Taking a look at the history of Pulborough

The Old Swan Bridge at Pulborough (Photo courtesy of the Pulborough Society)

The Old Swan Bridge at Pulborough (Photo courtesy of the Pulborough Society) - Credit: Archant

We explore Pulborough, a village with a long history and an unusual annual fundraiser

Despite the close proximity of approximately 3,500 ducks in the attic of the adjacent cottage, sitting in Rob Aylott’s exceptionally pretty garden and looking south across broad wetlands to the imposing Downs beyond is remarkably soothing, particularly after an hour-and-a-half on the A27.

Not including the ducks, there are three of us as Martin Ellis, who, like Rob, is a member of the Pulborough Society and something of a history buff, is also soaking up the sunshine. We talk about the extremely old days and Martin reveals that a huge haul of Stone Age tools, unearthed when the foundations of a nearby house were dug in the 18th century, were more than 35,000 years old. Regardless of whether they belonged to ‘modern humans’ or late surviving Neanderthals, the find is enormously significant and suggests, to me at least, that man has an innate fondness for a decent view.

With a lovely outlook comes security and the glorious vistas that provided an uninterrupted panorama over the surrounding area attracted the Romans. “It was during the Roman era that Pulborough took off,” says Martin. As well as fine villas, temples and bath houses, of which there are many around these parts, the Romans built roads and Stane Street, which on its journey from Chichester to London Bridge, passes through Pulborough. Although not a perfect straight line, at no point does the road – which nowadays approximates to the A29 – lie more than six miles from where a straight line would locate it.

As well as a road there’s a river and the Arun, which the Romans called Trisantona, flows southwards through Pulborough, enters the English Channel at Littlehampton and has played a hugely significant role in the village’s history and development. It also explains why there are thousands of ducks in Rob’s attic; more of which later.

Our conversation moves on to the Normans. Although it was called Poleberge at the time, Pulborough is proud of its mention in the Domesday Book where it is recorded as having 33 villagers, 15 cottages, nine slaves and two churches. Like all those who preceded them, the Normans appreciated the considerable strategic appeal of the area and promptly built a castle high up on a hill. Sensing my excitement at what appears to be genuinely secretive stuff, Rob and Martin promise to show it to me as we begin our walk around the village.

Pulborough lies along a greensand ridge and we’re soon climbing a significant hill up from the aptly-named Lower Street towards the imposing St Mary’s Church. The increasingly spectacular view is ample compensation for the physical effort which is required to reach the summit.

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Along Church Place at the top is a string of handsome old houses. There are more than 100 listed buildings in the village and most of these are among them.

The 12th century St Mary’s Church is perched proudly on the top and I’m assured ‘Dave the Grave’, who looks after the cemetery, frequently discovers Roman coins and historic artefacts when preparing the ground for the next internee.

As well as St Crispin’s, a small Catholic church just along the road, there’s another notable church nearby in Hardham. “St Botolph’s has the best wall paintings in the country,” says Rob. Apparently the frescoes, which date from the early 12th century, feature four main themes – Adam and Eve, the Life of Christ, Judgement and the Labours of the Months. Inexplicably covered with whitewash in the 13th century, they were rediscovered and uncovered in 1866.

We stroll past the oldest house in Pulborough, which bears the misleading misnomer, New Place Manor. Built in 1252, parts of it are medieval. The great hall boasts the widest Tudor fireplace in existence and the 14th century gateway bears the Aspley family coat of arms. The Aspleys lived here for six generations from the mid-15th century. Queen Elizabeth I is believed to have stayed here in 1591 on her way to Cowdray Park. Most of the land around Pulborough once belonged to this house which, sadly, fell into disrepair in the late 19th century.

Max Factor junior, the son of the cosmetics’ entrepreneur, fearing London was going to be flattened, rented it during World War II. Thereafter it was sold and briefly run as a small country house hotel before being sold again in 1952 for £5,000.

Predictably, Old Place Manor is newer than New Place. Although originally constructed in the 15th century, the external elevations have almost entirely been rebuilt in brick. The adjacent mill pond is most impressive and the converted mill alongside it is now a sweet little house.

We’re now in Coombelands Lane, a name which should sound familiar to fans of horse racing. On a distant hill we can just make out the distinctive white railings that define the gallops. Previously run by her father Guy Harwood, Amanda Perrett has taken over the reins at Coombelands Stables where the hooves of thoroughbred horses have thundered for decades. None, surely, more famous than those of Dancing Brave, who won the 2,000 Guineas, the Eclipse, the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Diamond Stakes as well as the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe. It should have won the Derby but that’s another story.

A significantly slower horse is believed to have been buried beneath the 55ft high Toat monument, which rises impressively above a hill further to our east. Samuel Drinkwater, apparently still sitting astride it, was buried with his beloved steed following a fatal riding accident nearly 200 years ago.

We turn up a footpath on the edge of a field to admire a World War II concrete gun emplacement in front of a thick wood. Although separated by nearly 1,000 years, the two are oddly connected. The former housed an anti-tank gun intended to defend the river crossing and railway line below against German invaders while the wood is the site upon which stood Pulborough Castle, a wooden motte and bailey defensive structure erected by the Normans in the 11th century and now an ancient monument.

On our way back down we pass the station. The railway line reached here from Horsham in 1860 and soon thereafter linked up with Portsmouth and Brighton. We stop to admire an old-fashioned signal box that dates from around 1872. Rob recently hacked through the brambles, entered the now redundant box and likened it to the Marie Celeste because everything, including the original signal levers, are precisely as they were left on their last day of operation. Rob is now investigating possible alternative uses for this appealing and historic structure.

The coming of the railway precipitated the demise of the barges that previously plied up and down the Arun. Thanks to the Wey and Arun canal, it had been possible to travel all the way from London to Portsmouth by boat. Rob’s cottage was formerly the home of the very last bargee from Pulborough.

Before reaching the river, we pause outside the home of arguably Pulborough’s most famous son. Born in 1881, Harry Price was an accomplished magician and journalist. An intriguing character fascinated by the paranormal, he claimed to be a sceptic and exposed fake mediums and similar fraudsters. However, Britain’s most famous ghostbuster was accused of fabricating evidence and of being a conman himself before he died of a massive heart attack at home in 1948. He’s buried in St Mary’s graveyard. Or is he?

Our final stop is the lovely old stone bridge which carries the A29 over the River Arun.

It’s here that Rob releases the 3,500 ducks that normally reside in his attic into the river for June’s Pulborough annual charity Duck Race and Water Festival.


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