Being an exploration of tax avoidance, Bohemianism and upmarket graffiti. The Firle estate has been given hugely valuable inheritance tax exemption for property worth millions, seemingly simply in return for providing 2 new paths. This walk explores those two paths and nearby attractions.
Distance, Terrain and Time
11.46 Km / 7.12 Miles gently rolling countryside, little ascent.
On path may be ploughed up but there is an alternative.
Start and finish points
Berwick Railway Station
Trains run from Lewes hourly, throughout the week
For bus and train times see here
Ordnance Survey maps
Explorer series number 123) Landranger series 199
Pub at Selmeston, Café at Charleston, Pub at Berwick and Berwick Station. Shop at the Petrol Station in Selmeston and (at the time of writing) at Berwick Station.
At Charleston by the café when it is open
1). Emerge from the station and walk towards the road, Turn right, crossing the tracks if you have come from Lewes. Almost immediately, opposite the Berwick Inn, you can see a large agricultural building. Turn right immediately before this. The way may be signposted as the Vanguard Way.
Now keep straight ahead on a Bridleway until you reach Selmeston Church. The Vanguard Way leaves to the left about half way there. This will be your return route, but for now carry on straight ahead.
On reaching the church carry straight on to come to the road. Turn left and walk up to the Busy A27. Opposite you is the Barley Mow Pub. Most pubs in this area have gone for designer ciabattas and other upmarket (and expensive) food, but if your tast runs more totradtoional pub grub, this is the place for you.
2). Walk to the right of the pub, through the car park and left into the garden. In the garden hedge facing a field you will see a gap in the hedge. Go through this.
Straight ahead, running parallel to the side of the field, is the route of one of the permissive paths that the Firle Estate has provided in return for important tax exemptions (see below). It is not waymarked from this end and, in March 2015, it was heavily ploughed up and impassible. If this is the case when you are there you can complain to the Firle Estate by ringing 01273 858567 or emailing email@example.com
If the path is clear take it, keeping the edge of the field about 30 metres to your left. If it is blocked walk left around the edge of the field and walk along the legal right of way which runs 30 metres to the left along the edge of the field. If you do this keep to the edge of the field. Do not follow the right of way when it bears left away from the field.
You reach the end of the field to find a track. There may be a “permissive path” sign here. Turn right here, initially on the edge of a wood. Continue in the same direction through a number of fields. The way is fairly obvious, although sometimes muddy after periods of rain.
Past Tilton Farm on your left. This was the home of Maynard Keynes and is now exempt from inheritance tax, partly because of the path you have recently walked on.
You come to the drive of Tilton Farm. Straight ahead of you is the drive to Charleston Farmhouse. Be careful around here, particularly in summer. There may be more cars than you would expect. Walk up the drive to the farm house.
3). Immediately before the farm buildings there is a track on the left. Take this. About 5 metres up the track there is a permissive path sign. You are now on the second path provided by the Firle Estate in return for their inheritance tax exemption.
Walk to the end of the track. Consider whether you have now had your money’s worth.
Turn left. You are now on the Old Coach Road, the original route between Lewes and Alfriston. In recent years East Sussex Rights of Way team have improved the surface of the Road to make it less attractive to off road motor cyclists and four wheel drive enthusiasts who like to drive along churned up tracks as a challenge. On your right you can see the wide sweep of the South Downs.
You will walk along the Old Coach Road for some kilometres. Cross over a metalled road and then pass a track to the left which leads to the village of Alciston.
4). Come to a junction of tracks. Berwick village is on your left. Turn left here, staying in the field that you have been walking alongside. You are now walking towards the village.
Come to a track leading off to the right. Take this. The track leads past the church on the left. Turn left and the corner of the churchyard and then left again to enter the grounds of Berwick Church (d) Have a look at the church and then leave the churchyard by the main entrance/exit, which leads to a track into the village. Bear Right at a junction and walk through the village to the main road, passing the Cricketers Arms pub (e)
Turn left on the A27 and cross the road where you can. Be careful – this is a busy road. A few metres after turning left you will see a footpath going off on north side of the road (the side you have just crossed to) Take this.
The path now crosses a number of fields. Go over a stream and walk to the corner of the field on the other side. The path now turns left and runs diagonally across the next field. You now keep in the same direction until you meet the road.
Opposite you will see a farm drive. Walk up this. The drive bears left and then sharply right before the farm to join the bridleway that you walked on at the start of your walk. Bear right and return to the station.
POINTS OF INTEREST
A). Selmeston Church
The churchyard is circular and contains the gravestone of Frederick Stanley Mockford (1897–1962) just to the right of the entrance to the church. In 1923 Mockford originated the Mayday call sign. He was a senior radio officer at Croydon Airport in London and was asked to think of a word that would indicate distress and would easily be understood by all pilots and ground staff in an emergency. Since much of the traffic at the time was between Croydon and Le Bourget Airport in Paris, he proposed the word “Mayday” from the French m’aider. “Venez m’aider” means “Come help me”.
B). Tilton House
The economist John Maynard Keynes lived here with his wife, the ballerina Lydia Lopokov. He was part of the Bloomsbury set and, at one time, Duncan Grant’s lover. The Bloomsberrys looked down on Lydia because she was not an intellectual but there is no evidence that either John or Lydia cared much about this. You can stay at Tilton House and also do yoga retreats there. The couple running it used to live in Firle Tower.
The property is mainly owned by the Firle Estate, who have been exempted from inheritance tax on this and similar buildings on the estate.
The temple of the bohemian Bloomsberrys, Charleston was the home and country meeting place for the writers, painters and intellectuals known as the Bloomsbury group. The interior was painted by the artists Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell, Like a number of others, Vanessa Bell was, at one time, Duncan Grant’s lover.
You can take a tour of the house, visit the preserved gardens, buy stylish stuff at the shop and refresh yourself at the café. There are regular performances here with internationally renowned names. You can see the London glitterati thrilled with themselves to have ventured so far out into the country that they can hear cows mooing during the performance.
Once it was just a typical beautiful Sussex village church, but in 1941 the Bloomsbury painters Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant painted murals of religious scenes inside the church using local people as models. The church has since become a place of pilgrimage for art lovers. The original stain glass windows were damaged in the second world war and largely removed, hence the the view of the murals- a kind of upmarket religious graffiti. The church is normally open during daylight hours.
As you stand in the churchyard in this beautiful tranquil rural scene you might think that you are far from the travails of modern life. This is not so. The list of incumbents on a plaque inside the church will show you that in the 12 years up to 2002 the rector here was the Reverend Vickery House, one of the most notorious convicted sex abusers in the Anglican Church. Some of his crimes were committed in the local area. It is a reminder that evil can flourish even in the most secluded and sacred spots.
This is one of my favourite pubs. It is very beautiful, is in a delightful setting, serves good beer and has an attractive garden. The food prices are not outrageous by local standards.
F).The Berwick Inn
This pub, which is next to Berwick Station, has gone through a number of changes in ownership in recent years and in 2015 was in new hands. The shop at the station has also had difficulties and was up for sale in March 2015. If you are thinking about having a drink here whilst waiting for your train home it might be worth checking the opening hours on your way out.
THE FIRLE ESTATE AND THE INHERITANCE TAX EXEMPTION SCHEME
Governments have adopted a scheme to exempt property from inheritance tax in return for undertakings about public access and the adoption of measures designed to conserve the property. This can apply to land, buildings and works of art.
The Firle estate opens the Firle Place, a stately home, on a number of days per week in return for one exemption, but the estate has managed to get out of paying inheritance tax on the whole of the rest of the estate in return for what appears to be the granting of 2 new paths, doing the things it legally has to do anyway, and maintaining the estate in the way that any decent landlord would do. The exemption is worth many millions.
The Firle Estate is situated in East Sussex to the east of Lewes in the South Downs. It includes Firle Place, the seat of the Gage family for many generations. One Lord Gage commanded the British forces in the American War of Independence.
So far as I am aware there is no other public access to buildings on the estate.
Apart from buildings, the estate includes gardens at Firle Place and also Parkland, outside of the gardens but near to Firle Place. The remainder of the estate consists of lowland fields, mainly south of the A27 (many of them cropped) and the high downs, including Firle Beacon – the subject of one of the wartime series of posters entitled “It’s Your Country- Fight for it Now”. There are a number of small woods on the estate.
There are a significant number of rights of way on the estate, including the South Downs Way, There are also a number of areas of statutory access under the Countryside and Rights of Way Act (CROW)
The exemption from inheritance tax covers the bulk of the estate which would otherwise be the subject of tax (agricultural land is not taxable). The villages of West Firle and Alciston, together with the road up to Bo-peep, Charleston House and another small area are excluded.
The exemption covers a large amount of valuable land and also a number of valuable buildings to which there is no access.
There are a number of rights of way through the estate. There is also statutory CROW access land.
With the exception of the two paths described below the Firle estate has not granted any free access in return for its inheritance tax exemption.
There is no access to any of the woodlands on the estate except in the odd case where a right of way passes through, even though these woodlands are described in the third section as unsuited to commercial production but having a high amenity value.
Undertakings given to obtain exemption
The undertakings given to obtain tax exemption are in three sections
The first section was made in 1984 and covers Firle Place and its gardens and parkland.
The second section was made in 2005 and covers the lowland area around Charleston, and Alciston (the north east of the area of exemption) It includes Tilton House (although not, apparently, the whole of Tilton Farm. Charleston House is not now owned by the estate but the estate owns some ancilliary buildings there.) It is this section which requires the creation of two paths.
The third section consists of the downland area of the estate and also the part of the estate running towards the A27 at Middle Farm.
PUBLIC ACCESS GIVEN IN RETURN FOR EXEMPTION
The first section requires the estate to “keep open for public use the footpaths through the park”.
A number of public events are held in the parkland. However it is my understanding that the organisers would normally pay a commercial fee for the use of the park on these occasions.
The second section requires the estate to “retain the existing network of definitive rights of way on the estate” This is a legal requirement in any case.
It also requires the estate to provide two further paths
1) South from Charleston Farmhouse to meet the old coach road
2) South from the car park at the Barley Mow Inn at Selmeston, to join the lane about 375metres to the south. (running parallel to an existing right of way 30 metres away
The estate must publicise these paths by “displaying on site maps showing all permissive access routes/areas on the land.”
The estate manager tells me that these paths are used but, despite walking frequently in the area I had never noticed them. Up until recently there was no signage or maps on site and the paths do not appear on ordnance survey maps.
The third section requires that the estate carries out its statutory duties in relation to all existing rights of way on heritage land and that these are “signposted and waymarked in accordance with the recommendations of local highway authorities and any guidelines issued by the countryside commission”.
Waymarking is the statutory responsibility of the county council. Their rights of way were not aware, at the time of the writing this report, of any contribution to this task by the Estate.
Access to the site of special scientific interest (SSSI) must be granted to bona fide naturalists and similar, but by appointment only. However the bulk of the SSSI is now access land under the CROW act. . A map of the SSSI can be found at http://magic.defra.gov.uk/MagicMap.aspx?startTopic=Designations&activelayer=sssiIndex&query=HYPERLINK%3D%271000986%27
There are no other undertakings regarding access.
MANAGEMENT COMMITMENTS IN RETURN FOR EXEMPTION
This is a summary of what I consider to be the most important undertakings in relation to land:
The first section requires the estate to manage the parkland so as to ensure the preservation of its character.
The second section requires the estate to agree a heritage management plan agreed with the Countryside Agency and English Nature and to revise this every 5 years
The third section requires the estate to
- Give no consent for ploughing of any land scheduled as permanent pasture
- Make no major changes to farming practices without prior consultation and agreement
- Manage the SSSI in accordance with the general guidelines given by the Nature Conservancy Council
- Maintain hedges and control scrub
- No new farm roads or tracks without prior agreement
- Listed buildings to be maintained in good repair
- Ancient monuments to be protected in accordance with the 1979 Act
- Preservation of woodlands to maintain their amenity, flora and fauna and sporting value.
- Wildlife conservation where compatible with the management plan
Substantial amounts of the land covered by the third section are already covered by agreements made under the other schemes.
These things seem to me to be either normal good management practice, or things that the law or the National Park authority would require to be done in any case.
NOTES ON PROPERTY PRICES IN THE AREA
Agricultural land in the area sells for around £7-10 thousand pounds per acre
A 3 bedroomed former farmworker’s cottage on the estate might be worth in the region of £3/400,000.
The value of Tilton House must run to millions.
In 2014 inheritance tax was 40% percent of any inheritance over £325,000
Agricultural land and buildings may be eligible for relief from inheritance tax even if not exempted under this scheme. This relief may be up to 100%. However woodland is not considered to be agricultural land unless managed for timber.
WHAT CAN BE DONE?
The Open Spaces Society is campaigning to ensure that the public gets a real return from inheritance tax exemption.
You can find out who benefits from Inheritance tax exemption at http://www.hmrc.gov.uk/heritage/lbsearch.htm You may care to explore what is going on in your area.