The Story of Aldrington
By A. BARR-HAMILTON
Has Aldrington a story? Historians are silent and other writers have passed her by with never a word. Certainly, she is not promising material. In the modern built-up mass of greater Hove, she is not easily to be identified and few can say where Hove properly ends and Aldrington begins. 'Thousands dwell unaware within the hounds of the ancient parish and only those who live hard by the old church can suspect that a village once flourished here as a separate community. For as Aldrington declined till nought remained save the crumbling church by the ever encroaching waves, so Hove waxed fat and prosperous and grew mightily, finally to devour her stricken neighbour, history, name and all.
It was the sarsens, lying in the north-west corner of the churchyard, that first caused me to wonder. Such boulders are common enough among the Downland valleys hereabouts and their presence at this spot, perhaps, held no particular significance. Yet, somehow, these had not the rounded appearance of other sarsens and some seemed to me to have been roughly squared, though much weathered since; some, even, appeared reddened as by long exposure to fire.
As I gazed upon them, I allowed myself to indulge in extravagant thought. I saw them set within a Druid circle on the windswept flat between Down and sea; or hewn from the far-off, long submerged quarries at Bracklesham and built, long-and-short, into the quoins of a Saxon church; enclosing the tiny cell of some medieval anchorite or resting in the foundation of a long-forgotten rectory building. Alas! my speculation was brutally shattered by one who has spent a long life working in and about this churchyard and who proferred the unromantic explanation that the sarsens had been brought here, within his memory, from the fields that once lay north of the church, where they had presented some hindrance to the progress of agriculture. Well, there it was; and I reflected, sadly, that even the fire that had left its mark upon them might well have been no more spectacular than that used to dispose of the churchyard refuse.
Still, there must be a story somewhere; and there were other ancient stones, built into the church walls, that were at once an encouragement and a challenge. How should one set about its discovery? I pondered the matter and it seemed a good idea to begin by establishing, if possible, the ancient bounds of the place.
So, having first consulted an old map, I duly set out upon my errand, and was surprised to discover that Aldrington's boundary is still quite well defined. Westward from Westbourne Place it skirts the sea then, turning northward at Boundary Road an ancient way-it follows the base of the Knoll and so reaches the long hedge; the latter, which climbs Dyke-wards for some miles, defines the limits of several parishes and, defying modern development, still runs snake-like at the rear of Elm Drive from a point, deep inside the town, where the County School field begins. Following the southern edge of this field, the boundary finally crosses the Old Shoreham Road and turns southward along a low spur of the Downs that is now visible only as a succession of small humps in the tarmacadamed surface of lateral streets, reaching Westbourne Place once again, where it is marked by an old flint wall.
Here, then, was a foundation. What could one build upon it? Well, to begin with, the small area of the parish tended to confirm the tradition that a great part of it, together with the village, had long since succumbed to the turbulent waters of the Channel. Looking at the matter chronologically, I remembered that I had seen displayed in the Brighton museum some fine polished stone axe-heads that had been dug from the soil of the parish and had read of a Bronze Age find, at its eastern extremity, near Aldrington House. I remembered, too, reading a vague reference to the discovery of Roman remains which, if not well authenticated, is at least probable, since the Old Shoreham Road is generally accepted as having been a Roman road, with possibly older origins. The old myth that Aldrington was the great "Portus Adurni" of the Romans has now been satisfactorily exploded.
So much, then, for the Romans. What of the Saxons who wrested the land from the Romanised Britons ? Nothing very tangible perhaps, though a few yards west of Boundary Road, a Saxon cemetery, containing, it is thought, both heathen and Christian burials, has been discovered. Yet, as the English Place Name Society's admirable work on Sussex tells us, the very name of Aldrington- "the farm of Ealdhere's people"-is good Anglo-Saxon; so, too, are the other two place-names of the parish: Knoll ("cnoll"-"a round hill") and Wish ("wisc"-"a meadow")-relic of the Wish Meadow where fairs and circuses were held in the days of our youth.
At this point, I thought, it would be well to consult the Domesday Book in Relation to the County of Sussex, a rare and splendid tome, published in the last century by the Sussex Archeological Society of which I am fortunate to possess a copy. I was quickly rewarded with the information that, in Saxon times, Aldrington gave name to a Hundred, of which the eastern half comprised the parishes of Aldrington, Hangleton and Portslade; and I found it a sobering thought that this very entity still exists as the eastern of the two present half-hundreds of Fishersgate.
The Domesday reference to Aldrington was brief and to the point: "IN THE HALF HUNDRED OF ELDRETUNE. Godfrey holds Eldretune of William. It lies in Beddings, a manor of King Edward, and William de Braoise now holds it in his rape. Godfrey holds 7 hides and half a rod. There is land for seven ploughs. It does not pay geld. Villeins held it in the time of King Edward. There are 41 villeins and 10 bordars with 7 ploughs. In the time of King Edward, and afterwards, it was worth £4. Now £6." Then follow details of a parcel of land belonging to the manor and also held by Godfrey, but situated in Broadwater, together with a note that in the two lands there was only one hall; the latter, in all probability, stood at Aldrington, hard by the church.
The entry conjures up visions of a busy agricultural community. The hide was an ancient Saxon land division and represented sufficient land for cultivation by one plough.
Villeins were little better than serfs, the chattels of the lord of the manor. Bordars were cottagers. Godfrey, no doubt, was a Norman. The "geld" mentioned was the defunct Saxon "Danegeld" tax, which the Conqueror had promptly revived. The fact that no geld was paid by this manor suggests that its lord performed some service for the King.
Here was Aldrington's first record; but what of the turbulent centuries that followed; had anything of note ever occurred in this obscure village and, if so, had the incident been recorded ? If so, again, had the records survived ? It was clear that I must next visit the little library of the Sussex Archaeological Society at Lewes, where is assembled the most comprehensive collection of information relating to our county. Deeds and maps, records and references, county histories and village histories, guides, geologies and geographies ; each in its appointed place in that quaint and quiet "Tudor room. An hour or two of browsing in the silence produced results.
I reflected that, for the survival of almost all this information, we are indebted to the Church which, rock-like through centuries of change and clamour, has preserved for us, in parchment and stone, so much of the past. Even her humble building at Aldrington, though ruined, had survived when all else had been lost forever and so preserved an age-long continuity. For the first church here, almost certainly, was a Saxon one of wood, provided by the lord of the manor who had inherited the duty, from pagan times, of providing his followers with a temple in which they might worship. Perhaps in the eleventh century, a stone edifice succeeded it, or its successor, for some of the materials seem to have been used in the thirteenth-century building. Portions of the latter are embodied in the modern church-notably in the tower base and in the east wall of the old nave where two original lancets may be seen. The unaccountable mullions and column sections in same time gives the family names then prevailing in Aldrington, many of which are still to be found in the district: Slyghbody, Thom, Cony, le Scras, le Mutel, Russel, Heryng, Wodeland, Carter, le 'For, de Hangleton, in the Hale, Burry, de Sadelescombe, Spendloue.
The character of the parish as a thriving agricultural community probably remained unchanged until the fourteenth century, and in 1334 Aldrington contributed £3 3s. 4d. to the King's Tax, compared with the £3 3s. of Portslade; but already the sea was beginning to take toll of the fertile lands, and the Nonae Rolls of 1340 alleged that, since the taxation of Pope Nicholas, forty-eight years earlier, Aldrington had lost forty acres to the sea.
The monks of the great Cluniac Priory of St. Pancras, Lewes, seem to have possessed property in the parish "at Estfield juxta Aldrington" where they had "a portion of the tithes of lambs, wool and cheese." Perhaps the same field is referred to in the Chartulary of the Priory, when one, John le Foghe of Aldrington, gave them 14d. yearly rent for an acre of land "to the west of la Leme by the road which is called Bergheweye beside the hillock in the field of Aldrington." What was "la Leme ?" Could it have been a hostelry? As for the Berghweye, the name surely means either "the road to the burh" or "the road to the barrow." Since one would expect to find either on high ground, my guess is that the Berghweye was a north-south thoroughfare, perhaps the present Boundary Road which leads ultimately to the old earth defences on the Dyke Hill.
Here and there, the records gave a glimpse of the character and time of some of the Rectors who, to judge by their actions, possessed a somewhat different outlook on life from their modern counterparts. There was, for example, "Henry, parson of the church of Aldryngton" who, in 1316, complained "of John Cook on a plea of trasspass. And he says the said John took away William Firet his servant, out of his service etc, to his damage 20s etc." Then, in 1402, one of his successors, Thomas Bolle, obtained permission to become an anchorite and took up his abode in a cell "on the north side of the churchyard." The churchyard, apparently, was not that of Aldrington, but one at Chichester. While, in 1408, the following strange entry appears in Bishop Rede's Register: "The Bishop gave to Dns. William Gaynesburgh, R. of Aldryngton, leave of nonresidence for two years and of letting his Church to farm. He had letters testimonial."
Sometime during this period, the mouth of the Adurdriven further and further eastward from Shoreham by the shingle drift from the south-west-found itself at Aldrington where-if old maps may be trusted---it remained until the seventeenth century. That this had not previously been the case, is suggested by the parish boundary, which crosses straight over Aldrington Basin-the old river-bed-and disappears into the sea; for, where they may, parish boundaries almost invariably follow large water courses and often unimportant streams.
The advent of the river may have given the village a certain maritime importance, and a general movement of its population toward the waterside might reconcile the statement of Parson English in 1603 that he had only 8 or 9 parishioners with the fact that the village is said to have possessed 200 inhabitants living close to the sea in 1670; and may account for the West Aldrington that appears in the records for the first time early in the seventeenth century, when "Robert March of West Aldrington, joyner & Elizabeth Fowler of same, widow" were wed at "East Aldrington" (i.e. the old church).
The reduced state of the parish is reflected in the following extract from a Liber Detectorum of 1586: "ALDRINGTON. The church is not paved, nor whited nor beautified. Or churchyarde sufficiently fensed. The chancell is not paved." True, in 1596, the Rector, Henry English, "placed a newe font in the usuall place in ye church," but he seems to have had some difficulty in making ends meet, if one may judge by certain remarkable entries in the Act Books of the Archdeaconry of Lewes 1607. April 28. Woodmancote. Edward Scrase and Edward Lag.
"The said Lag confessed that about 4 or 5 years agon he did helpe to carry away a Bell from Aldrington Church, Delivered unto him as he said by Thomas Barron then Churchwarden, and Mr. English parson there, as also by Henry Hoden then a parishioner there, and was hired hereunto by Richard Hen and Edward Mitchell the churchwardens of Hendfield." The case was on this day dismissed as against Scrase and later on against Owden.
December 1. Henfield. Office of Judge against Richard Hen and Edward Mitchell, of Henfield, and Edward Lag of Woodmancote. The respondents alleged that "Sir Thomas Bishoppe Knt, in the first yeere of the King's Majestie's raigne that now is, or thereabouts, in the behalf of the parishioners of Henfield procured to be bought from Sr Barnard Whetstone Knt, Edward Bellingham, Esqre., from the parson of East Aldrington from the churchwardens and other parishoners there by and with theire mutuall consente, And did receave 650 pounds weight of Bell metall at fifty shillings the hundred to make a hell for the parish church of Hendfield with which 650 pounds together with other metall they made a Bell and placed it in the steeple of the parish church of Hendfield and have and doe use it at this present. And doe offer themselves ready to paye the sum of money agreed appon to the use of the Church of Aldrington aforesayd, vizt. sixteene pounds and five shillings of lawful English money, whereof fourteene pounds hath bin in the hands of one Richard Awsten, to them that have right to receave the same so that they or other parishioners of Hendfield may be suffitiently dischardged from further payment thereof."
The Book of John Rowe (1597-1622) who was Steward of the Estates of the Lords Bergavenny, mentions that the Lord of the Manor of Portslade was entitled to all wrecks "between the west hedge of Aldrington and the ditch of Hove" (i.e. the Aldrington foreshore) and one hopes that this right was not an encouragement to his worthy retainers to indulge in the profitable pastime of wrecking so often imputed to the coastwise folk of Sussex. Smugglers there were, no doubt, and a "smugglers cave" is said to have existed near the upper part of the Hove boundary within living memory.
In 1670, said one authority, the village still possessed a population of two hundred, inhabiting a row of houses perilously close to the advancing waters. By 1738, according to "Magna Britannia" few of these buildings remained, most of them having succumbed to the great storms of 1703 and 1705; while another authority claimed that, in 1724, the parsonage was the only house remaining.
If the tempests brought ruin to Brighton and Hove, they sounded Aldrington's death-knell, for she soon sank into complete oblivion. By 1821, I read, her population had dwindled to two only, who were the toll-gate keeper and his wife. The old toll-gate, on the coast road, was pulled down about 1863 and all that remained of the village was the sad ruin of her church, lying forlorn among the brickfields.
At the end of the century, the parish included three fields belonging to Hangleton Manor, called Fern Closes, Breaches and The Gibbetts. The latter name reminds us of the survival, until recent years, of Gibbet Farm, where now the easternmost houses of Elm Drive stand. At this spot formerly stood the high gibbet from which, it seems, was hanged that unfortunate youth, James Rook, for having robbed the King's Mail nearby. The story of the efforts of his distracted mother to collect his bones and bury them decently by Old Shoreham Churchyard is well known, through Tennyson's "Rizpah."
So, Aldrington's story passed into the times of my own memory. I recalled how she had grown again and how, as she had prospered, her ancient church had been enlarged and embellished and the roads developed to a spacious scheme. How, in the recent war, history repeated itself and Aldrington, again suffering at the hands of the enemy, yet played her part in repelling him, as the illustration on page 167 suggests.
To-day, in tribute to her resurgence, the small ships of many nations berth in Aldrington Basin and seem to symbolise her ultimate victory in the age-long struggle with the sea.
From Sussex County Magazine V 26 1952
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