Squatters and Chapels
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 made successfully 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 were forced to move to shanty settlements which grew up on former commons as people tried to scratch a living from the poor local soil. As time went on these settlements acquired their own chapels, independent from the established church.
LENGTH – 4 miles
TIME – 2.5 hours
START – Village Green, Marklye Lane, Rushlake Green, TN21 9QD, NGR 627 184.
PARKING – On street parking around village green.
TOILETS – No public toilets available.
REFRESHMENTS –Pubs at Rushlake Green and Warbleton (½ mile off route). Village shop at Rushlake Green.
CAUTION – Uneven ground in some parts of the walk.
This walk contains stiles.
Rushlake Green was sited just outside the western boundary of the 100 acre estate of Warbleton Priory. This was actually the resited Priory of Hastings which moved to this inland site in 1417, as the sea eroded its original site. Roads were diverted to run around the estate and Rushlake Green seems to have developed as a planned settlement around its green (unusual in this part of Sussex), adjacent to the western gate. Barely more than a century later in 1537, the priory was gone, part of Henry VIII’s reorganisation of the English Church.
The establishment of iron works at Marklye, ¼ mile west of the village in about 1545 (served by this stream) and on the former priory estate in about 1574 (using the monks’ fishponds as the water source) gave some new employment to the village. However, both were short-lived with the latter lasting only to about 1600 and the former to 1650, thus leaving the villagers reliant on agriculture in an area of very poor, acidic soils.
The walk now enters the southern end of the formerly vast Warbleton Common which stretched northwards either side of this road as far as the houses on the horizon and beyond. The gated entrances to the common (to prevent animals escaping) are remembered by the properties of Highgate Cottage on the upper road and Downgate Farm on the lower road. The bridleway ahead marks the western boundary.
As the iron industry collapsed, unemployment hit the Weald hard. Homeless people begun to squat on the common and particularly on the wide roadside verges of the Heathfield to Battle and Heathfield to Burwash roads. In time, these illegal cottages became permanent settlements such as Broad Oak and Three Cups. Ahead are two more such settlements Cade Street and Punnetts Town, distinguished by their linear settlement along the existing roadways and tracks. These settlements are also notable for their lack of conventional churches, but instead possess a range of simple chapels. A good example is the white chapel and burial ground on the north of the road, built in 1767, originally used by Congregationalists. Such chapels reflect the long physical distance from the established parish church at Warbleton and a dissatisfaction with the more traditional religion offered there.
Prominent on the horizon ahead is Punnetts Town windmill, nicknamed “cherry clack”. This octagonal smock mill is notable for having been built at Biddenden in Kent and moved here in 1856 in pieces on a large cart to replace a mill which had burnt down. It worked on its new site until damaged in 1924. The sails were removed with one being sold for only 30s and the others broken up for firewood. After World War II, the mill was gradually restored using parts from other windmills at Polegate and Staplecross.
On the left was formerly a corrugated iron mission hall established between 1878 and 1899, which became St Peter’s chapel. This road (North Street) was a microcosm of the settlement with a saw mill, smithy and post office as well as the chapel, with the beer house a short distance away along the main road. All have now gone or been converted to housing.
Returning to Rushlake Green, the wall of “Marklye” to the right contains much worked stone from the former priory. Around the green, only the site of the mission hall of about 1890 remains, adjacent to the beer house of 1650 which became the Horse and Groom pub in 1777 and is still thriving.