Et non plures
When the Normans landed in England about 110 people lived in the village of Exceat in small houses next to a church overlooking the River Cuckmere. In 1428 the same village comprised “Henry Chesman et non plures” (and no others). What had gone wrong? A walk of five miles takes in landscapes of woodland, downland, sea cliffs, estuary and river to answer this question.
LENGTH – 5 miles
TIME – 3 hours
START – Seven Sisters Country Park, Exceat, BN25 4AB. (NGR 518 995)
PARKING – Seven Sisters Country Park car parks, Exceat (access off A259 and Litlington Road). Pay and display.
PUBLIC TOILETS – Seven Sisters Country Park, Exceat
REFRESHMENTS – Pub at Exceat (¼ mile off route). Tea Rooms/Restaurant at Exceat
CAUTION – This walk includes a section of unfenced cliff top and two crossings of the A259 road.
The flint wall here marks the old parish boundary between the former parishes of Westdean and Exceat. The latter was incorporated into the former in 1528, since by this time, Exceat church was “destroyed and razed to the ground, and the place of the site of the Church is profaned”.
Initially, Friston was the most important settlement in the area, with East and West Dean being subsidiary to it. However, by the time King Alfred visited around 885, West Dean was a royal manor with its own settlement of slaves or churls at “churlston”, now Charleston, just out of sight (and smell) to the north. Ships could sail up a creek, now represented only by the pond, to reach this point.
Westdean church may date in part back to Alfred’s time. The unique tower and spire is said to represent a monk’s cowl, possibly in tribute to its later owner, Battle Abbey. The Abbey was responsible for the 14th century clergy house adjacent with its early integral chimney and spiral staircase. On the opposite side of the road, high flint walls surround a large gap – the last successor to King Alfred’s manor house was pulled down in 1825 and only the circular dovehouse still remains.
In 1927, the 2000-acre Friston Forest was planted on what was then open downland. Initially the salt in the air affected the trees until pines were planted to protect the slower growing beech. Today the final stages of pine removal are occurring to leave an almost pure broad-leaved forest, home to over 350 species of plants.
New Barn is a 18th or 19th century structure built of flint walls with brick corner strengthening. Its construction marks the final enclosure of the large communal fields into individual farms.
At this point you cross back into Exceat parish, on the former downland sheep pasture. The area ahead formed Friston aerodrome during World War II with two grass runways and a smattering of buildings. Its most important use was as an emergency landing ground for damaged planes, hence its immediate proximity to the coast.
From the top of the Seven Sisters chalk cliffs, the Belle Tout lighthouse is prominent on the cliff to the east. It was physically moved inland in 1999 to prevent it falling into the sea. At the foot of the cliffs, remains of up to four shipwrecks, may be visible at low tide. Do not go near the edge – the chalk is being lost at an average rate of 2 feet or 0.7 metres per year to the sea.
An excellent view over the Cuckmere estuary, the only unspoilt estuary left in south-east England. The river originally discharged close to the cliff on the east side, leaving its old course as a cut-off lagoon parallel to the shore, visible today.
The flat area adjacent to Foxholes Cottages marks the former harbour belonging to Exceat. The valley beyond is the site of the “open”, arable fields of the village.
The site of the church and village of Exceat. The village initially thrived with a population of over 100. However, in the 14th century, poor harvests, French raids and the Black Death decimated the village, leaving only Henry Chesman and his family by 1428. The site of the village is shown by the rough, nettle-covered ground. The church was left to fall down – a memorial stone marks its former site.
Following the collapse of the village the remaining family (who now farmed the whole parish) resited the farm to a less-exposed site adjacent to the causeway crossing of the Cuckmere. The buildings now form the headquarters of the Seven Sisters Country Park, where further information on the area can be found.