The Lewes Street Stories Initiative>>Chapel Hill>>Introduction
Introduction to Chapel Hill, by Meg Griffiths
The introductory view of Chapel Hill is from a postcard found in the attic by a current resident: date unknown but thought to be from about 1900 (from the Bartlett collection).
This image is probably more recognisable to those who use Chapel Hill today, with its entrance alongside ‘Bags of Books’.
Known and loved by walkers heading for the Downs, by sledgers, by joggers and, in increasing numbers, by golfers driving up to the Golf Club, Chapel Hill almost certainly follows the line of an early hill track leading down from the hilltop encampments of the early Britons on Mount Caburn. It was part of a ‘bostal’: from the Saxon ‘beorg’ = hill and ‘stig’ = path. A hill path. The track later became a droveway linking Lewes with Glynde (as recorded in 1800) and on further to the habitations east of Pevensey. While most droveways ran north to south, linking the once heavily forested Weald to the Downs and the coast, this was an important east-west route linking manor houses with their pastures.
It is a steep climb up through the residential part to the track beyond. Looking back to the 1900’s postcard gives an idea of the track as it was before all the woodland took over.
One neighbour recalls as recently as the 1970’s sheep being dropped off at the bottom of the hill to be driven up to the Downs. Another recalls cattle being brought down from the pastures above what is now Cuilfail.
The name of the hill has undergone many changes. Originally Cliffe Hill, it later became known as East Street when, as part of the vill (or town) of Cliffe, streets were named from the then centre at Cliffe Corner, with West Street (now Cliffe High Street), North Street (now Malling Street) and South Street, the only one to retain its name.
When in 1881 the vill of Cliffe was incorporated into the borough of Lewes, the streets were renamed to avoid confusion with names in the main town. East Street had in fact changed its name prior to this to reflect the importance of the non-conformist Chapel built in 1775 (see details of the Chapel in the next section).
The 1873 OS map shows the boundary stone (in yellow) and boundary line (in red):Lying historically between two parishes certainly added to the complexity of the research and the recognition that Cliffe, being the wealthier Parish certainly provided better record-keeping.
The numbering of the houses likewise made research very confusing. Houses were often amalgamated or subdivided. Numbers go up on the left and down on the right. There was never a number 1. Numbers 4 and 6 were lost when two dwellings were amalgamated. Numbers 10, 11, and 13 were lost some time after the demolition of the Chapel (see below) and number 21 lost by or during the Second World War. There are currently seventeen households with an address on Chapel Hill.
At the top of the hill used to stand The Old Mill, from at least as early as 1571, when there is a record of The Mill Field being carved out of the sheep down belonging to Ranscombe Manor. We have been unable to trace an image of the mill itself but the site is shown in green on this 1775 map by William Figg.
About 200 years later, in 1760, there is a report of the mill, which at the time belonged to a baker, having burnt down.
(Image from ‘Georgian Lewes 1714-1830’ by Colin Brent)
However, it was still standing when – in August 1756 – the first cricket match was played up on the hill: Lewes against Mayfield. Apparently flat ground was not considered essential then! Cliffe Hill Cricket Club was founded in 1775 with the first official match against a team from West Sussex. That summer a number of matches were reported in the local press with dramatic stories e.g. of the extreme ‘running time’ caused by batsmen hitting the ball out of the ground down the Coombe – and then running until almost exhausted before the ball was retrieved! Indeed a ball dated 1780 was discovered two centuries later embedded in the wall of 17 South Street!
(Image courtesy of Sussex Archaeological Society)
In McCann’s book ‘Sussex Cricket in the Eighteenth Century’ there are many anecdotes involving drunken players and spectators staggering back down the hill from the Cricketers’ Arms. Also a chilling account of it being so cold at a cricket match in June 1790 that ‘several of the gamesters found it necessary to put on their greatcoats while at play’.
The Cricketers’ Arms stood on the site of the present day house Sycamore. The public house was advertised ‘to revive players and spectators’. We have been unable to find out when it opened as a public house or indeed closed as such. This photo, showing above the door the name LENEY’s & SONS – ALES, is from 1865 yet the sales particulars two years earlier refer to it as a cottage called The Cricketers’ Arms: indicating that by then it was possibly no longer actually operating as a pub.
This specular painting is of the Avalanche – or Snow Drop – in South Street on 27 December 1836; the original can be seen in Anne of Cleves House. It shows the terrible disaster that midwinter day. Our focus however is on the imposing building in the background. Even allowing for painter’s licence, that can only have been The Cricketers’ Arms.
By the late 1880s there was a boom in golf course construction in Sussex generally and in 1893 a record of golf being played on Cliffe Hill. Three years later a meeting held at The White Hart Inn in Lewes supported the formation of a golf club with 72 gentlemen promising membership. The vote went against Sunday play. In favour of the site was: natural drainage, short turf and an absence of worm casts! (which had apparently caused problems at Seaford Golf Course).
Golf very quickly took over from cricket and 1897 was the last year that Cliffe Hill Cricket Club played on their traditional pitch. Golf had well and truly taken over (see photo of Club House plaque with date).
There was still only the one track leading up to the top so everyone going to play golf had to walk up and rules of the Club dictated that: Caddies could be engaged only at the Club House – not at the foot of Chapel Hill! Advertisements suggested that ‘The stiff walk up will prove a mere nothing to the enthusiastic golfer’, and stated that the Golf Course was ‘only 15 minutes’ walk from the Railway Station’! Even taking into account the then site of the Railway Station, by Cliffe Bridge, this would have required extreme ‘enthusiasm’. But walk they did and in the early 1900s there was a steady stream of golfers walking up and down the hill, beyond the houses on just a narrow cinderpath.
Due to this inconvenient access, membership started falling off, as a result of which in 1911, the inevitable motor road was proposed right up to the Club House. An alternative proposal to move the Club to the Race Hill Course ever materialised. Club House records and notebooks 1913-1938 have been lost but we learnt from the current owners of the top house on the right that Mr Harry French – who built their house in 1934 – was also part of the road construction team. He would push a water carrier from the wells on the top properties to supply the Clubhouse with water while and his wife provided refreshments for the golfers.
Perhaps those enthusiastic golfers rested here on the way up. Note the inscription above: “I WILL GIVE YOU REST” from the Gospel of St. Matthew: “Come all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest”. There are differing accounts of the origin of this Victorian brick bench – but it seems likely it was erected by Isaac Vinall, a deeply religious man, who owned the land on which he subsequently built the Cuilfail Estate above.
During the Second World War the road was used by the Royal Army Service Corps while the Home Guard requisitioned the Club House Buildings. Anti-aircraft guns were positioned on the golf course and an air raid shelter constructed in the area of the last house left – with another at the bottom of the hill with access also from Malling Street.
In 1940 a line of bombs was dropped from The Martyrs’ Memorial through to Southover with one landing, but not exploding, in the kitchen of No. 3 Chapel Hill.
Concerned by the high volume of traffic going up to the Golf Club AND the heavy lorries delivering supplies, in the early 1990s the residents asked for meetings with ESCC. As a result restrictions were placed on vehicles driving up: 7’6” width (since reduced to 7’) and 7.5 tonne weight restriction. Two bollards were initially placed near the bottom, one needing to be removed almost immediately to allow access for Emergency Vehicles.