Did I leave the Iron on
Memorial inscriptions forged by illiterate craftsmen on iron gravestones line the floor of Wadhurst Church. This walk links the product of the ironworks in the church to the site of one of the works and an unusual iron ore mine from which the raw material for the industry was briefly produced.
LENGTH – 4 miles
TIME – 2.5 hours
START – Wadhurst Church, Church Street, Wadhurst, TN5 6AR, NGR 641318.
PARKING – Car parks in Wadhurst village.
TOILETS – Wadhurst village hall.
REFRESHMENTS – Pubs at Wadhurst, cafes at Wadhurst, village shops at Wadhurst.
CAUTION – One level crossing of Hastings to Tonbridge railway.
This walk contains stiles.
On entering Wadhurst church the eye is drawn to over 30 iron graveslabs lining the floor. These were produced by carving a block of wood with a pattern, pressing it into a bed of sand to leave a mould and pouring in molten iron to form the slab. Since the makers were often illiterate words may be wrongly-spelt, letters reversed or words split in half to fit the pattern. No fewer than eight of these are to members of Barham family who were the ironmasters operating in the area through which this walk passes.
The iron industry of Sussex was at its peak from Tudor time (c1500) to just after the English Civil War (c1670). However, the last attempt to revive the Wealden iron industry took place in this area. Taking advantage of the newly constructed Hastings to Tonbridge railway which opened in 1851 (and possibly using some of the railway navvies as labourers), an ironstone mine was established in 1857 in the woods either side of the railway. To the north of the railway, two seams were worked but to the south only one could be found. Unfortunately, the iron ore grade was very poor and the seams were discontinuous making the whole enterprise hopelessly uneconomic. The mine closed again within a year.
A little to the west of the route lies Snape house. This was originally built about 1200, but was totally rebuilt in 1617 by David Barham to reflect the rise in the family’s status from tenant farmers in 1450 to ironmasters in 1550, who eventually owned several ironworks in the Wadhurst area. The family name was originally Bearham and their coat of arms, which appears on some of the graveslabs, carries three bears which reflects this name. The family gradually built up a landholding around Snape House which extended as far as the ironworks and their newer house at Scrag Oak (see below). However, the collapse of the Sussex iron industry in the mid to late 1600’s forced the family to sell the house and their estate in 1721.
The Miners Arms pub, now a private house, preserves the memory of both the railway construction and the brief life of the mine. It opened in 1851 as “The Locomotive” to provide refreshment to the navvies who were building the railway where “beer was sold in gallons to the sweating men”. The railway workers moved on as the construction finished, but the pub remained and was renamed as “The Miners Arms” to serve the miners in the iron ore mine during its brief life. In the event, the pub outlasted the mine by many years and served its community until 1955 when it closed and was converted to a private house.
To the east of the road lies another fine Barham house, Scrag Oak, which was enlarged and modernised in 1678 by William, another of the Barham family and presumably the family member charged with direct supervision of the ironworks in the valley below the property.
To the west of the route lies the site of Scrag Oak ironworks straddling the stream which was the power source for the works. Apart from an earth bank which was used to dam the valley to provide a head of water to drive the machinery by means of a large waterwheel, little else remains. Its date of construction is uncertain but it was able to supply raw iron to as many as four local forges (also owned by the Barhams, showing the extent of their enterprise). It just survived the Civil War, being in working order in 1653, but ruined by 1664 as the demand for armaments fell sharply. Once disused, the worked stone of the blast furnace was swiftly removed for other building works in the area.
The return to Wadhurst passes close to a property known as Moseham on the main road on the outskirts of the village. In 1813, its new owner described it rather condescendingly as “one small tenement of modern structure occupied with a small estate”. Originally, however, it was a place of greater significance being a “station of considerable importance consisting of twelve messuages (properties), held of the manor of Bibleham in older days still by service of Castleguard”. This meant that as part of the rent for the property the occupant had to stand guard at Pevensey Castle for 40 days in every year. Eventually this was replaced by a commuted payment of 6s 8d per year which would have saved a great deal of time travelling down to the coast and back.