NOSTALGIA: Alfriston - village of witchcraft, ghosts, movie-making and celebrities

Actor and author Dirk Bogarde's childhood holiday home was a short stroll from the village
Actor and author Dirk Bogarde's childhood holiday home was a short stroll from the village

Alfriston is a treasure trove of folklore stories, writes David Arnold. But one that is true concerns Ursula Welfare who was tried for witchcraft on 1st June 1580.

Her alleged crime was to cause the death of a sow “valued at 3s 4d” plus eight chickens and two hens. The livestock were part of the goods and chattels of one John Blunt. I’m pleased to say the woman was found not guilty.

It is claimed that a ghost resides at Deans Place on the southern edge of Alfriston next to the Cuckmere. Once a moated manor house, it is now a hotel. The phantom is the ‘The Lady in Blue’. She’s been hanging around since the end of the 19th century.

At this point I can’t resist a bit of river trivia. Alfriston is twinned with Veules les Roses, a little village in Normandy, about 12 miles from Dieppe. The River Veules is the shortest sea-bound river in the whole of France being just three quarters of a mile long. By contrast the Cuckmere is about 20 miles long; the shortest river in England is the Bain in Yorkshire at two and half miles.

In 1931 author Eleanor Farjeon stayed in Alfriston and was inspired by the lovely setting to write the hymn ‘Morning has Broken’. Four decades later Cat Stevens covered the song and it became a huge chart hit. Eleanor Farjeon’s most notable book is ‘Martin Pippin in the Apple Orchard’ (1921). It includes descriptions of real Sussex villages and the Long Man of Wilmington.

The 1964 film ‘The Chalk Garden’ starring Sir John Mills, his daughter Hayley and Deborah Kerr was filmed in and around Alfriston. In 1962 the Peter Sellers movie ‘Waltz of the Toreadors’ was made in part here.

Five minutes or so stroll from Alfriston finds the childhood holiday home of actor and author Dirk Bogarde. Born Derek Jules Gaspard Ulric Niven van den Bogaerde in 1921, he had mixed Belgian and Scottish ancestry and stayed there at various times between 1927 and 1934 in the charge of a strict nanny called Lally along with Elizabeth, one of his three sisters.

In later life he titled his second book of memoirs ‘Great Meadow’ after the view from the cottage out to fields where poppies and wild flowers flourished. In the Cuckmere Valley he revelled in a “world of harvests and harvest mice, of oil lamps, deep wells and boyhood adventures”. The house is now a Grade II-listed building and was up for sale earlier this year.

Bogarde’s first stage role was in Sussex in 1934 when he appeared in the Newick Amateur Dramatic Society’s production of ‘Journey’s End’, R. C. Sherriff’s drama of war in the trenches. In 1948 the actor returned to East Sussex to make a film called ‘Esther Waters’ that was shot on location in Folkington Manor.

The young Bogarde would have been very familiar with Lullington Church. He died in 1999 but had he lived longer I’m sure he would have been astonished to see the place become the inspiration for an Indie rock band record! But Brighton-based British Sea Power did just that with their 2003 song ‘The Smallest Church in Sussex’. Indeed, the organ music played on the record came from the church’s harmonium.

As it happens, this church is believed to be smallest in the whole of England, measuring just 16 feet square with seating for 20 people.

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