by David EP Dennis BA (Hons) FCIPD LCGI RAF
This essay is part of the overall History of Combe Valley. The Old Coach Road enabled commerce between Crowhurst and Bulverhythe in East Sussex, England. It has a fascinating history.
In 1756, soldiers were dying, crammed together in the Black Hole of Calcutta. We were at war with France and a massive hurricane struck England. It was a tumultuous year, with George II on the throne and Thomas Pelham-Holles, First Duke of Newcastle about to resign as Prime Minister.
Another Pelham, Colonel Thomas Pelham, the owner of Crowhurst Park was in a bad mood. Some miserable person – an estate tenant no less, called Polhill had ruined his beautiful coach road by carting in bad weather. Pelham had built the road at his own expense just for the locals and now the local ‘peasants’ were wrecking it. He was furious, and wrote to a Mr Collier on 20th May 1756:
‘I am concerned to hear that my private road is almost as bad as the highway, which is very hard – when ’tis chiefly for you gentlemen in the neighbourhood.’
As you can see from this modern photo, not much has changed – the winter weather makes for a muddy morass.
So where was the Old Coach Road and what was it really for?
It started at the Roman Iron Ore mine and Bloomery at Beauport, then found a course along Telham Ridge to Crowhurst Park, down to Upper Wilting Farm and on across the fields right through the middle of Monkham Wood, until it reached the Combe Haven river at a place called Coach Bridge.
Here it crossed over the Combe Haven, and went straight up the hill to Pebsham Farm, down to St Mary’s Church ruins and on to Bulverhythe.
Here’s a section of the modern path from Upper Wilting Farm but the Old Coach Road runs along the hedges on the horizon to the left of this picture.
Shortly after this point things degenerate into the famous morass again.
You can imagine that this Coach Road was used by all the local people – those who worked on Pelham’s estates and those who worked at local communities such as Bexle (Bexhill), Pepplesham (Pebsham), Filsham, Worsham and Bulverhith (Bulverhythe), the ancient harbour of Domesday Bullington that has mostly fallen into the sea due to great storms and coastal erosion.
This was not a mail coach service, but more of a horse and trap or carting service, because at Bulverhythe and Bexhill large quantities of chalk were unloaded from the cliffs at Eastbourne. Beachy Head was being mined for chalk. The chalk was then turned into lime in furnace kilns and spread on the fields to increase crop yields.
The Wagons may have looked like this:
When Hasting Area Archaeological Research Group (HAARG) first began to examine Colonel Pelham’s carting road they thought there might be a Roman road underneath it. It turned out to be entirely an 18th century estate road – but it may have followed an earlier pathway to the coast because a broach pin dating to 1400 AD was found by the side of the road.
In the 1700s, the Combe Haven River (formerly the Asten) was tidal to Pebsham (Pepplesham) – at Coach Bridge and Filsham (where the SSSI reed beds are now). There was a landing quay at Coach Bridge where, when the tides were right, goods could be put on boats and taken to Bulverhythe.
As well as chalk for the lime kilns, the type of goods moved by these boats were: cattle being brought to summer pasture on the main marshes, the carting of wood for charcoal and home fires – and dare we say it – smuggling!
You could a take a boat to Bulverhythe or stay on board and row to Bo-peep, as the Combe Haven had two outflows back then. Nowadays one of them is blocked by Ravenside Retail Park and the other by sluice gates. The land was owned by ancient families – the Pelhams, Papillons, Worshams, Peppleshams and the likes – mostly farming landowners who were also into politics.
So what did these people look like? Well here’s one of the Pelhams:
Crowhurst Park History says: ‘The much coveted symbol of the park is the Pelham Buckle, said to have been awarded to John de Pelham for his part in the capture of King John of France at the Battle of Poitiers in 1356. The buckle first appeared on the coat of arms of the Earl of Chichester, originally known as Baron Pelham of Stanmer. The Pelicans which also feature on the coat of arms are a play on the name ‘Pelham’ and the buckles which adorn the coat of arms are said to represent those of the surrendered sword of King John.’
You had to have plenty money to employ people to build a road like this. It seems it was built for heavy use, with turf in the centre and gravel on the outsides and with sandstone curbs. The road had a good camber and the depth of construction was 70cms in four layers.
So where was it built?: Here’s an overview of the road marked in red:
This map with a red line of the Old Coach Road is based on a map of 1813, so not many years after it was built. Nowadays you can walk some sections and not others. For example, the Old Coach Road went straight up the hill from the Coach Bridge Quay (at Waypoints 54, 5, 6 to 58 of the Combe Valley map), so right over where the Tip is now and straight over to Pebsham Lake. So the path we walk now from the top of the Tip down the slope to Pebsham Lake is around 100 ft lower than the Old Coach Road, but when it gets to the latch gate at Pebsham Lane and then goes down to the back of the Bexhill Road Garden Centre – that is part of the Old Coach Road at Waypoints 45 to 44 of the Combe Valley map.
Also, the cut through to the river from the Tip Path (that some of us call ‘Dragonfly Alley) is also part of the Old Coach Road and Coach Bridge is right there. In days gone by, if the tide was right, you could have stepped off the Quay and you could have got onto a boat with your cargo of wood and sailed or rowed to Bulverhythe near St Mary’s Chapel.
For a broader view in relations to Bexhill – see this map:
Back then…maybe more birds singing in the trees – a carter whistling away, quiet landscapes of dragonfly willows and heron reeds, the clip-clop of horses, but the insects would have been mostly the same. So let us treasure what we have – and don’t upset the cart!
All photographs by David E P Dennis BA (Hons) FCIPD LCGI RAF except where stated. Copyright 2021