Sussex is not well known for its holy or healing wells, although close research will reveal a number. There is one particular site, which because of its location is of great interest. Fortunately, thanks to the present owners, Mr and Mrs Carroll, it was my great pleasure recently to be allowed access to examine one of East Sussex’s strangest sites.
The Hermitage site has attracted considerable attention over the years, and became a ‘tourist attraction’ in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In an extremely obscure work, produced for a Cecil De M. Caulfield Pratt by one Charles Dawson (n.d.), The history of the Hermitage at Buxted, Sussex, a full account is given of its history, as well as a number of Edwardian-style pictures of the estate.
The caves are hewn from grey sandstone, lower Tunbridge Well Sands, indeed the type for which the pleasant spa town is most picturesquely famed. The extent of this sandstone is quite impressive, at 275 metres long, providing a long sharp vertical ridge to one side of the garden. The site has apparently a long history of habitation. Archaeological research by Jacobi and Tebutt (1981, pp.1-26) identified a Mesolithic site at the foot of the long outcrop, dating certainly from around five thousand years BC, and possibly even from the seventh millennium BC, making it one of the earliest sites in England. The site yielded a number of microliths, and it is theorised that it was used by male hunting parties (four thousand flints and two sandstone hearths were identified). At this time the area was presumably enclosed in the ancient Forest of Andred, which according to the Saxon Chronicle (Anon. 1993, p.114) covered much of Sussex.
The caves, probably partly natural, certainly carved, have attracted considerable interest. They appear to have been a minor tourist attraction in the eighteenth century. Certainly they attracted artists and antiquarians. There are two drawings of the site in Gough’s Topographical Collections (Gough 1795, unpaginated). These were made on May 28th 1785, and are pencil and wash.
One of these illustrations shows the ‘Rocks at Buxted, called ‘The Vineyard’. This was because a plantation of vines was established here. Apparently they thrived, as the site was naturally quite sheltered. However, according to Alexander (1996, p.2), it was established in 1824, by a Mr Lidbetter, who trailed the vines over Smuggler’s Rock.
The second is captioned, ‘Outside of the rock habitation of the Vineyard Rocks near Buxted, in Sussex, it is decidely of great antiquity. Traces of its having been a vineyard still remain.’ Other drawings of the site exist in the Burrell Collection at the British Museum. The site probably continued to attract visitors into the twentieth century. Indeed, an interesting source of information on the site is a small handwritten note, which was bizarrely found by an upholsterer in an old chair during its repair, and thoughtfully sent to the owner. One presumes it was written by a visitor to the site in the early twentieth century, and it makes some interesting points, which are not noted in other works.
However, an excellent description is given by Grenville Cook who wrote a considerable piece concerning this unusual hermitage:
‘It is uncertain when the partly artificial caves known locally as the hermitage were made or inhabited, but there can be little doubt but that they were the habitation of an anchorite or Hermit at some remote age. They now lie within the parish of High Hurstwood, but of course were then in the parish of Buxted. There are three principal rooms carved out of the rock, connected with each other by passages which were once secured by doors, having strong posts and cross bars, the mortices of which are still visible. The main rooms or caves were very large, one extending some twenty-four feet by eighteen feet, with a height of twelve feet. This was floored, the bearings of the joists being still plainly to be seen. A flight of steps gives access in one corner to a small cellar underneath: the fireplace, with a chimney cut through the solid rock… Another room measures twenty-seven feet by sixteen feet; and this has a pointed archway, over which is a niche for an image of a saint or crucifix.’
(Grenville Cook 1960, p.16)
Of this the Reverend Edward Turner, former rector of Maresfield, writing in the Sussex Archaeological Collections states:
‘Within the memory of persons now living there is said to have been a cross about the centre of this cave, cut out in the rock opposite the entrance, by the side of which was a niche, designed doubtless for the reception of the image of some saint.’
(Turner 1859, p.13)
The date of the caves is unclear. Grenville Cook (1960, p.16) suggests that the presence of the niche and pointed archway are signs that the Hermit who dwelt here may have lived later than the Norman times, since Norman arches were rounded, and the making of niches for images was not earlier so prevalent, especially in a Hermit’s ascetic dwelling. Furthermore, the presence of a fireplace is an interesting historical point, for such features were rarely rare in this period, and certainly missing from domestic architecture. This further indicates a late mediaeval date for the structure. Even so Grenville Cook notes that it ‘is considered to have been probably one of the first ever constructed at the side of an apartment’ (Grenville Cook 1960, p.16).
…or a ‘Pest House’?
There are mixed views regarding the fate of the Hermit. According to the present owner, Mrs Carroll, local belief asserts (Mrs Carroll, pers. comm.) that he was removed from the site and buried in consecrated ground. However, according to Dawson (n.d., p.9), the remains of a person were found in a niche (given the date 1915 on the note). This was whilst building operations were being carried out to erect the modern house by a Mr E. W. Streeter, a former owner. The niche was cut into the sand at the top of the rock, and according to Pratt it was still visible (although I fear that it now has become rather more overgrown).
Alternatively the skeleton may be the remains of a plague victim as a Mr C. L. Prince, former surgeon at nearby Uckfield, notes:
‘Soon after the commencement of the present century (nineteenth), my father entered into the practice with Mr Fuller, of Uckfield, whose family, for at least three generations, had been resident medical practitioners there. The history of these caves had been handed down from one generation to another, and thence to my father; with the information that they had been used as a Pest House, into which many poor wretches were thrust who had become the victims of any infectious disease; and herein they were compelled to remain until they either died (which was too frequently the case), or recovered.’
(Prince 1896, p.265)
Indeed, it is suggested that this was the original function of the caves, and that perhaps the name ‘hermitage’ was a more romantic appellation. However, it would be unlikely that such a feat of work would have such a primary use, as a simple building often sufficed elsewhere.
Naturally too smugglers have been connected to the site, although there association is to a piece of rock on the sandstone ridge some distance from the hermitage. This is called ‘Smuggler’s Rock’, where it has been suggested contraband was hidden. There is no evidence for this and the name may be a result of some tourist fabrication. The cave, according to Jacobi and Tebutt (1981, p.1) was probably last used for malting or as a hop oast.
The house adjoining the cave is said to be ‘modern’, built in Edwardian times. It certainly has architectural features from this period, but I am of the view that rather than replacing one which completely burned down, it incorporated some of its remains. Certainly the roofs appear much older and Mrs Carroll informed me that it has old timbers. An Elizabethan date would appear suitable. However, little is known of any building on this site during this period. The caves were situated on land which was once part of Charity Farm at Buxted, which belonged to a Dr Saunders, (who founded the Grammar School there in 1718), but where his building was situated is unclear. Nevertheless this ‘modern’ house utilises the Hermitage, as a vestibule, well. One entrance to the house is reached through the caves, and the whole house is fitted snugly to the rock. A delightful octagonal room sits upon the caves’ roof and one presumes that its construction led to the skeleton’s discovery.
Of the well itself, very little is known. It lies at the end of the more formal part of the grounds, a far distance from the cave, and nearer the Mesolithic site. Very little appears to have been recorded about the well. Until I contacted her, the oddly-discovered note had been Mrs Carroll’s only indication that the site was of interest. It notes that the site was known as the ‘Wishing Well’, and that it was where the hermit baptised his converts. Its use as a baptismal site is not referred to by the only other source of information:
‘The well in the orchard in front (and north) of this cell. Half way down the orchard (also called the Vineyard) is the Wishing Well, ten feet in diameter…with steining of rough stone with a few blocks apparently worked, and a gap or opening on the east side, probably the former approach or “dipping place”’.
(Hope 1893, p.167)
The site is now considerably overgrown and lies in a small copse. Small saplings have encroached upon the edge of the well. Mrs Carroll now hopes to remove these. Worked stones can still be seen around the edge of the well, and she informed me that probing it revealed a stone bottom. Sadly, the contents are very murky and black.
The spring water formed a marshy stream which ran down into the paddock, forming four pools. The Carrolls filled in three of these to allow for better drainage, but the furthest one remains. Mrs Carroll expressed the opinion that it would be interesting to clean out the well, but said such an enterprise would be a fair way off!
However, in these days of rapid change it is pleasing to note that this most bizarre landscape remains for future generations. It must be stressed that The Hermitage and wishing well lie on private land, and uninvited guests are not welcomed. However, Mrs Carroll is proud of the estate she has acquired and hopes to open the site for future Garden Open Days.
Anon. (n.d.). Note in the private collection of the Carrolls.
Anon. (1993). The Saxon chronicle, AD 1 to AD 1154. (trans. by Rev. J. Ingram). London: Studio Editions. [orig. pub. 1823]
Alexander, R. (1996). A short history of Buxted. Tunbridge Wells: Opax.
Dawson, C. (n.d.). The history of the Hermitage at Buxted, Sussex, kindly written and compiled for Cecil De M. Caulfield Pratt, Esq. Privately published?
Gough, R. (1795). Topographical Collections. London: Payne.
Grenville Cook, A. (1960). A short history of the Parish of Buxted. Privately published.
Hope, C. (1893). The legendary lore of the holy wells of England. London: Elliot Stock.
Jacobi, R. M., and Tebbutt, C. F. (1981). ‘A late Mesolithic rock-shelter site at High Hurstwood, Sussex’. Sussex Archaeological Collections, 119, pp.1-36.
Prince, C. L. (1896). ‘Notes and Queries No.1’. Sussex Archaeological Collections, 40, p.265.
Turner, E. (1859). ‘Uckfield Past and Present’. Sussex Archaeological Collections, 12, pp.1-22.
Please note that the ‘hermitage’ and spring are on private property and are not open to the public.
Thanks to Mrs Carroll, the owner of the site, who also had in her possession a note on the site.
This site originally appeared on the disfunct Living Springs Journal Copyright Pixyledpublications