Picture Book Pevensey
by Peter d’Aguilar
Bordered by the South Downs, the picturesque and peaceful village of Pevensey lies two miles inland from the sea at the south western tip of 1066 Country. Peter d’Aguilar discovers more.
Back in Roman times, Pevensey stood on an outcrop of land forming a peninsula bordered by a tidal lagoon. Over the centuries, the village has gradually become cut off from the sea; due to shingle imported by longshore drift. At the heart of the village sit the imposing ruins of Pevensey Castle, a rare medieval shore fort that traces its origins back to the first century AD. Pevensey Bay, one mile to the south-east, was the point where William the Conqueror landed to launch the Norman Invasion – taking advantage of a rare gap in the south coast’s line of cliffs. To the north east, Pevensey Levels comprises fifty square miles of marshland, a nature reserve and a Site of Special Scientific Interest.
Pevensey Bay is an ancient fishing village founded in the seventeenth century as Wallsend, marking the end of the sea wall that stretches back to Eastbourne. Completely under water at the time of the Norman Invasion, the constant erosion of nearby Beachy Head has created the popular pebbly beach of today. During the sixteenth century, Pevensey became a non-corporate limb of the Cinque Ports and later a convenient landing place for smuggling – climaxing in a violent clash between smugglers and customs men in 1833.
The Martello Towers at Pevensey Bay were part of the south coast network of defences built to counter the threat of a Napoleonic invasion in the early nineteenth century. In the early 1900s the village began to evolve into a holiday resort, with the development of the coastline gathering momentum in the 1930s. Today the seafront at Pevensey Bay is an attractive if eclectic mixture of Edwardian town houses, bungalows, shacks and caravan parks. The whole of the Pevensey area has a strong community atmosphere and is well served with local clubs and societies.
Together, Natural England and Sussex Wildlife Trust jointly own Pevensey Levels and manage its conservation programme. The marshland area is home to many nationally rare plants and invertebrates, including the fen raft spider, and provides a natural haven for wild birds, flowers and animals. Due to its fragility, the site is not open to the public.
Pevensey Castle dates back to AD 300 and was originally named Anderitum or Anterida. The oldest surviving stone is from the Roman period and, originally, the sea surrounded the fort on three sides. Having been stormed by a succession of Jutes, Saxons and Normans, William the Conqueror presented the castle to his brother Robert; who set about restoring the stonework. It somehow managed to survive several medieval sieges, as well as demolition orders issued by Queen Elizabeth I and Oliver Cromwell. JMW Turner made several paintings and sketches of the castle in the early part of the nineteenth century. During World War II the castle, which is now in the care English Heritage, became a lookout post over the channel for German aircraft.
Spread out below the castle, Pevensey village offers a harmonious mix of weatherboard, tile-hung, int and stone cottages, antique shops, traditional pubs and cafes. The Pevensey Court House Museum in the High Street dates back to the thirteenth century. Until 1886, the building was used as the local jail and the smallest town hall in England. The court room with dock, cells and exercise yard are still intact and the museum has an interesting selection of local history displays. The fourteenth century Old Mint House, replete with myth and legend, has recently passed into new ownership for renovation. Pevensey marks the starting point of the 1066 Country Walk, a thirty-mile footpath which passes through a number of historical sites including Herstmonceux and Battle, as well as some beautiful countryside, before finishing up in Rye.
Pevensey’s places of worship include the Anglican parish church of St Nicolas and the Wesleyan Methodist church. Pevensey Bay offers a choice between the Holy Rood Catholic church, the Free Church and St Wilfrid’s.
Unsurprisingly, given its nautical history, Pevensey Bay is a haven for sailors. The thriving sailing club offers several classes of boat and has a full racing programme. It also played an important part in the evolution of the National 12 and Merlin Rocket Development Class racing dinghies in the 1970s when it was the home club of Phil Morrison, the British yacht designer and father of Stevie Morrison – who competed in the 2008 Olympic Games.
Between Pevensey and the South Downs is the ancient parish of Westham, which also incorporates the villages of Stone Cross and Hankham. Westham is recorded in the Domesday Book and takes its name from being a hamlet to the west of Pevensey Castle. The parish occupies a ridge at the western end of the Pevensey Levels.
The eleventh century St Mary’s church at Westham is believed to be the oldest Norman church in England, and was painted many times by Victorian landscape artist Lewis Pinhorn Wood. St Luke’s parish church at Stone Cross fell into disrepair during the 1970s and was refurbished and re-opened in 1988. The Grade II* listed windmill at Stone Cross was completed in 1876 and is the last of its type to be built in Sussex. Although it ceased commercial operation in 1937, it has since been refurbished and is now open to the public.