve done some research since my visit to find out what qualified as the Trust’s first property and discovered that it was five acres of cliff top at Dinas Oleu in Wales. This land was gifted to the Trust so Alfriston Clergy House was also the first actual monetary investment.
Highlights: Picture postcard prettiness
Refreshments: None (well, none at the Clergy House, but I did have a delicious lunch at the Singing Kettle and an After 8 ice cream bought from the Sussex Ice Cream Company counter in Stones gift shop)
Companion(s): Mum and Dad