This is the story of a public byway which runs from the Beddingham to Newhaven Road at the Lay, just south of Beddingham Church, to Firle, just by Newelm

A map showing the route outlined in yellow.  The eastwards extension has crosses on it because it was closed to motor vehicles (although not to walkers and riders, at the time the screen shot was taken.

In 1932 the artist and designer Peggy Angus was looking for a new place to work.  While walking on the downs at Beddingham Hill she noticed a pair of cottages below. She descended promptly down a track (not currently on the rights of way map) One was empty and she asked the tenant farmer, Dick Freeman if she could rent it.

He declined.  She then came back and camped outside the cottage until he relented.  They are said to have become good friends, but we have only the word of Peggy Angus’s biographer for that.

Peggy Angus with Dick Freeman

The cottages were known as “Furlongs” and they soon became the gathering place for a group of artists who would visit frequently. These included the painter Eric Ravillious (noted for his pictures of the downs) and his wife Tirzah Garwood, Paul Nash, Edward Bawden, John Piper and Helen Binyon.  his group of artists was arguably more eminent than the more famous Bloomsburys along the road at Charleston.

The Downs from Furlongs showing the track Peggy Angus came down. By Eric Ravilious

At the Furlongs

The tiny cottage was too small for all these visitors and Tirzah and Eric initially had the idea of renting and renovating Muggery Pope, a ruined farmhouse over the hill, much visited by Virginia Woolf.  But they decided that it needed too much work.

Unlike Virginia, Eric was keen on industrial scenery and painted the then newly opened cement works to the west of Furlongs (later a rubbish disposal site and now grassed over).  There he found a pair of dilapidated horse drawn wagons, which apparently dated from the Boer War.  These he bought, and had carted to the lane outside Furlongs. Tirzah and Eric used them as a studio and sleeping accommodation when they visited Furlongs.

The wagons at Fulongs. Detail of a picture by Eric Ravilious.

It was at Furlongs that Helen Binyon and Eric started an affair and it was to Muggery Pope that Tirzah took her lover, so the Furlongs crowd were as bohemian as the Bloomsburys.  But there is no record that the two groups ever met.  Virginia Woolf walked regularly from her house in Rodmell to visit her sister at Charleston, but she seems to have gone along the Downland ridge.

The biographies of the various Furlongs characters are full of their comings and goings along the rough lanes around Furlongs, but we cannot use this information to establish the existence of a right of way past the house.  Peggy Angus was a subtenant of the Glynde Estate, which owned the land, so would have implicit permission for her and her visitors to use the route.  Use by permission does not establish a public right of way.

To do this we need to go back to the nineteenth century.

Terrible Turnpikes

In the 18th century the roads in Sussex were spectacularly bad.  It was the responsibility of each parish to maintain its roads and their resources to do so often extended only to one man and a shovel.  But an early form of private enterprise initiative was designed to remedy this. Turnpike trusts were permitted by acts of Parliament to build and levy tolls on improved roads. After a length of time the improved road reverted to public ownership and the tolls were removed

A Wealden road in winter- the old road through Chailey.

The first turnpike near Furlongs was the hapless Glyndebridge Turnpike of 1752.  The promoters had the idea of linking Lewes with Alfriston, not the biggest of towns.  The turnpike ran from Lewes, along Ranscombe Lane to Glynde, where the only toll gate was situated, then on to Firle Village and along what is now called the Old Coach Road past the south of Alciston and Berwick before arriving at Alfriston.  Despite a later extension to Polegate via Common Lane Berwick and Old Thornwell (which can still be traced on a map), it struggled.

So in 1819 a new turnpike came, largely following the course of what is now the A27 from Lewes to Polegate. The promoters were more savvy than the last lot.  They had more toll gates and, in their Act of Parliament they secured the stopping up of roads that might compete with their way.  This was common practice and usually caused a lot of resentment.  Local people who were accustomed to using quiet back lanes found that they were no long able to do so and that they were forced to pay to use the new road.  There were riots in some parts of the country.

The Act for the new turnpike stopped up all of the old turnpike from Firle to Polegate, including what is now the Old Coach Road.  It also stopped up some roads that linked with the Old Coach Road, including the route from the Lay at Beddingham, past Furlongs,  through Newelm to Firle, where the route joined the old turnpike.  This is surprising, because the road from Beddingham to Newhaven down the east side of the Ouse  valley was insignificant at the time. The main road went through the villages to the west.

To find out more about these two Turnpikes read “Turnpike Territory” by Peter-Longstaff Tyrell published by the Eastbourne Local History Society

A short lived council

But a road can come back into use.

In 1894 councils were reorganised.  Responsibility for roads, bridleways and footpaths passed to the new rural district councils.  These rural district councils did not come out of nowhere.  There were already district sanitary authorities, responsible for public health in their area.  These were given new powers and renamed.

For the researcher, this poses a problem.  The councils were used to dealing with outbreaks of disease and insanitary conditions in piggeries and did not initially pay much attention to highways.  Occasionally a highway committee was set up and this means that highway researchers only need to look at that.  But more commonly this did not happen, either because all the councillors wanted to have their fingers in all the pies, or because they did not trust each other or both. The researcher must then wade through a lot of sh*t to get to the highways.

Some of these councils were far too small to carry out their function efficiently.  Eastbourne Rural District Council found itself need to repair a small road bridge.  It declined to do so because the repair would have spent their whole highway budget and more.

The West Firle Rural District Council was one of the smallest, and it did not live to see the century out.  It covered some of the Glynde and Firle estates and little else.  Not surprisingly, it was dominated by those estates.

Formed in 1894, the council wasted no time in attempting to reduce its liabilities.  In 1895 having surveyed the roads in their area, some of which were in poor condition, the roads committee It recommended closing some of them and downgrading the Old Coach Road and our byway to bridleways. The roads had obviously come back into use.

There was a way of doing this at the time. You went to the court of quarter sessions (the forerunner of the County Court) and applied for an order.  But the council was new and did not know this. They asked their clerk to find out how this was done.  The clerk went to the magistrates court in Lewes and got an order that, because the roads were not needed, the council need not maintain them.

The councillors thought that they had managed to downgrade the Old Coach Road and our route to bridleways, but in fact the routes maintained their status as public roads but the council did not have to maintain them.

The myth that these routes were bridleways became the received wisdom, and the Old Coach Road was recorded as a bridleway on the first definite map of rights of way in the 1950s.  But something odd happened to our route.

Below is a 1910 map. The route is shown as BR- bridleway

1910 map from Old Maps UK, close up of the section west of Newelm

Around the time of the second world war our route seems to have been ploughed up between Newelm and the Firle/Beddingham Parish border.  (the parish border is shown with dots) This might have been part of the war agricultural effort.

The section from Newelm disappears on maps date after 1947

1963 map from Old Maps UK, close up of the section west of Newelm.  The route is partially destroyed, but still labelled as a bridleway.

The western section of our route, past Furlongs, had grown private signs by the 1950s, a  nd part of the rest had disappeared, so our route was not recorded as a right of way (Most of the western section of the route was owned by the Glynde Estate).  For more about this estate and their private signs see here

Sign at the eastern end of the track to Furlongs.

The 1970s

During the 1970s East Sussex Council was reviewing rights of way and it seems that someone dug up the minutes of the Old West Firle Rural District Council.  The council realised that our route was still legally a public road.  It was added to the map of rights of way as a byway open to all traffic. This is a designation used for roads that are mainly used for walking and riding.  The council also realised that the Old Coach Road was still a road, so this was upgraded as well.

The present day

But nothing happened on the ground. Today the section of our route near Newelms is still blocked and there is a private sign at the eastern end of the track past Furlongs.  But the whole of the route is still a public right of way.  East Sussex Council has refused to take any action because, it says, at the time the route was added to the map, there were registered objections that had not been dealt with, meaning that the our route was wrongly added to the map.  But they have not been able to produce any evidence of the existence of these objections.  A member of the Sussex Don’t Lose Your Way group has applied to amend some minor errors in the way the route is recorded as a right of way. This is a way of confirming that the route is a legal right of way. Meanwhile the Glynde and Firle estates have applied to have our route taken off the rights of way map.

Our route obstructed on the Firle Estate at Newelm

Walking our route

You can legally walk, ride or even drive the route, although you will need wellington boots to do the Newelm bit. But the track past Furlongs is easy to traverse and you may be interested in doing this walk, which includes it. Today Furlongs is a private house.  Please do not leave the right of way to go poking around.

Photo below, on our route near the Lay