West Dean

The Lamplands and the Taperlands have long disappeared from this delightful conservation village tucked away in a corner of Friston Forest. They were fields, the rents from which went to the church to pay for oil to keep a lamp burning above the altar, and to buy tapers or candles for the building.

At West Dean can be found what is maintained to be the oldest inhabited rectory in the country, dating in part from 1220 with flint and stone walls two and a half feet thick and a stone spiral staircase. With such an old timer about it is possible to believe that Alfred the Great had his palace here. Certainly Asser, the monk who was to become a bishop and the King’s biographer, was summoned to visit Alfred and recorded his royal welcome at West Dean.

Charleston Manor, a little to the north and looking out across the river Cuckmere, was bought by the artist Sir Oswald Birley in 1931 and he commissioned architect Walter Godfrey to restore the Norman building. The barn alongside the house became the portrait painter’s studio and doubled as a small theatre with a stage for actors and musicians. It became the venue for the annual Charleston Festival.

When the Rev G.W.A. Lawrance was appointed rector at West Dean in 1891 he led the excavation of the lost village of Exceat, which had been incorporated with West Dean in 1528. A stone marks the site of their investigation. Exceat was quite an important fishing community with 24 taxpayers in 1296, but a mighty storm destroyed the anchorage used by the fishing fleet and then the Black Death and raids by the French finished the village as a community.

There used to be a cottage here haunted by a number of ghosts who all shared the same background – they had been driving or riding on carts climbing the hill from the river valley and been killed when they tumbled off on the sharp gradient.