The village maintains a proud but sad duty throughout the year. A light is turned on at the top of the war memorial on the evening of the anniversary of the death of each of the village’s soldiers, sailors and airmen. There are some 100 names and dates recorded there.
The original lantern, which shone from the memorial tower beside the church was introduced at a time when there was no street lighting and the electric light of today shines just as bright in honour of the men who never came home.
The memorial was opened after the First World War by the man whose name has become synonymous with Burwash, the writer Rudyard Kipling. Tragically, among the names it bears is that of his son John, who was killed at the Battle of Loos in August 1915 six weeks after his 18th birthday.
Kipling moved to Batemans, an old ironmaster’s house, in 1902 and lived in the village for 34 years. He moved from Rottingdean to escape the crowds of admirers and sightseers who congregated there and found here the peace he had been looking for. This was despite the attentions of one particularly enthusiastic group of fans who set up what they called The Kipling Room in a local inn.
The locals came to know Kipling as a retiring, kindly man and small boys were in later life able to recall that they were allowed to fish in the stretch of the Dudwell which runs through the grounds of Batemans, and that they were told stories by the writer which were later published. When he went abroad he never forgot to send the young anglers postcards.
Kipling loved gadgets of all kinds and soon after moving to Burwash he adapted the 18th century watermill in his grounds to power a generator which supplied electric light to the house until the 1920s. The mill was restored in recent years to perform the job it was originally intended for.
Batemans, built by John Brittan in 1634, has been described as the loveliest small house in Sussex’. It is certainly a very large small house and is now owned by the National Trust and kept much as the writer left it.
The story goes that Mr Brittan promised his workmen “Christmas fare as long as the oak log lasted’, and the furnace men saw the chance of a real beanfeast at their master’s expense. They found the biggest, most gnarled oak on the estate, cut a huge log from it, which they soaked in the river for a week then rolled it triumphantly to Batemans. There it hissed and spluttered in the fireplace for 14 days, two days after Twelfth Night, despite the efforts of Mr Brittan to get it to burn while his men made merry. He realised he had been duped but saw the funny side and rewarded the wily workers with a great supper and extra measures of ale.
The picturesque nature of Burwash, with its mixture of architecture spanning many centuries blending to make a main street of immense charm, has made it a favourite with visitors since long before Kipling’s time. The older inhabitants will insist, albeit rather selfconsciously, that its correct pronunciation is Burrish, although this makes nonsense of the Rev John Coker Egerton’s story about the village’s name. This 19th century clergyman recounted that he was told, in all seriousness, by one of his parishioners that Burwash got its name from a dog. In Sussex Folk and Sussex Ways, he records the villager’s explanation:
‘When the Romans landed in Pevensey Bay, they had with them a dog called Bur; and after a while the dog got so bemired with the Sussex clay that he couldn’t travel any further, so they washed him, and the place where they washed him was called ‘Burwash’.’
It is another dog that haunts Spring Lane – in a most unnerving way. For the only part of this canine spirit to materialise is its nose, sniffing in the darkness.
Captain John Leyland Feilden caused plenty of gossip and no doubt some fanciful rumours at the end of the 19th century. He lived at Rampyndene House and when his wife died in 1887 he refused to communicate with the rector, with whom he had fallen out. Instead he had her body embalmed and put in a small mausoleum in the garden. The Captain left the remains of his wife behind when he moved to the West Country and it was left to Henry Wemyss Feilden, when he moved into Rampyndene, to have the body removed and interred in the churchyard.
The churchyard seems to have been rather a jolly sort of place a century or so ago, although in 1833 it was with shock that the Rev Horsefield noted that it was converted into a scene of youthful gaiety’, and that games of every description were being played among the tombstones.
When it came to having a good time it was the blacksmiths who surpassed the other village tradesmen. Their big occasion was St Clement’s Day (23 November) when the anvils were fired with a loud explosion and at least a half-holiday was kept to commemorate their patron saint. In the evening there was a *Way-Goose’, not a goose at all but a slap-up meal of roast pork with sage and onions, which all the village blacksmiths would attend. There used to be four here at the turn of the century, so presumably they let in a few outsiders to make a party of it.
A life-size dummy of Old Clem, stuffed with straw and complete with wig, beard and large clay pipe, was set up over the door of the inn to keep guard while the dinner was in progress. The oldest blacksmith present would start the proceedings with a toast to Vulcan, father of all smiths:
‘Here’s to Vulcan, as bold as a lion A large shop and no iron A big hearth and no coal And a large pair of bellowses full of holes’
This was followed by singing and then the men refilled their glasses for the curious toast:
“True hearts and sound bottoms, Checked shirts and leather aprons.”
The blacksmith returned to Burwash in 1985 after a break of nearly half-a-century when David Hedges set up business in the village. He had served a seven-year apprenticeship, learning all the aspects of the ancient craft, before spending 18 years in the police force. He had always wanted to return to being a blacksmith: ‘Here at the end of the day I can see what I have achieved and know that the things I’ve made will probably last 200 odd years. That is a very nice feeling.’ Job satisfaction that must be the envy of many. One of the more curious tales of recent years concerns the historic house that got lost.
The 15th century Wealden hall house that was Burwash’s original rectory was replaced in 1711 by Glebe House, built by a rich rector, the Rev George Jordan, to the east of the churchyard. The old rectory was sold by a later incumbent, the Rev William Curteis, so he could reimburse himself for paying the land tax on it. Over the years the house slid down the social scale to become four tenements, known as Portland Cottages, and in 1968 Battle Rural District Council bought the site for redevelopment.
When the old rectory was being stripped for demolition its architectural importance was realised and it was given to the Landmark Trust for re-erection on a site near Crawley. The timbers, all carefully photographed and numbered by members of the Robertsbridge and District Archaeological Society, were sent to a barn at Slaugham for temporary storage. And that is the last anyone has seen of Burwash Rectory.
The Landmark Trust has no knowledge of it, neither has East Sussex County Council, Rother District Council nor the Weald and Downland Open Air Museum, which has rebuilt some 40 historic buildings rescued from destruction on a 40acre site at Singleton, and has more in store. Burwash Rectory is not among them.
There was a story current in the late 1970s that Burwash Rectory was going to be re-erected at Cranbrook. David Martin of the Rape of Hastings Architectural Survey vaguely remembers a request from a director of a firm of kitchen equipment suppliers in Tunbridge Wells for photographs of the building that were taken as it was being dismantled. There were about 200 of them, and some plans, which were all bought and paid for,’ he said.
But the rectory is not in Cranbrook and the Portland cottages site in the High Street is now occupied by Old Rectory Court, a two storey weatherboarded block of old people’s flats.