A walk for Hastings & East Sussex Natural History Society through Burtons’ St Leonards & beyond

“Walking is how the body measures itself against the earth”, a quote from Rebecca Solnit’s ‘Wanderlust: a history of walking’.

Usually in a catchment area of 30 miles, the Society walks through sunshine and mud amongst their local flora & fauna and it was my turn to contribute a walk on 25th January, 2024. Managing to rout the two named storms in the week between walks, we were down to seven participants setting off in the mist (from the core of 25 walking members, usually). A first seal (of approval!) was spotted bobbing about in the sea as we set off. My recce of the route for insurmountable obstacles the day before was in bright sunshine and the cliff faces no more rheumy than usual, so we went ahead.

I wanted to organize the usual six miler and three hour yomp and we came in at 90 minutes, due to enthusiasm to explore a little more of Burtons’ St Leonards, my charming companions appreciative and adding to my awareness of various aspects of the place. For instance, I was enlightened as regards ‘The Old Woman’s Tapshaw’, which stream is the central feature of the St Leonards Gardens’ original topography, that ‘shaw’ means a thicket, small wood or grove. It can be seen as hedging between parcels of agricultural land use. Fascinating to ponder how the land had been used perhaps on either side of the feature whilst under ownership of the Charles Eversfield estate. Anyway, I digress as we did on the day.

We had great fun following a route with which I hoped to draw together a small, thrilling narrative: smuggling, to serve as illustration of the ancient pathways of the local land. So, from the historic hub of the Grosvenor Gardens car park, we pointed out the necessary beginnings of Old James Burton’s vision in 1825. Everything came in through Bulverhythe by boat and his first industry was to create the pump near there in Caves Road and following on, the reservoir of West Hill Road, where his quarry was newly located; using 500 men to extract the sandstone and to build between 1825-1834.

This was illustrated as we walked up and over West Hill Road (as well as noting the 1846 railway expansion details) and peeked over the hedge to James & Elizabeth Burton’s pyramidal tomb, who both died in 1837, and constructed presumably after their second son, the Egyptologist James Burton, was recalled home in 1834 from his lengthy absence abroad.

I chose to cut upwards on Quarry Hill, after taking the view towards James Burton’s Masonic Hall plus bathing and brick associations. The Quarry Hill road displays St Leonards’ accommodation ‘through the ages’ alongside its atmospheric sandstone structure.

Quarry Hill passes the bridged, enclosed private driveway to ‘Allegria’, the second of James Burton’s homes in St Leonards (after Crown House, where he received a visit from the Princess Victoria and her mother, the Duchess of Kent, in 1834/5). St Leonards Gardens had been the building’s garden but fell into disuse and was quickly created as a subscription garden for the Maze Hills’ first homes, but by the end of the century was adopted and opened for all by Hastings Council.

We popped into the current development of the Archery Ground, after which I pointed out The Mount and further 20th century institutions and dwellings up to Gloucester Lodge and the Toll Gate. The briefly charging Toll Gate served as entrance to the new town and constructed to join a new road to the Ridge that James Burton built with the approval of local commissioners.

Putting the Burton town behind us, I led my small party along Pevensey Road to view the extraordinary Victorian visions of home and then turned right up Albany Road, to see what views of the valley visible in the mist, between the enormous houses.

At the top, we plunged downhill along The Cuts twitten, all the way to Bulverhythe, emerging at the bottom of Filsham Road next to St Leonards’ shiny new Medical Centre.

Crossing into Bulverhythe Road to view the urban sewer works and trace the taps, weirs and rivers to the sea, we were rewarded with an astonishing photo-realistic mural of David Attenborough, painted on the back of a building associated with newly established The Compound, the WaveArts community centre, 161 Bexhill Road (next to the Colemans factory on the A259).

As we emerged next to Aldi supermarket, I crossed the A259 to follow the parallel track on the Bulverhythe recreation ground to access an official Ancient Monument, St Marys Church on Hythe Avenue, behind the equally ancient but intact, Bull Inn pub. St Mary’s Church ruins, last record of worship 1372, was a Roman Catholic chapel. These were some of the few institutional structures, along with the now demolished Martello Tower Number 44, in existence when James Burton was charmed.

The Martello tower was built at Galley Hill, Bexhill in 1808-9 and complemented the company of 200 soldiers stationed at Bo Peep Barracks, Bulverhythe in 1806, for protection during the threat of Napoleonic invasion. The barracks were owned by the established Hastings publican, Thomas Hovenden, owner of the nearby ‘New England Bank’ thence ‘Bo Peep’ public house.

We finished our Hastings & East Sussex Natural History weekly walk http://hastingsnaturalhistory.org along the Bulverhythe Coastal Link path, the wind at our back, stopping for refreshments.

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