The National Trust: where it all began

The National Trust's empire began 115 years ago in Alfriston. June is the perfect time to visit

ALFRISTON, near Polegate in East Sussex is the type of idyllic village that has  tourists and period drama location hunters tripping over themselves to visit and experience its olde-worlde charm and rural tranquillity. In the heart of the village, next to the parish church is Alfriston Clergy House, a rare fourteenth-century timber-framed ‘hall house’ with a striking thatched roof and unusual chalk and sour milk floor.This house, with views over the village green and further towards the Cuckmere River, plays a major role in the National Trust’s history. It was the first ever property that the organisation bought back in 1896. Now, 115 years later, the house and its garden remain just as important and cherished by their present-day National Trust custodians as it was by those late nineteenth-century conservation pioneers.Inside, the clergy house, its oak timber framed hall and other rooms remain largely unchanged from original designs, while outside, the garden has been kept to a traditional simple cottage garden layout. It is complete with herb garden, vegetable patch, sundials and hundreds of delightful cottage flowers including delphiniums and lavender, not to mention a set of attractive box trees and a magnificent Judas tree that provides an impressive central focus for visitors.The garden also provides the perfect spot for children’s trails and quizzes, story telling sessions, crafts and other family events in the summer.Even the clergy house’s thatched roof is of special scientific interest. Patches of the very rare thatch moss plant was discovered in the roof when it was examined prior to being rethatched in 2005 in time for the property’s 110th anniversary. The moss has tiny leaves shaped like spears with reproductive structures at their tips which disperse, spreading the moss.Nationally, thatch moss is on the decline, due to modern thatching techniques wiping it out, however, it has been retained at Alfriston Clergy House and is being monitored to safeguard its survival.Holly Jones, Assistant Property Manager at the house, is keen to see as many people as possible at the medieval cottage this anniversary year. “Although Alfriston Clergy House has been in the National Trust’s care for well over a century, we haven’t stopped thinking of new ideas and events for people to enjoy. For instance, we run regular garden tours where you can ask the gardener anything about the plants and flowers here, as well as a lively children’s programme for half term and the school holidays. “We might be 115 years old, but we are here to stay and look forward to welcoming many more visitors through out doors in the future as we work towards our next milestone.”Alfriston Clergy House is open to the public every day except Thursdays and Fridays, and has a small gift shop. It is also a good starting point for walks, ranging from short circular rambles around the immediate area, to longer hikes across the South Downs. It is a true example of Sussex Wealden history, right on the doorstep.