Ancient Town of Winchelsea, one of the few examples of a bastide town in England based on the grid-iron street plan with wide, regular streets arranged around a giant square and the church of St. Thomas the Martyr
Like Rye, Winchelsea is built on a sandstone rock, but this rock is topped with a plateau surrounded by trees and once the steep ascent has been made, via Strand Hill or Ferry Hill, walking around the mostly level, wide streets is easy and comfortable. However, very few of the houses except those in Barrack Square, Friars Road and Rookery Lane have a view of the sea. One of the best views is from the bottom of School Hill, back towards Rye across land that was once a lagoon.
The Church of St. Thomas the Martyr occupies a dominant two and a half acre site, an entire Quarter, at the centre of the town. The building of the new Church began in 1288 and the design included a large, magnificent gothic edifice, a chancel and choir, two side chapels, a central tower, transepts and a great nave. Only the eastern end and the ruins of the transepts remain. The interior of the chancel is still complete and in size more than sufficient for the needs of the Parish. A beautifully proportioned arcade of three bays divides the nave section from the side chapels, while exquisitely moulded pointed arches rise from clustered columns in which there are alternating pillars of Purbeck marble. The main body of the Church is built of stone from Caen in Normandy. Of note are the two Alard tombs. Gervase Alard was Admiral of the Cinque Ports in 1303 and again in 1306 and his son Stephen held the same office in 1324. In the painting “L’Enfant du Regiment” by Sir John Everett Millais a child wrapped in a military jacket lies on the tomb of Gervase Alard.
All the side windows are large and terminate in the rich tracery of the decorated period, though the east window is a modern replacement, but it is the Sedilia which are considered the real treasure of the interior.
The Court Hall on the High Street, opposite the north east corner of the churchyard, is a late thirteenth century building, having originally been a high status house belonging to the Alard family before assuming its municipal role. It addition to serving as the Court Hall it has also been a meat market, store house and prison, being altered to suit its various needs. When it was being restored for its present day use as the Parish Hall, reading room and Museum, sections of a fourteenth century painting on boards was discovered. When the boards were put together it showed a painting of St. Leonard in Episcopal dress with a windmill on his shoulders as a symbol of his ability to control the winds in the interests of Winchelsea seafarers.
In modern times this magical town, described as ‘a little kingdom’ has played host or been home to famous artists, writers and personalities. The leading Victorian actress Ellen Terry lived in Tower Cottage where her fellow actor Sir Henry Irving was a frequent visitor. Asked to be the patron of the village theatricals by Joe Comyns Carr, she surprised him by insisting on joining in. Among the writers who visited the town were W.M.Thackery, H.G.Wells, Beatrix Potter, Henry James and Joseph Conrad. Ford Madox Ford lived in the town for a while and was visited by the artist Millais who, like Ford’s grandfather – Ford Madox Brown was a member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Some of Millais’ best loved pictures were painted at Winchelsea. Another great English artist Joseph Mallord William Turner loved the area and painted dramatic scenes on the road between Rye and Winchelsea, of soldiers on the Military Canal and of the Pipewell Gate, also showing the corner of the Black Friars’ precinct wall
Towards the end of the twentieth century the broadcaster and comedian Spike Milligan lived in a house at Udimore which looked across the valley to Winchelsea where he is buried in the churchyard. One little known fact is that in the early 1960’s the Beatles manager Brian Epstein purchased one of The Five Houses in School Hill as a retreat for ‘The Fab Four’ and other Mersey stars. Sir Paul McCartney was so taken with the area that he settled nearby and educated his children locally.
It is important to mention a lady who held the key to the intimate details of this ancient town. If you had a question, you would be told ‘Just ask Mary!’ Mary Hodgson was the living embodiment of almost eighty years of history and resided in School Hill until her passing in September 2020. She started out in Lookout Cottage close to the Strand Gate, where The Lookout, a terrace below the cottage, offers a sheltered spot and a long wooden seat from where breathtaking views of Winchelsea Beach and The Channel can be enjoyed. Moreover, this seat is a favourite place for lovers, locals and visitors alike to go in the evening to watch the aerial display of bats against a glorious star lit sky.
Occasionally the sound of ‘leather on willow’ can be heard from the cricket pitch where the game has been played since 1796. On or near this pitch once stood one of Winchelsea’s three Churches, St. Giles. After violent attacks in the French raids, it was so badly damaged that it was eventually de-commissioned in 1541, and described in 1608 as ‘ruinous’. On a bright sunny day it is possible to survey the Brede Valley as far as Sedlescombe from this spot.
The old Church of St. Leonard of Iham was situated to the north west of the town in ‘the little town of Iham’ which was established on the hill before New Winchelsea was built. Most of the land belonging to the existing town was needed for the creation of the new town and was acquired by exchange or purchase. However, the lands which included the church were not needed and remained outside the Liberty of Winchelsea until the late nineteenth century. An old illustration shows one wall of the church still standing in 1794, with St. Leonard’s Mill shown in its original position before it was moved to the site of the church. Sadly this old windmill was destroyed by the hurricane in 1987.
In addition to its churches, the town had two monasteries, but both were lost during the Dissolution of the Monasteries by Henry V111 between 1536 and 1541. The remains of the Grey Friars Monastery, which moved from Old Winchelsea to a four acre site in about 1284, before the new town was started, still stand in the grounds of a large house dating from the early nineteenth century.
The Black Friars obtained their site at the far south end of the town in 1318, but being a long way from habitation they moved in 1339 to a new site in the Liberty of Iham, on the edge of the marsh below the town. By 1342 however, they were appealing for help from the Pope as they feared that their site was in danger of being inundated. The Bishop of Chichester was ordered to find them a site up in the town and in 1357 they began the acquisition of Quarter 4, inside the Pipewell Gate.
The new Winchelsea was also endowed with three hospitals, St. John, Holy Cross and St. Bartholomew. Of these St. John’s was probably the oldest and most important but all that survives of its buildings is a tall gable wall standing beside the road that leads to Hastings.
Before leaving the town by way of the New Gate and Wickham Rock Lane, mention should be made of John Wesley the celebrated preacher and founder of the Methodist Church. He preached several times in Winchelsea and gave his last open air sermon in 1790 under a large ash tree which stood opposite the Court Hall, he died the following year. The tree, which stood until 1927, was thereafter called ‘Wesley’s Tree’.
Local facilities include the Little Shop convenience store, together with a primary school and public house.For more comprehensive facilities there is the Cinque Port of Rye (3 miles) with train services to Eastbourne and to Ashford International, from where there are high speed connections
to St. Pancras London (37 minutes) and to the Continent via Eurostar.