19 February 2016
Firle Village – A Ribbon of Life
By Deborah Gage
Firle derives from the Anglo-Saxon word ‘Fierol’ or oak covered land. The village nestles in the lee of Firle Beacon, with the South Downs providing some of the most spectacular scenery in Southern England. They embody an unusual yet intangible spiritual quality, evidenced by the tumuli and barrows and an ancient pathway which runs along the ridge above the village, and that has inspired a ribbon of life since prehistoric days in Britain. Later, this landscape was celebrated by Belloc, Kipling and Edward Thomas for its evocative vistas. While the Downs have provided settlements since the earliest times, commencing with migrating tribes, this evolved into a more permanent existence by the 15th century. When Sir John Gage KG (1479-1556) inherited the manorial rights in 1501 upon the death of his mother, Agnes, and built his seat and power base at Firle, as a result of successful sheep farming the estate prospered and grew.
The population (which was greater than it was today) lived close to the soil, embracing the skills and crafts for existence in a remote and self-contained village, some in the service of the Lord of the Manor, others working in the ‘open field’. With houses simply made of mud and wattle, the church’s solid structure made it a vital centre not only for worship, but also for many other village activities, including shelter during severe storms.
The Tudor Succession saw 150 years of religious turmoil and unsettled conditions until finally the Acts of Settlement of 1701 allowed for a more relaxed attitude and prosperity followed. Agricultural improvements resulted in square Georgian farmhouses being built as well as flint cottages, barns and walls so that gradually the countryside developed as we know it today, to become a particular feature of the Southern Weald.
In 1812 the old turnpike road for horse and carriage, which ran at the foot of the South Downs between Brighton and Eastbourne was closed, making Firle a cul-de-sac village. However, as a self-sufficient estate Firle had all the skills necessary and village trades flourished up until the advent of the motor car. Within living memory Firle possessed a blacksmith, a glove maker, a miller, a tailor, a bootmaker, a butcher, a baker and a harness maker. Traditional buildings are closely tied to their locality and many of the buildings that housed these trades remain. This is a key feature of Firle whose appeal and character lies in the fact that as a village its atmosphere remains relatively unchanged and reflects a vanished way of country life. As you walk up the street now it is not hard to imagine what it was like in the 1800’s despite the fact that the tarmac replaces the original earth and chalk road and the sound of shepherds singing wearing their faded blue smocks and hooves and cartwheels by petrol engines.
Closely entwined with the life of Firle village were the many seasonal activities attached to the Firle Estate, aspects of which were focused around inherent and distinctive skills, and where the heart of the Estate evolved around the courtyard of Grade II listed buildings comprising the blacksmith, the saw pit, the carpenters’ shop and the paint shop.
The smithy has remained unchanged from the day the last key turned in the door. Two large windows throw light on to the stacked metalwork waiting to be forged into bolts, hinges, horse shoes and cartwheel strips. The forge and bellows were hand-stoked and operated. The clutter of tools and cast-offs reflect the many tasks required of the blacksmiths, both on the Estate and dealing with village needs, ranging from fixing gutters and making gate fasteners.
Next door stands the saw-pit shed, typical of many such buildings found in estate villages. Inside can be seen the deep pit and range of tools used in the handling and conversion of timber. Logs would be directly unloaded from the tug (timber wagon) and rolled on top of the pit for sawing by hand with long saws.
Across the yard is the carpenters’ shop with its seven windows, providing essential light for the row of craftsmen who worked at the benches, undertaking all the tasks of joinery required as a part of the working life and maintenance of the houses and farm buildings on the Firle Estate. Some of these tasks would have been undertaken in tandem with the blacksmith across the yard, for example, making or re-tyring a cartwheel. The workshop is still equipped with many of the tools and materials that had been used by the carpenters, while loose wood, ladders etc. were stored overhead across the beams.
The paint shop is adjacent, with the walls marked where over the decades the painters have cleaned their brushes, and an evocative note tacked to a cupboard door confirms the number for the Estate paint colour.