A vision of hell
“A Vision of Hell” would not be most people’s description of the area east of Mayfield today. However, in Tudor times this area was the iron-making, industrial capital of England, with the night sky lit up by the flames of furnaces and the glow of molten iron, accompanied by the turning of waterwheels and the blows of hammers. Today’s walk looks at the raw materials which led to the establishment of this industry and concludes at one of the ironmaking sites.
LENGTH – 4.5 miles
TIME – 2.5 hours
START – Mayfield Church, High Street, Mayfield, TN20 6AB. (NGR 587 270)
PARKING – King George’s Field car park, Tunbridge Wells Road, Mayfield, TN20 6PJ and village car park, South Street, Mayfield, TN20 6BE.
TOILETS – South Street, Mayfield
REFRESHMENTS – Pub, cafe and village shop in Mayfield.
This walk contains stiles.
Appropriately, Mayfield church is dedicated to St Dunstan who is supposed to have been an ironworker and run a small forge next door. The legend says that he was confronted by the devil disguised as a young woman. He pinched the devil’s nose with the tongs causing him to flee to Tunbridge Wells to douse his burnt nose in the spring, turning the water sulphurous. There may be little truth to that story, but it is certainly true that the floor of the church contains at least eight cast iron grave slabs, some commemorating local ironmasters.Appropriately, Mayfield church is dedicated to St Dunstan who is supposed to have been an ironworker and run a small forge next door. The legend says that he was confronted by the devil disguised as a young woman. He pinched the devil’s nose with the tongs causing him to flee to Tunbridge Wells to douse his burnt nose in the spring, turning the water sulphurous. There may be little truth to that story, but it is certainly true that the floor of the church contains at least eight cast iron grave slabs, some commemorating local ironmasters.
Further evidence of a lost industry can be found on a plinth in Mayfield High Street where there is a small 16th century cannon. This was dug out of the remains of Mayfield furnace in 1864 and mounted in its present position in 1977. This one had a flaw in it and was never fired. It was said of the cannons made at this time that they were “fitter to kill the user than the enemy”.
The basic raw material of the iron industry was iron ore, of which low-grade seams exist in the Weald sandwiched between the sandstone and clay layers that make up the geology. Being close to or at the surface, the unwanted rock was simply quarried out of shallow pits. The ore was broken up into fist sized pieces for carting to the iron works. Today, most of these pits remain as flooded holes in the ground, often within woodland, as the ground is now too poor to bear crops.
This tiny stream was the power source for this first “industrial revolution”. The High Weald has many fast flowing streams in relatively narrow valleys. This allowed them to be easily dammed up to create a hammer pond, from which water could flow in a controlled fashion to power one or more waterwheels, which were in turn connected to bellows, hammers etc. Today only a few of these ponds are still in water but the remains of the dam or ‘bay’ are often still visible.
The other raw material needed in vast quantities by the iron industry was timber. Woods such as Furnace Wood and Banky Wood were coppiced; that is the main trunks were cut back to provide a stool of rapidly sprouting branches which could be harvested on a 7 – 10 year cycle. The harvested wood was slowly burnt on the spot to make charcoal which was then transported to the ironworks.
In the late 1560s, Thomas Gresham moved from Antwerp, where he had been the Royal Agent, to become an arms producer when he took possession of the Old Palace estate in Mayfield and established this ironworks. On Gresham’s death in 1579, control of the foundry passed to Henry Neville. By 1592, working in a syndicate with the Sackville family and with foreign partners from Germany and Holland, he gained the Royal Patent or monopoly for the export of cast iron guns from Queen Elizabeth. So, for a period of thirty years, the Mayfield Furnace was one of the main gun producing centres in Europe. Mayfield guns have been found as far away as Nevis in the West Indies. The works covers a large area and to the right the overflow channel from the pond further upstream can be seen in the woodland as it rejoins the stream.
7. Standing on the bridge over the stream, the earthworks of the dam or pond bay are visible immediately adjacent. There are two further dams upstream to produce a chain of ponds. Substantial amounts of water were necessary to drive the bellows for months on end. The Furnace was built over the stream (the structure destroyed by the building of the bridge) perhaps 13 feet (4 metres) square and up to 25 feet (7½ metres) high. The Furnace (stone-built and lined with brick and clay) was fed with layers of iron ore and charcoal, tipped into the top from a ramp leading off the top of the dam. The 13 feet (4 metres) high wooden water wheel was fed by an oak trough, part of which still exists in the pond downstream. The Furnace was blasted by a pair of bellows; each revolution of the wheel delivering three blasts from each pair. Once sufficient molten iron was contained in the furnace bottom, the iron was tapped out into gun pits, dug up to 12 feet (3½ metres) deep, vertically into the ground below and lined with a clay mould. The Furnace would operate continuously, day and night for months, until the water supply ran dry or the Furnace lining collapsed. Other products included fire-backs and grave slabs were made in sand moulds with a pattern pressed into the sand from a wooden design. Once the Furnace went out, the residue left in the Furnace bottom, comprising slag, charcoal and clay, called a “bear”, was cleaned out. The very last “bear” remains in the stream, following the final firing of the furnace about 1670.
A short detour off the path to the left reveals another breached dam across a side stream. This pond was used to power the boring mill. Once the iron had been poured into the vertical cannon mould, the gun pit had to be dug out, the clay removed and the metal casting cleaned. The next stage was to laboriously bore a hole down the centre of the casting to form the breech of the cannon. This had to be made smooth and to the correct size to prevent the cannon balls jamming in the gun when it was fired, no easy feat with the metal of the drill head being only slightly harder than the casting it was boring.
The Sussex iron industry, which had been a technological marvel in the late 1400s, was obsolete by the 1700s. At Ironbridge in Shropshire, iron was successfully made using coal rather than charcoal in 1709, leading to the transfer of the industry to the areas of the country where coal was available. The ironmasters may have moved to follow the work, but the substantial workforce could not and shanty villages such as Broad Oak and Cade Street grew up on former commons as people tried to scratch a living from the poor local soil. Some of them turned to growing hops, one of the few things to grow well locally and this led to the appearance of the typical Wealden oasthouses, used to dry the hops, the first of which was built in Sussex in 1667.
Whilst we have taken reasonable endeavours to ensure the information is up to date and correct, you will be using the information strictly at your own risk. If you come across any inaccuracies whilst you are on your walk, please contact Wealden District Council’s Community and Regeneration team.
The self-guided walk descriptions are provided to help you navigate your way, however we recommend that you plan your route prior to walking the route and that you carry an Ordnance Survey map of the area being walked and follow your position on the map as you proceed.
Please note, we cannot be responsible for the conditions of the footpaths and land and you are responsible for your own safety.