ITINERARY: Alfriston Clergy House, Michelham Priory, Lewes & Nymans (East Sussex)

As a prolific visitor of houses and gardens, my gathered wisdom is slowing leading me to conclude that while there are exceptions, a garden truly comes into its own between April-October and therefore this is the time to put on the walking boots or jump on a bike and explore, explore, explore.

A house can stand on its own at any time in the year, but given that it’s usually only a one-off visit until there’s a change made to the interior that warrants a return visit, as I’ve said before to owners of historic properties (and labour here again), it’s the garden that draws repeat visits: each and every season it changes and evolves and offers surprise, delight and joy to the visitor.  Therefore, to visit “the architecture” at the same time that the garden is showing off, is prime time for me.

For 2018 I need to get busy with planning some trips April-October next year!  Then I can rest over the winter, writing up my travels.

Back to my travels in early November…

It was 5 November (bonfire night) and while many houses close their doors to paying visitors for the season on 31 October, I found a couple of places in East Sussex still open, and the town of Lewes on the map looked close enough to make a day of visiting all three.

What I didn’t realise is that Lewes is “bonfire capital of the world” and so when we arrived there just before 3pm, nearly all the shop windows were boarded up, many of the shopkeepers were closing early at 4pm, groups of revelers were already starting to line the streets, and there was an underlying fizz of energy in the town that meant we did no more than walk up and down the main high street, pop into Waitrose for something for dinner and make a pinky promise that we’d come back there another day.

Michelham Priory

Our first stop was Michelham Priory.  On arrival D wanted to crack open the flask for a hot cup of coffee (D had done the driving from Central London).  To our surprise, while we sat there for 15 minutes or so, half a dozen other cars and transit vans pulled up and from every single one the occupants emerged dressed in medieval century outfits, some with bows and arrows thrown over the shoulder.  We were, however, convinced that we hadn’t entered through an Outlander-esque porthole on arrival (given that those in medieval garb were indeed arriving in vehicles), so with a bit of hesitation vis a vis possibly being under-dressed, we made our way across the moat.

We didn’t see any of our medieval friends once inside, so perhaps they were doing some archery practice in a nearby field?

Founded as an Augustinian priory in 1229, transformed into a Tudor gentleman’s residence and later used a farmhouse (for a long period of time), the building was restored in the early part of the 20th century, but then fire struck and much of today’s interior is a product of the post-fire the restoration. Set on a moated island, entrance to the property is gained through a 14th century gatehouse, the oldest part of the site.

The skeleton of the gardens that we saw in November suggest that they have been modernised in part, some out of keeping with the setting (see the yuccas/cordelines by the gate house on the picture below) – but I’d like to make a summer return visit and see how they work.

Unfortunately we were a week too early for the Christmas market!

Alfriston Clergy House

It was too early to justify stopping at Michelham for lunch, so we continued on to Alfriston, only 15 minutes away.

What a delightful village, full of the type shops that suggest to me that during the summer months it is a tourist hot spot (it’s very similar in feel to Petworth).  We browsed our way along the main road, peering into cookshops, gift shops and antiques emporiums, before cutting down a ginnel to our destination: the first house purchased by the National Trust, otherwise known as Alfriston Clergy House.

It boats an open fire in the hallway, the like of which I’ve only ever before seen in situ at Penshurst Place.  Small but perfectly formed, this is another place I recommend visiting.

“Alfriston Clergy House was originally built around 1350.  By 1885 it had fallen into such a dilapidated state that the Ecclesiastical Commissioners, who were then its owners, agreed that the building could be demolished. However, the occupant Harriet Coates, who had been born and spent her life there, pleaded with the vicar to be allowed to end her days at the Clergy House.  The demolition was deferred and she continued to live in the house until her death in 1888.

The following year Rev.F.W. Beynon was appointed as the local vicar and because of his interest in ancient vernacular buildings, he quickly realised that the Clergy House was an important relic of medieval England that needed saving. For seven years he sought to save the building and although he had support from many people, there was no money available for much needed repairs.

In July 1894 Beynon heard of a newly formed society called the ‘National Trust for Places of Historical Interest or Natural Beauty’ which had been formed only ten days before. The Clergy house was exactly the kind of ancient and humble building that the National Trust had been set up to save. One of the founders of the National Trust, Octavia Hill, took immediate interest and after a series of complicated negotiations, on the 16 April 1896 it was agreed to sell the Clergy House to the National Trust for the nominal fee of £10 and so became the first built property ever acquired by the Trust.”


Michelham Priory, Upper Dicker, Hailsham, East Sussex, BN27 3QS.  01323 844224 – Coldharbour Road – Opening: 11-4

Alfriston Clergy House, The Tye, Alfriston, Polegate, East Sussex, BN26 5TL


Places to visit

Anne of Cleves House, 52, Southover High St, Lewes, BN7 1JA.

Lewes Castle, – free with Art Fund membership

On the way back, as dusk was falling, we called into Nymans.  Another one to return to in the spring, summer and autumn, but perhaps not winter.

  • As we walked down the path, torch at the ready, we nipped into the book shop, the interior of which was snug as a bug because there was a wood burning stove. Around more of the gardens we made our way, stopping to look at the spectacle of the autumn trees in their orange, red and maroon  glory. I admired the shadows of the topiary in twilight and we bought a couple of Christmas decorations in the shop before making our way back to Central London.
  • Handcross, near Haywards Heath, West Sussex, RH17 6EB (30 mins from Lewes) Horsham Road/Brighton Road

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