A thousand years of progress
In the year 1000, the people of Ninfield had just created their village by cutting the space for it from the Wealden Forest – the name originally being “Niwnumenan Felda – Newly Cleared Fields”. This walk explores man’s impact on the area in the thousand years since those Saxon settlers first swung their axes. Walkers should take care not to end up in the stocks.
LENGTH – 4 miles
TIME – 3 hours
START – Junction of Church Lane and A269, Ninfield adjacent to village stocks, TN33 9JW.
PARKING – On street parking in Church Lane and Downsview, Ninfield.
TOILETS – No public toilets available.
REFRESHMENTS – Pubs and village shop in Ninfield.
CAUTION – This walk includes two crossings of the A269 road.
This walk contains stiles.
The Saxons literally cut Ninfield from the Wealden forests as its name “Niwnumenan Felda – Newly Cleared Fields” suggests. This resulted in a dispersed pattern of settlement around the parish and an unusually high number of freeholders. Amongst a population of about 50 people, no less than 5 lords owned different parts of the parish, each probably representing an original clearance site. Following the Norman Conquest, the local overlord, the Count of Eu took the largest holding and gave the other four to some of his most trusted men-at arms – Reinbert, Robert, Osbern and Warin.
Reinbert’s holding of Ingrams Farm represents one of these original sites where the “freeholders claim to hold their land without paying heriot (death duties)” – this benefit marking it out as an original clearance site. The next earliest record is in 1264 when it was held by Robert and Andrew Ingeram. In 1455 William and Robert Ingram get away “scot free” (they avoided having to pay tax for the wars with Scotland) and declared Ingrams a “manor”. It was, however, a manor in decline. By 1570 it was described as “There is no manor house but a mean thatched house with a kitchen (detached due to the fire risk), orchard with garden and curtilage containing half an acre of land”.
The chain of ponds (now dried up) along the stream valley, provided power to Potmans Forge ironworks nearly half a mile away, south of the electricity transforming station. The forge itself had a short life; built by William Waters around 1580, it is last heard of in 1637. It was the most southerly of the large number of Wealden iron furnaces and possibly a little too far from the main sources of iron ore and timber. It did, however, produce one unique piece of work which can still be seen today on this walk.
Marlpits represents an industrial area of the parish, with the now disused quarries still visible. The excavated material was used to thicken lighter soils and (although it was not then known how it worked) to neutralise the acid/alkaline balance of the soils. A list of parish trades in 1681 shows extreme levels of demarcation, including: 1 innkeeper and shoemaker, 1 shoemaker only, 1 sawyer and carpenter, 1 carpenter only, 1 sawyer only and, the slightly more versatile, 1 joyner, carpenter and fiddler – presumably he couldn’t play while he worked though.
Standard Hill marks the spot where William the Conqueror is alleged to have raised his banner on arrival in England (some distance from his landing point of Pevensey it must be said). On the whole, the Norman invasion was not good for Ninfield. Parties of soldiers looted all villages in the region to feed themselves before the Battle of Hastings. Ninfield, worth £6 before the soldiers’ arrival, was worth only £1 after their departure. This was the site awarded to Osbern in the Doomsday Book and was later occupied by the De Standard family, their surname obviously originating from their location in the parish.
Moorhall was the biggest of the original, clearance sites at about 300 acres and was the one retained by the local overlord. Consequently, through much of its history it was rented to a succession of local people by absentee landlords. By 1342, however, much of its wealth was gone – “a great part of cultivated land called Morhall, had been submerged” (by the sea, probably in the great storm of 1287) and a further “130 acres of land lay uncultivated on account of poverty”. A combination of French raids and a run of appalling harvests was to blame, but little did the writer realise that just seven years later, the Black Death would add to the villagers’ woes.
Ninfield church has endured throughout the whole thousand years. The church held by ‘Robert’ in the Doomsday Book can still be visited today and parts of the nave may date from this original building. On view, amongst other things, are a coat of arms (probably commemorating the return of the monarchy in 1662 after the civil war republic period), a minstrels’ gallery (dating from the time when a local band rather than an organ provided church music) and locking staples on the cover of the lead font to prevent the theft of holy water.
Having passed the ironworks earlier on the walk, it now finishes adjacent to one of the products – the unique iron stocks and whipping post. Two different sized leg holes and two different sized shackles are thoughtfully provided. Here, errant villagers could be secured by the legs, before being pelted with rotten fruit (or worse) or handcuffed to the post for whipping.