Hastings Country Park

The History of the Country Park – Introduction

This section of the Hastings Chronicle has been updated and had many pictures added to it. Go to http://www.hastingscountryparkhistory.com

The beautiful cliffs and glens to the east of Hastings have for centuries been an inspiration for many people, including Pre-Raphaelite artists like William Holman Hunt, pioneering ecologist Grey Owl and television inventor John Logie Baird, who worked out how to create the world’s first TV system while walking on the cliff-tops in 1922. Today the whole area is part of the Hastings Country Park Nature Reserve, with 853 acres (345 hectares) of sustainably managed farmland, ancient gill woodland, heaths and grassland, plus three miles of dramatic sandstone cliffs and coastline.

Hastings Council in 1971 set up the Hastings Country Park, then consisting of 510 acres of cliff-top walks, the three glens and the East Hill. At that time the council also owned a further 300-plus acres of adjoining farmland, leased to a farmer. When this farm was repossessed in 2001 the council decided to manage the Country Park and farmland together, along with a small amount of other land, as a ‘local nature reserve’ under the 1949 National Parks Act. This was formally agreed in July 2006, creating the Hastings Country Park Local Nature Reserve. The Reserve now consists of 522 acres of designated Country Park and 331 acres of farmland.

Hastings Council is the sole owner of all the land within the Reserve, although some of it on the north-east edge is outside the borough boundary, being in Rother District. All the Reserve lies within the High Weald Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB). The majority of the park is designated a Special Area of Conservation (SAC) under European legislation, and a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) under domestic legislation, because of the unique wildlife and the fossil-rich soft rock cliff and slope. The top of the East Hill was probably an Iron Age fort, and the eastern half of it is a Scheduled Ancient Monument (SAM).

The Reserve owes its existence to the Collier and Milward families, who accumulated thousands of acres of land in eastern Sussex in the 18th and early 19th centuries, but in the following decades did not sell the Reserve area for development. The town’s most powerful land-owning families of two centuries ago became its main environmental benefactors.

But the Reserve is constantly shrinking in size, as the sea eats into the coastline. Until about 8,000 years ago, England and France were one landscape, split only by a river in the middle of what is now the English Channel, draining north European waters into the Atlantic. Today, 45 miles of sea separate Hastings from the nearest part of the French coast, and cliff erosion is happening at a significant speed, which is likely to increase if sea levels rise by a metre or more this century as a result of global warming.

What follows here is a history of the Reserve, starting with an overview of the old times, and then of more recent centuries. After that is a more detailed chronology. This story is mainly about human beings and their effects on the history of the Reserve, rather than about the plants and wildlife that live within it.

Old Times

The early history of the Reserve, to about 1500 AD, is mainly that of farmland, with some woodland and wasteland (also often known as ‘common ground’), and with the unworkable steep slopes of the three glens left as natural habitats. In 2019 an archaeological survey of the open areas of the Reserve using a magnetometer found widespread evidence of continuous farming since at least Neolithic times, but of no substantial buildings or large-scale settlements. The survey, by the Hastings Area Archaeological Survey Group (HAARG), discovered prehistoric flints, pottery, field systems and circular burial enclosures, plus widespread medieval ridge-and-furrow plough marks and small farmsteads. The survey covered all the open land east of Ecclesbourne Glen and Shearbarn, excluding enclosed land, woodland and the East Hill.

Mesolithic Period (Middle Stone Age 10,000-4,000 BC) – The Mesolithic people were hunter-gatherers, and there is good evidence (small flint tools) of them hunting in the Reserve, but no sign of any effect on the landscape. The field immediately to the west of the Fairlight Coastguard Station shows signs of usage from the Mesolithic to the Late Iron Age, and was possibly a settlement. It was during this period, at  about 6,000 BC, that rising sea levels separated England from France. Much flint was found on the site of the new Fairlight Visitor Centre.

Neolithic Period (New Stone Age 4,000-2,200 BC) – This was a more settled time, and Neolithic people could therefore leave evidence of their impact on the landscape. Fragments of tools and pots have been found in several places, probably the result of hunting activity. At this time the coastline was several hundred yards further out than now, with today’s high land on and near the cliff edges sloping down towards the sea.

Bronze Age (2,200-750 BC) – Some Bronze Age items have been found in the Reserve, including fragments of beakers for drinking in Ecclesbourne Glen. In a field between Warren Glen and Fairlight Road HAARG discovered seven circular features, from nine to 16 metres in diameter, which it thinks may be Bronze Age ring ditches or barrows probably associated with burial practices. A similar 20 metre burial enclosure was found near the New Barn pond.

Iron Age (750 BC – 43 AD) – A 2008 English Heritage report on the East Hill concluded that top of the hill may well have been an Iron Age promontory ‘fort’. The evidence is the prominent earthen bank on a sandstone ridge aligned north-south along its eastern edge, abutting Rocklands, with the north-west face of the hill being a steep natural down-ward slope. Iron Age ‘forts’ were important cultural and economic centres, where people (‘tribes’) living in the surrounding area met for reasons still not fully understood. But they were clearly places of great significance – a combined church, market, town hall, sports centre, theatre, hospital and farm, as well as a possible fortification. There was probably another, smaller fort on the West Hill, on the site of the Castle and Ladies Parlour, but there were few others elsewhere in eastern Sussex. There is no indication of a settlement within the East Hill fort, although this may be the result of a lack of modern excavation. The eastern half of the hilltop is a Scheduled Ancient Monument. Early maps (1750 by Samuel Cant, and the 1806 Ordnance Survey surveyor’s drawing) show the fort interior to be sub-divided by a number of boundaries – some still visible on the ground – forming small regular fields, which may fossilise an Iron Age or Romano-British field system. The layout shows there was some form of trackway running from Rocklands Lane in a straight line across the hill to where the steps today go down to Tackleway. When the hill extended further to seaward in pre-Roman times, could this track probably continued down to the beach. Elsewhere in the Reserve, post holes of a possible Iron Age hut were found near Fairlight Coastguard Station. A large quantity of pottery sherds have been found in the Reserve, dating from 200 BC to 50 AD.

Romano-British Period (43-410 AD) – It is unclear how attracted the Romans were to the Reserve area. Their nearest known interest was the major iron ore site at Beauport Park. They also probably used the natural harbour of the Priory Valley, where Hastings town centre is today. There may possibly also have been a port at Cliff End, to the east of Fairlight, accessed by the prehistoric trackway that underlies Fairlight Road and went across the field at the top of Warren Glen and past Warren Farm, although there is no evidence of this. Early writers were keen on boosting the role of Hastings in the Roman era. The East Hill was said to be of significance because of a possible Roman lighthouse (now thought to be an early 16th century windmill) where the fire beacon is today, and a Roman signal station, which is today’s picnic site on top of the hill. There is no firm evidence of any early role for the picnic site, either as a signal station or later churchyard, but about 30 brass Roman coins were found there in 1840. The English Heritage report says that, although the data was uncertain, “it does seem possible that there is a hitherto unsuspected and substantial Romano-British presence in the immediate vicinity of the East Hill”. But regarding the picnic site, the report states that “unfortunately, no definitive conclusion can be reached about the original date and function of this enclosure”: The only certainty is that it is pre-1750; otherwise its age and purpose are unknown. Roman pottery has been found on Reserve cliffs, so there could have been a Roman settlement/building on the lost cliff-land. There was possibly also a Romano-British hearth and hut site in the wood on the clifftop above Covehurst.

Saxon Period (Dark Age 410-1066) – The Haestingas – Danish or German migrants – settled in what was to become the Hastings area in the 7th century. They were brought under control by King Offa in 771. The town of Hastings emerged in the late 9th century, based on White Rock, reflecting the new national economy based on trade, manufacturing and transport. An excavation in August 1856 (see that date, below) shows there was a possible high status 10th-11th century Saxon burial site and stone building on the East Hill, by the lift. If correct, the significance of this feature has been largely overlooked in assessing the history of Hastings at this time. In addition, Reserve place names show the Saxons were farming extensively across the Reserve; eg, Fairlight was then Farnlege, meaning “bracken clearing”.

Medieval Period (1066-1500) – The medieval landscape probably comprised small islands of open arable fields around the farms, surrounded by larger patchworks of enclosed pasture, woodland, heath and waste land. There was no village or hamlet in the Reserve area, only farms, most notably Fishponds Farm and Warren Farm. Fishponds (or Fishpond) Farm seems to have been the most significant group of buildings in the area through the medieval period and up to the expansion of Fairlight Place and its farm in the 19th century. The existing Fishponds farmhouse probably dates from the end of the 16th century, but there was almost certainly a much older house on the site. This seems to have been the local ‘hall’ of the manor of Brede from 1402 onwards. Brede Manor was the successor of the ancient Rameslie Manor, which dated from at least 1017, when King Canute granted most of the land between Hastings, Rye and Brede to the Abbey of Fécamp in Normandy, thereby probably influencing King William’s choice of an invasion area in 1066.

Fairlight, in common with much of the Weald, was a rural parish of scattered settlement throughout the medieval period. The first known Fairlight Church was built in 1180, but there was no nucleated settlement around it (the present village of Fairlight is post World War One). A medieval church of St George has often been said to have occupied the rectangular picnic site, known as St George’s Churchyard, on top of the East Hill, but there is no evidence of this. The enclosure seems to have started as an isolated plot of glebe land supporting the rector of All Saints, and in the 17th/early 18th centuries there may have been some burials there for unusual deaths, such as victims of the plague. A windmill described as “new” in 1540 stood on the East Hill cliff edge near the lift, and was mistaken for a Roman lighthouse. It had gone by 1750, although the area was still called “Mill Field”.

The Reserve has been a source of rock and sand for many centuries. The earliest record of quarrying in this area dates from c1367, when sandstone from somewhere in Fairlight (not necessarily the Reserve) was taken by sea to Rochester Castle as part of Edward III’s major reconstruction of that semi-ruined building.

Recent Times

From the 1500s onwards, the development of the modern market economy brought an intensification of farming, including the enclosure (fencing off) of both ‘common land’, and of previously unproductive ‘waste land’, both of which had been publicly-accessible open space until then. Common land was owned collectively by a number of persons or by one person, but over which other people had certain traditional rights allowing them to use it. Waste land was ground that was difficult to use because it was on a steep slope, had poor soil or was over-exposed to the weather. It is not known how much common land there was in the Reserve, but there was much waste land (some of which may have been ‘common’), especially the Glens and Fairlight Down.

The enclosing of Fairlight Down took place over a long period, with an early example being what are today the BBQ area on Fairlight Road and its adjoining fields, between Martineau Lane and Mill Lane. A 1728 map of the Fairlight Place estate describes this area as “Down enclosed”.

The earliest Ordnance Survey drawings, around 1800, show two main areas of waste land: (1) Fairlight Down, between today’s Martineau Lane in the east and Old London Road in the west, and from Fairlight Road in the south to Rye Road in the north; and (2) the Firehills and the east side of Warren Glen. Ironically, the ground which was most often said to be ‘common land’ in the 19th and 20th centuries – the East Hill – is shown in these and other early maps as being enclosed. It seems to have become (or returned to being) open ground soon after the Milward estate passed into the hands of Sarah Milward in 1833.

The best picture of the intensification of farming from the 1500s comes in the tithe maps of 1839. The prominent Milward family then farmed nearly all their land which is now in the Reserve from two farms. The larger of these was Fishponds Farm, in Barley Lane. The 1839 map shows this was let to Mr Isaac Arkcoll, who was then looking after 720 acres of Milward farmland south of Fairlight Road, from the west side of the East Hill to the estate boundary in Warren Glen. Some of the 720 acres was later sold off (including Shearbarn Farm), but in 1839 Mr Arkcoll had been responsible for all the farmland now in the Reserve, south of Fairlight Road and west of the Milward boundary in Warren Glen. The East Hill was all pasture, while the rest of Fishponds Farm was mostly a mixture of pasture and arable. There were only about 40 acres of woodland, which was mainly coppiced, except for that in the gills.

The other Milward farm in 1839 was Tilekiln Lane Farm, run by Mr John Corner. The farmhouse was at the south end of Tilekiln Lane, while its barns were in Fairlight Road, between today’s Fairlight Avenue and Beacon Road. This farm looked after all the Milward farmland north of Fairlight Road in the Fairlight Down area, plus the 38 acres between Fairlight Road and Pinders Shaw, west of Tilekiln Lane (ie, the top of the Bourne Valley). The Milwards sold the farm in 1920. The Reserve land which was not then owned by the Milwards came under Mr William Lucas-Shadwell.

In the 18th and early 19th centuries the second most significant activity in the Reserve, after farming, was smuggling. The indented cliffs and glens created ideal obscure landing beaches, while the deep, dark glens provided concealed routes for transporting goods inland. Graham Smith says in Something to Declare: “From the late 17th up until the early 19th century, smuggling was a major crime conducted on a colossal scale, the execution of which was violent, ruthless and bloody in the extreme, even when judged by the brutal standards of the time. The smugglers were encouraged and financed by the local gentry, protected by compliant magistrates, condoned by the clergy, aided and abetted by the ordinary people and at times facilitated by venal revenue officers. The illegal trade extended throughout the country and permeated every level of society; the smuggled goods found their way into virtually all households, from the most lowly to the highest.” It was widely believed that the “venal revenue officers” included the local establishment figures John Collier and Edward Milward Snr, who, as senior Customs officers, acquired from smuggling a large part of the money with which they bought the smugglers well-used land that became the Reserve – land they were, in theory, policing.

From 1815 smuggling became a more serious problem because it was taken up by many former soldiers and sailors who became unemployed when the Napoleonic war ended. Not only did the government lose large amounts of revenue from import duties, but the smugglers began using their military experience to become well-organised, armed and often violent insurgents who were challenging the state’s ability to maintain order. To bring the situation under control, the Navy-run Coast Blockade Service (the forerunner of today’s Coastguard) built ‘watch houses’ round the south east coast, where armed sailors lived and opposed the smugglers. In 1819 the Coast Blockade constructed one on a small plateau near the bottom of the cliff, just east of Ecclesbourne Stream. Others were also built on Fairlight Head and the Haddocks in Fairlight Cove. The Ecclesbourne station was washed away in 1859 and replaced in 1864 by another on top of the cliff, west of the stream, which went over the cliff in 1963. Some parts of it are still visible. The Fairlight station was rebuilt in 1904.

Smuggling rapidly declined in the 1830s, nationally and locally, while the Reserve was becoming increasingly important as a major attraction for visitors to Hastings. The cliffs and glens had been popular since the late 18th century, but it was the relaxed attitude of the Milwards as land owners, especially Sarah Milward of Fairlight Place following her inheritance of the estate in 1833, that allowed and encouraged large numbers of people of all classes to freely use the area for many different non-work pursuits. The Lucas-Shadwells of Fairlight Hall in Martineau Lane may have shared that approach. The completion of the local railway lines in 1851 soon established Hastings as a popular resort for not-so-well-off south Londoners seeking a few hours or days amusement in pubs, on beaches and along the cliff-tops. This came to a climax in the 1950s, when on the cliffs and in the glens there were cafes, campers, golf-players, football and cricket pitches, kiddies playing on their own, fruit pickers, swimmers and people just ‘walking the glens’ (with not so many dogs as today).

Nine-tenths of the land now comprising the Reserve was mostly sold to Hastings Council by the Milward family. They, and the related Collier family, had acquired three-quarters of that land (everything as far east as the east side of Warren Glen) in the 18th and early 19th centuries, and the remainder (the rest of the glen and part of the Firehills) probably in 1917.

In the 19th century, the Milwards’ neighbour to the east (and the only other owner of a significant amount of the Reserve) was the Lucas-Shadwell family. They, like the Milwards, came from respectable Sussex backgrounds, and used their establishment contacts and professional skills to acquire large quantities of land, most of it between Fairlight and the River Rother south of Rye. The Milwards and Lucas-Shadwells were acquisitive and hard in many ways, but were generous in the help they gave to local causes. They were also not only neighbours in the countryside but also in Hastings: the Milwards’ town-house was Old Hastings House, at the top of the High Street, while the Lucas-Shadwells lived directly opposite across the Bourne Stream, in what became the All Saints Rectory at the top of All Saints Street. Both buildings are still there.

The first area to be acquired from the Milward/Collier descendants by the council was the 60 acres of the East Hill, which was bought in 1888. The family sold 215 acres of the clifftop walks and much of the glens to the council in 1951, in an exchange deal. The 394 acres of Fairlight Place Farm and 51 acres of adjoining Church Farm were purchased from the Milwards in 1963. In addition, five acres of the Spoon reservoir was bought in 1924 and North’s Seat in 1938. In 1959 about 21 acres of clifftop was given to the council following a landslip. The largest area of today’s Reserve land not obtained from the Milward/Colliers is the Firehills; 69 acres were bought from a local resident in 1927.

The Chronicle page that follows this Introduction explores in detail key dates in the history of the Country Park.

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