The Vikings – and the Mystery of Castle Toll

by David EP Dennis BA (Hons) FCIPD LCGI RAF

In the year 2000, the publishing house, Tempus released a book by the geologist Jill Eddison titled – Romney Marsh – Survival on a Frontier.

The book contained, in chapter 4, a description of an attack in the year 892 AD in the Marsh area, by a large Viking fleet. These Vikings procured between 230 and 280 ships from Boulogne, so the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle says. They sailed up an estuary in the Romney Marsh area and raided ‘a half-built fortress’, containing, ‘a few peasants’.

1. Imaginative concept of Viking Invasion

In her book, Jill Eddison makes a strange statement. She says, ‘It only remains very difficult to identify any possible credible location for the half-built fort.‘ This article explains that the only credible location for this fort is Castle Toll.

2. The remains of the Castle Toll Hill Fort near Newenden in Kent, England

It is a mystery why Jill, a scientist living in the Marsh area as the Secretary of the Romney Marsh Research Group, did not know of its existence in the year 2000. It had already been listed as ancient monument and excavated as far back as 1971 and its history specified in detail by Historic England.

A further and far more complex mystery connects Castle Toll to King Alfred who fought the Vikings. Here’s the background to this mystery.

Castle Toll and the Vikings

The River Rother drains a large part of East Sussex and the Kent border. Its headstreams originate as far away as Crowborough and Wadhurst and it now flows into the sea at Rye Harbour. Before the 13th Century’s great storms, the river complex was much larger and the coast we know now was more of an inland sea, called the Limen, with the Brede Valley tributary flooded to Sedlescombe and Whatlington (King Harold’s manor), near Battle, with a long history of trading with early Europe. There was a ferry across the flood at Newenden.

Back before 890 AD, in the middle of the flood, a developing island burh (fortified settlement), now called Castle Toll, stood proud. It was farmed land and a bastion for the Saxons.

3. Vikings on the move – big trouble ahead!

In the winter of 892 AD, the horizon darkened as 280 ships of the Viking fleet left Boulogne and sailed to Castle Toll. On board were 5,000 heavily-armed Danish Vikings, led by their chieftain Haesten, who quickly killed the farmers on the island, then moved on to Appledore, (known then as ‘Apuldre’), where they captured the population and settled in their Isle of Oxney encampment for the winter, raiding and plundering the nearby farmers and Anglo-Saxon nobles of booty.

4. King Alfred the Great

King Alfred spent much of his life fighting the Vikings. He sent his army to Appledore and after some desperate fighting managed to chase the Viking army into Surrey, where they were defeated at the Battle of Farnham in 893 by Edward the Elder, the king’s son, who recovered the stolen goods. The harried remainder fled to Benfleet in Essex and lost another battle in 894. Haesten’s wife and children were captured with the help of Earl Aethelred of Mercia (Alfred’s son-in-law), but it is said they were ‘returned because they had been baptised as Christians’.

Many Vikings perished, and the rest took what ships they could to flee back to Scandinavian ports. From then on, the coast of England was constantly harried by repeated invasions of large Viking fleets including those of the notorious Jomsviking Thorkill Havi (The Tall), father of Edith Swanneshals (Swan Neck). Eventually England became a Viking kingdom under Canute, in 1016 AD.

5. The Viking Fleet approach the shore.

Yet there is even more to Castle Toll than this. It seems possible, though controversial, that Castle Toll is actually Eorpeburnan, the first Saxon fortified settlement in the long list of Burghal Hidage forts set up by King Alfred. His defensive principle being that each fort would be no more than twenty miles from another, so the local population could flee with their families to a protected encampment and help defend it against the Vikings.

By the mid-10th Century, Rollo and his Vikings had been granted land outside Paris (911 AD), and formed the Dukedom of Normandy. As Viking culture evolved into militaristic Norman Christianity, then Norsemen captured England once more at the Battle of Hastings in 1066. So, in a way England had become a Viking kingdom once again.

The small raised island of rich farming soil at Castle Toll became a real Norman castle then, sitting as it does near the Hexden Channel – ideal for shallow draught shipping to the continent. In 2019 – now in ruins and heavily predated by agriculture, it still consists of a Norman ‘motte and bailey’ but with sparse evidence of former Roman, Saxon and Viking times. Burghal Hidage forts often had the right to strike Saxon coinage, though when the Vikings struck, there was no mint yet formed here.

Much heritage history remains to be discovered at this legally protected and listed ancient monument. It may even have been formed as a raised encampment on the Celtic Regnenses (Regnoi)/Cantiaci tribal border before the Romans arrived in strength at the direction of the Emperor Claudius, in 43 AD.

Those of you who loved to delve into early English history will enjoy reading the many written ‘battles’ as academics try to prove, one way or another, if Castle Toll really is Eorpeburnan. It is said by some, that Kent had its own defensive system and was not part of the Wessex of King Alfred. Certainly, the border between Kent and Sussex once ran down the centre of Pevensey Marshes. Later there are documents which suggest that Sussex was much larger and that what is now part of east Kent is where the county border was. Now in 2019 – the border is further east beyond Rye, so it may well be that Castle Toll was really in Sussex in King Alfred’s time, not Kent for a while, when tribal and administrative border ‘perceptions’ moved back and forth over time. If this could be proved, then Castle Toll probably is Alfred’s Eorpeburnan.

6. The low mound of Castle Toll – full of history and mystery from Roman times to the present day

Newenden itself has fascinating history. In 791 AD, King Offa of Mercia gave the Saxon manor of Newenden to the Prior and Monks of Canterbury. Then in 1242, came the Carmelite monks who settled here. Possibly building St Peter’s Church and installing a very old Norman font from elsewhere – and shortly after this may have invented the game of cricket, first mentioned in 1300 AD. In later days there was a two-room Toll Cottage at Newenden opposite the site of the old fortified encampment – hence the current name – Castle Toll. This cottage was knocked down in 1963.

I hope that one day archaeologists can really study the whole of Castle Toll in much greater detail – including the surrounding land which was once the sea. Who knows what might be buried there?!

Further Reading:

Heritage at Risk: Castle Toll:

The Eorpeburnan Controversy:

Photograph attributions:

 (1) “Normannenfahrt. Nach dem Gemälde von O. Wergeland.

(2) David E P Dennis BA (Hons) FCIPD LCGI RAF – the author – copyright 2021


(4) Wikimedia Commons

(5) Slaget fandt sted i 1184. (Christian Blache 1838 – 1920)



(8) By Oast House Archive, CC BY-SA 2.0,


The Mary Stanford Lifeboat Disaster, Rye Harbour – the Latvian Connection

by David EP Dennis BA (Hons) FCIPD LCGI RAF

Commemoration of 15th November 1928

Mary Stanford Disaster Commemoration Window – St Thomas-a-Becket church, Winchelsea

A few days ago, I came across a tweet on my Twitter account in a foreign language. It was a reply to the tweet I made of the image above – the commemoration stained glass window in St Thomas-a-Becket, Winchelsea, East Sussex. All I could understand in the foreign tweet was the name of a ship – Alice. Carrying out further research I found the language was Latvian.

So what is the Latvian connection to this terrible tragedy where the entire lifeboat crew of 17 men were drowned in the sea off Rye?

The Old Lifeboat House, Rye Harbour

In the late evening of the 14th November 1928 it was raining and the wind was howling at over 80 miles per hour. In the early hours of the 15th November, thought to be about 4am, a small steamship called Alice of Riga (Riga is the capital of Latvia) collided in the pitch dark with a much larger German ship – the Smyrna. The collision ripped open a hole in the side of the Alice and took off her rudder. The captain of the Smyrna could see that rescuing the crew of the Alice was impossibly dangerous but he alerted the coastguard and at five minutes to five the first maroon rocket calling out the lifeboat crew was fired.

Despite the utterly appalling weather, the 17 brave men of Rye got up, pulled on their very basic cork life-jackets and launched their lifeboat into the raging surf. Some were as young as 17. To get to the lifeboat they had to walk 1.5 miles in a wind that was so strong that they could hardly stand up – but they were determined to save life if they could.

They finally managed to get the boat into the water and begin to row out into the storm. Unbeknown to them, at 06.50, Rye Coastguard were finally aware of the captain of the Smyrna’s message – that he and his crew had bravely and miraculously managed to save the entire crew of the Alice. The captain had sent his message at 06.12 to Ramsgate Coastguard who were unaware of what was happening at Rye , so did not treat the message as a priority.

So still, the outstandingly brave men of the Rye lifeboat, The Mary Stanford, were rowing towards the rudderless Alice.

Once the coastguard knew that the crew of the Alice of Riga had been rescued, they began to fire the recall flares over and over, but the wind and rain was so bad that their efforts were thwarted.

Then, onshore several people saw the lifeboat tumble in a massive wave. It went over, casting the men into the dark and freezing sea. After much horror and sadness, 15 men’s bodies were recovered along with their lifeboat. The men – a true band of brothers, were buried together in communal grave. One more man was washed up at Eastbourne and he too was eventually interred with his colleagues. One person has never been found. It hit Rye hard and since the relatives of those brave men are still alive – it still is deeply sad.

Wikipedia records the names of the lost heroes: The seventeen men were the coxswain, Herbert Head (47), two sons James Alfred (19) and John S (17); Joseph Stonham (43), 2nd Coxswain; Henry Cutting (39), Bowman and his two brothers Roberts Redvers (28) and Albert Ernest (26); Charles Frederick David (28), Robert Henry (23) and Lewis Alexander (21) Pope, three brothers; William Thomas Albert (27) and Leslie George (24) Clark, brothers; Arthur William (25) (more likely to be Arthur George A) and Morris(s) James (23) Downey, cousins; Albert Ernest Smith (44), Walter Igglesden (38) and Charles Southerden (22).

Because the Alice of Riga was a Latvian vessel, members of the Latvian government came to the funeral of the men of the Mary Stanford. The vessel was a collier carrying a cargo of bricks. It had 14 Latvian seamen on board. So a close bond has developed between Rye and Latvia.

If you want to know what ‘brave’ is – this is it.

Copyright 2021 David EP Dennis BA (Hons) FCIPD LCGI RAF

You can read more about this disaster here:

The End of Local Christianity?

by David EP Dennis BA (Hons) FCIPD LCGI RAF

A doorway at St John the Baptist – Westfield Church, East Sussex, England

Christianity in England has Her Majesty the Queen as Defender of the Faith. This has come about after centuries of bloodshed between Catholics and Protestants. Each side had its Archbishops burned by the other. Yet Christian religion was strong – the idea of faith – the belief in Jesus Christ, still embedded in the mind. How else could the universe be here? Did not God make Man in his own likeness?

Then along came physics and the scientific method followed by a fight back by the creationists. Now the main problems for local Christianity seem to be falling congregations and falling churches. Beware the Cromwells! The ‘poling-out’ and smashing of stained glass windows by Oliver Cromwell’s men and before him the mass vandalism and art atrocities of the Dissolution of the Monasteries by Henry VIII and Thomas Cromwell, is now replaced by teams of thieves taking lead from roofs and smashing more glass, stealing from offertory boxes, overturning gravestones, illegal use of metal detectors, and the theft of valuable church items.

In those long ago days when you could be hanged for stealing a loaf of bread, theft of church property would likely see you dead too. Nowadays, crimes against churches are a daily occurrence and there is only one police officer in the whole of Sussex whose impossible job it is to specifically protect our Heritage – my good friend PCSO Daryl Holter.

Daryl explains: ‘Nowadays, crimes against churches are a daily occurrence, My work here is to specifically protect our Heritage. Sadly, churches make up 51% of all recorded Heritage crime for Sussex Police to investigate, that’s at least one to two crimes a week.’

Focusing on the divided county of the South Saxons – Sussex, visitors will find more than 560 Anglican parish churches, ranging in date from, at the earliest, the Eighth Century to the present – of these, 284 are in East Sussex. Each church has a history detailed in this most excellent website here:

In the past, the Anglo-Saxons set up churches here and abbeys and monasteries too. The Saxons managed to covert the Viking Danes after much bloodshed. To the east of Hastings, prior to the famous 1066 Battle and the building of Battle Abbey, there was a large area of French Abbey land called Rameslie, owned by the Norman Abbey of Fecamp. Rameslie covered an area from east Hastings to Rye and Winchelsea and the valley of the River Brede. The precise borders of Rameslie are not known, however, I have been visiting churches in the general area of Rameslie to see how Christianity is faring a thousand years after the fateful Norman invasion – anniversary 14th October.

In the two weeks prior to the battle, the Normans laid some villages nearby to waste, including some in the remit of Rameslie. Instead of giving the Abbey of Fecamp the right to build Battle Abbey, Duke and then King William gave it to one (creepy) monk from Marmoutier who kept plaguing him.

Then came the punitive Erminfrid Penitential:

The Bishop of Sion eventually told King William that the Pope was displeased with his murderous rule and wanted him to make amends. So finally after burning half of England, he let Marmoutier build their abbey and eventually- after his death – to forge its charters to ensure a grab of lands and spurious rights including the killing of the King’s Deer.

Here’s a view of some of the local churches in Rameslie or nearby.

Westfield Church – St John the Baptist
St George – Brede Church
Catsfield Old Church – St Laurence – early 11th Century and mentioned in the Domesday Book
St Mary – Salehurst Church
St Mary – Udimore Church
St Laurence Church, Guestling
All Saints Church, Icklesham
St Thomas-a-Becket, Winchelsea

Each of these churches has its own problems – of congregation size, administration and repair. So, for example, take a look at Salehurst Church.

St Mary – Salehurst Church frontage

When you get to the door, you will see a notice telling you (despite the Church’s stance on temperance), that if you want to see inside you must wait till the local pub opens and get the key from the pub landlord.

Contrast this with Westfield Church where, apart from a disrupted path border, the church is open and well-kept.

St John the Baptist – Westfield Church gardens
Inside St John the Baptist -Westfield Church

When you take a good look at the very old 11th Century Catsfield Old Church you can really see the problems.

St Laurence – Catsfield – roof repairs to the church

The sheer cost of re-tiling this huge roof must be very considerable – but if it is not done then the whole building will fail and it will be impossible for the congregation to sustain it, with rain falling inside it. So money has been found from somewhere – which shows commitment – either locally or from central church funds perhaps.

Now look at a commercial premises and the way they keep up a very high standard using business money because if no-one wanted to go there it would be impossible to keep the building in such a fine state. I’m talking about the Netherfield Arms Public House – here:

The Netherfield Arms Public House

Public Houses have been closing all over the UK. Those that have survived have done so by meeting local demand – for wholesome restaurant-quality food without posh and snobby waiters, for example, and children’s playgrounds, outside seating and sufficient parking. It has been a struggle to survive and relies entirely on customers’ goodwill and footfall.

So does the survival of the Rameslie and Battle District churches. they need ‘customers’ and footfall. Will we see a steady closure of churches, a loss of beauty and ancient architecture in the next 20 years? Will this be caused by a lack of money locally, centrally or just a drifting away of the ‘unfaithful’ who have decided to follow humanism, paganism or any other -ism rather than Christianity? What is at the tipping point of church collapse? Building costs rise, refurbishment is an endless task, although the greatest cost to the Church of England overall are the pension payments to retired clergy – who are living longer as health services improve.

Take a look at some of the problems of upkeep.

St Laurence – Catsfield Church graveyard staircase
Caring for the many oaks and yews at Westfield Church
Caring for graves, tombs and ornamentation – for example: The Brede Giant – Brede Church
St George – Brede Church Graveyard

Churches have been built on hills and high points, in the marshes, in woodland – all places of great beauty and tranquility. It is vital to remember that the loved ones of the local community are at rest here. The tranquil spaces must be preserved. Even if churches no longer have a use as religious centres of worship due to cost of maintenance, their grounds are hallowed, their trees are national treasures. We do not want to lose any square centimetre of peace.

I have found as I toured these places, local people who were knowledgeable about their history and the ancient history of their churches. They worry about the future for these buildings. They are concerned that housing estates are not built over graves and stunning views lost to the public due to private estate enclosure.

The question is – is this whole religious system sustainable? Have we lost too much already? Should the government and local authorities or central church authorities do more? Should precious objects and paintings be sold just to preserve church stone fabric? Should the collection boxes and church roof lead be protected by alarms and cameras? Should each church have a more active warden with a camera at the church linked by wi-fi to the warden’s home laptop?

Should the police give more manpower and resources to the issue of heritage preservation both religious and civil?

All these are tough questions. I hope I have spurred debate. Please let me know what you think.

The glorious view from St George – Brede Church

kind regards


Copyright 2021 David EP Dennis BA (Hons) FCIPD LCGI RAF

Wild Goose Chase

by David EP Dennis BA (Hons) FCIPD LCGI RAF

Combe Valley in East Sussex, England is a winter-flooded landscape where many geese (Anser white and Branta black) come to parade in their flocks. So I thought it would be a good idea to have a blog post on geese – a beautiful kind of wildlife that we take a little for granted. Please let me take you on a wild goose chase!

No-one in the scientific world has yet managed to fully categorise geese. Many oddities are seen. There is a basic goose shape which is different to that of a swan or other large water bird – but there are also ‘swan geese’ and ‘domestic geese’ – and then there’s the Alopochen! (photo above).

The blue-eyed Emden Goose (below) shows the basic domestic shape. It is a pure white domesticated variety which often goes wild – and here is one that has flown to Five Lakes, near Maldon in Essex to wander about on the golf course and make the players wild too. It is moulting and has chosen to stand on the spot where swans have been moulting. Some scientists say that the difference between real geese and birds that look or behave like geese is that real geese moult at one time and season whereas some goose-like birds don’t moult at all. But this may not be the whole story.

If we look at this white bird in close-up, we can see the typical domestic squat shape – shorter body that a swan – a bulky bird with an orange-pink bill and pink legs and feet.

So here’s your first mystery. Compare the Emden with the Coscoroba Swan to see some body similarities and differences. No-one is sure if the Coscoroba is a swan or a goose.

Compare it with the Screamer – a bird that some people think is closely related to the very primitive Magpie Goose. The Screamer is not a goose – it is magnificently strange!

So where did geese come from – how have they evolved? We have seen evidence from China that some small feathered dinosaurs developed wings and over time evolved into birds. It is thought that the original ‘goose’ was a Chinese bird – perhaps evolving 10 million years ago in the Miocene period. But we cannot yet fill in the following gaps for all birds that might be geese:

The scientific classification of geese – Goose cladistics, has only managed to produce clarity in these categories:

  • Kingdom: Animalia (Animals)
  • Phylum: Chordata (Backbones)
  • Class: Aves (Birds)

Order, Family, Sub-family – not clear – even in 2019 – still lots to do!

Wikipedia tells us that: The three living genera of true geese are: Anser, white/grey geese, including the greylag goose, and and all domestic geese; Chen – white geese (often included in Anser); and Branta, black geese, such as the Canada Goose. However, some ‘geese’ are similar in appearance to shelducks and the Magpie Goose (below) is so ancient that it predates most geese.

So there really is a confusion and more research is needed. The cladistic study of geese is not complete by any means. I have put a chart at the bottom of the article to help you see how things are developing scientifically.

One type that does look a bit like a shelduck is the Egyptian Goose (Alopochen aegypticus). Still with pink legs and a squat body holding the typical ‘goose’ shape.

Here’s a shelduck for comparison…and a slideshow below

So what is the connection between a Shelduck and these Egyptian Geese in the slide-show below?

All ducks, geese and swans belong to the family Anatidae. But the Egyptian Goose is all by itself in the Alopochen family – the other birds in this family are all extinct. It looks like a Tadorna shelduck but it is not a shelduck and also not a goose at all! That is why this article is entitled Wild Goose Chase – because investigation are still going on into its DNA, which appears to have some very primitive elements in bird development. In England we have called it a ‘goose’ because it looks and acts bit like one – but instead it might be a duck! No-one is sure!

What other exotic-looking geese are there? Well here’s a beautiful one – the Bar-Headed Goose – it is pretty obvious why it has that name.

Another goose – the Canada, is very well defined and very widespread.

Canada Goose honking in Combe Valley, East Sussex, England.

A goose with beautiful and unusual neck markings – the Brant or Brent, is seen here in the sea off the coast of Bosham in West Sussex.

The Greylag Goose (below) comes to Combe Valley in great numbers – and 80 of these geese have been seen taking off at once on February mornings from Crowhurst Lake. These geese forage and nest in the Valley.

Comparison of a Greylag Goose with a Swan – with Canada Goose in the background.

Greylag – A successful breeding family in Combe Valley

Slideshow – Greylags flying and honking

So it is time to try an analyse what we know and what we don’t. Here’s my best shot at the types of geese that we are sure of, and the types of birds that look or behave like geese that we are not sure of. Is anyone reading this capable of resolving the mysteries still remaining?

Geese Analysis: (Anatidae – Swans, Geese and Ducks) (Recently extinct or prehistoric fossils of early geese types not listed.)

(1) True Wild Geese – White – Anser

  • Bean Goose (Anser fabalis) subspecies: (Anser fabalis rossicus)
  • Tundra Bean Goose (Anser serrirostris)
  • Middendorf’s Bean Goose (Anser Middendorf)
  • Pink-footed Goose (Anser brachyrhynchus)
  • White-fronted Goose (Anser albifrons) subspecies: (Anser albifrons flavirostris)
  • Lesser white-fronted Goose (Anser erythropus)
  • Greylag Goose (Anser anser)
  • Snow Goose (Anser caerulescens)
  • Emperor Goose (Anser canagicus)
  • Ross’s Goose (Anser rossii)

2. True Wild Geese – Black – Branta

  • Canada Goose (Branta canadensis)
  • Barnacle Goose (Branta leucopsis)
  • Brent or Brant Goose (Branta bernicla) subspecies: Branta bernicla hrota and Branta bernicla nigricans
  • Red-breasted Goose ( Branta ruficollis)
  • Nene Hawaiian Goose (Branta sanvicensis)
  • Cackling Goose (Branta hutchinsii)

3. Not Wild Geese at all: Called a goose but not really a goose!

  • Egyptian Goose (Alopochen aegyptiacus) – might be a shelduck
  • Magpie Goose (Anseranas semipalmata) – too primitive to know what it is really
  • Cape Barren Goose (Cereopsis novaehollandiae) – might be a swan or a shelduck or goose
  • Orinoco Goose (Neochen jubata) – probably a shelduck
  • South American Sheldgoose (Chloephaga) – probably a shelduck
  • Spur-winged Goose (Plectropterus gambensis) – related to shelducks
  • Blue-winged Goose (Cyanochen cyanopterus) – might a goose, a shelduck or a dabbling duck
  • Pigmy Goose (Nettapus) – linked to Cape Barren and Spur-winged ‘goose’ types
  • Solan Goose (Morus bassanus ) – really a gannet

4. Domestic Geese (Anser anser domesticus)

 and Hybrid types = most descended from the Greylag or Swan Goose

  • Canada + Greylag cross-breed
  • Domestic Emden
  • Toulouse Goose
  • Swan Goose-type domestic

A huge list of domestically cross-bred geese including Fighting Geese can be see here:

I am not a goose genius. If you have any information that shows that progress in final identification has been made, please let me know. Please follows this blog for more on wildlife. Kind regards. David

Photography in this article: All photos copyrighted by David Dennis except Magpie Goose image – Djambalawa at English Wikipedia.

Copyright 2021 David EP Dennis BA (Hons) FCIPD LCGI RAF

Crowhurst Churchyard – a little piece of heaven

by David EP Dennis BA (Hons) FCIPD LCGI RAF

Death and Life in a Country Churchyard

By David Dennis

In England, there are at least two Crowhursts with a very old Yew Tree – one in Surrey and this one in East Sussex near Battle. Before we learn about the magnificent King Harold 1066 Yew Tree and the other beautiful Crowhurst trees, let’s find out about St. George’s Church, where this enormous yew is located.

As M. E. Newman says in her little guide ‘Some Notes on the Church and Manor of Crowhurst’ (1971):

‘The church was first mentioned in the year 771 in the charter of King Offa of Mercia. The village was then called Croghyrst.’ Offa gave some land to the Bishop of Selsey to build a Saxon church here and then Robert Count of Eu and the Norman Archbishop of Canterbury Llanfranc rigorously enforced ownership after the bloody Conquest, in which the Crowhurst area was laid to waste by William the Bastard.

Yew trees can seed themselves naturally or be planted for a specific purpose. A human settlement can form around a naturally occurring yew tree or a yew tree can be deliberately planted to form a focus of community importance or worship.

Unfortunately, no-one seems to have been able to determine for sure, why or when the oldest Crowhurst Yew was planted and so we need to dig down through history – which is always fun.

There are several old and new yews here in the Parish Church of St George: without much ado you can view a few new yews it’s true (couldn’t resist that), and two older ones planted most probably on the orders of Sir John Pelham, who paid to have part of the pre-existing Saxon and 12th century enhanced to its present form church building, in 1412 or so. Then we come to the eldest yew here – and various sources give dates from to 1,250 years to 3,000 years.

Often yews were planted on sites of pagan worship and then Christian activity began to incorporate existing trees in a reverential way, rather than chopping them down This reverence was maybe, to entice pagans to believe in Jesus because it is said he died on a wooden cross. In fact the current priest incumbent Father told me that he thinks yews were planted by worshippers not for arcane druidic reasons but simply to provide greenery ready for Palm Sunday services.

This whole area has a truly wonderful history. Twelve thousand years before, Stone Age hunters sat on the shore of Combe Valley below where Crowhurst is now situated. Some had walked for more than 100 miles – from Dorset. Combe Valley was then, like Pevensey Levels, just the sea. You can imagine many hunters coming and sitting for an hour or so knapping flint to make knives, scrapers and arrowheads – these beautifully crafted items have been found here. Their descendants continued to hunt and occupy the area, developing into Iron Age cultures easily because of the massive amount of iron in the rocks stretching from Crowhurst to Beauport in Hastings. 

Iron was mined in the south-east of England long before the Romans came, but when they did invade they had already had a belly-full of the Druids who worshipped and used the yew tree as a source of magic and poison. The Saxons certainly lived here, King Harold owned Crowhurst and is said to have had a manor here at Wilting at the top of the hill above Crowhurst village. A case has been made that William the Conqueror’s fleet sailed up Combe Valley to beach below Upper Wilting farm near modern Crowhurst recreation ground – but this has been discounted by some experts because of evidence of silting and longshore drift at the time of the invasion.

However, the theory that best fits the facts in my opinion, is that of Kathleen Tyson in her book ‘Carmen Widonis – The First History of the Norman Conquest’. This theory sites the landing and battle near a once sea-flooded estuary near Icklesham, not that far from modern Battle. My own discovery supports her ideas. The traditional historians mistranslated the early word ‘Apuldre’ to mean ‘hoar apple tree’ whereas in fact it means Apppledore, not far from where the Vikings sailed with 230 ships and attacked Castle Toll in the sea marshes. Updated versions of books describing the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, now use Appledore not hoar apple tree – so the message is getting there slowly. Anyone who looks at Kathleen Tyson’s maps of the coast in the year 1066 will soon see how things became confused later.

A lot more work needs to be done to prove to English Heritage that the current ‘Senlac’ is not where the battle took place after all! It really took place at ‘Sandlache’ (Sandy Loch) near Icklesham. This was – back then – a very large but quiet estuary big enough for 770 ships. It would have been madness to land soldiers (and horses) on beaches with crashing waves – as Julius Caesar soon found out.

Laying to waste was a bloody business in which humans and livestock were killed, forests burned and farms destroyed. It is possible that King Harold’s Danish right-handfasted wife Edith Swan-Neck lived at Upper Wilting – and that one scene in the Bayeux tapestry shows her being burned out of her home along with her boy child – never to be king.

Thankfully the old Yew was spared – after all, the Normans were Christians. For those who think the Yew is 1,250 years old then the planters must have been Saxons not Normans. Planting a yew is usually done when then slow-growing sapling is 8 or 9 years old, so the tree and the early church building might be a simultaneous enterprise.

For obvious reasons of hatred, the Domesday book never refers to Harold as King, but as Earl Harold – who owned Crowhurst. Once he was dead, the overall landowner of church lands here has been the King of England until 1412, though the Walter of the Fitz-Lambert family managed it first for the Count of Eu from the Domesday Survey until the 12th century. Then an ancestor of Walter Fitzherbert – Walter de Scotney (originally Escoteni), was given stewardship by Richard I after the Third Crusade, although Walter forfeited it in 1259, having been found guilty of a crime.

And it was a humdinger! – Walter de Scoteni (then called), was tried and hanged, at Winchester, for administering poison to Richard, Earl of Gloucester, and William de Clare, his brother, the latter of whom died on 23rd July 1258 at Retheford in Scotland and was buried at Durreford Abbey.

Sir John Pelham, coroner of Sussex, Treasurer of the Exchequer and Royal Swordbearer was then given Crowhurst to own in perpetuity by Henry IV in 1412; Pelham built the present parish church.

To find out if our Yew could be as old as 3,000 years we need first to see if there are any such yews that old – and we find that in Wales there is one that is claimed to be 5,000 years old. On 8th July 2014, the Daily Express revealed:

‘…they say the tree in St Cynog’s churchyard, at Defynnog near Sennybridge, Powys, is certainly Europe’s oldest living thing. The yew tree is more than 5,000 years old, from the era 3,000BC. It started growing nearly 500 years before the Pharaohs built the Great Pyramid of Giza. And it was a sapling at about the time work first began on building Stonehenge. The 60ft wide tree’s age has been revealed by experts who carried out ring dating and DNA analysis. It could be the oldest living tree in the world, a title currently held by a bristlecone pine in California known to be 5,063 years old.’

So what is the girth of the Welsh giant? The Express reveals that:

‘“It is so old that it has split into two halves, one 40 feet wide and the other 20 feet wide.

“It’s DNA has been tested by the Forestry Institute and its ring count is 120 per inch, which makes it over 5,000 years old.”

This means it outranks its nearest British rival, the Fortingall Yew in Perthshire Scotland, which is said to be up to 5,000 years old.’

However, this ‘dendrochronology’ of yews is slightly suspicious, as some experts say that big yew trees don’t make annual rings?

So the Welsh tree has an approximate diameter of 60 feet. How about the Crowhurst Yew? How big is it?

Well, in 1680 it was measured to be 27 feet in girth at 4 feet from the ground and 33 feet in girth at ground level and in 2012 it measured 30 feet and two inches around with the tape measure 18 inches above the ground.

Tony Hindson and Lesley Elphick who measured it in 2012 explain that  has grown 2 feet and 10 inches (86 cm) in girth in the last 332 years so that is 2.59 mm a year, but it increased its growth rate to 3.44mm a year between 1879 and 1894 because it had been damaged – which spurred recovery. The Ancient Yew Group say that any Yew tree with a girth of 23 feet should be older than 800 years. So combining all the factors about growth rate and damage we come to the conclusion that the tree is at least 1,300 years old – not 3,000 years old.

In the much-praised book on the conflict between Harold of England and William of Normandy, Hope Muntz tells of a treasure buried nearby whose location was known by Harold’s reeve at his manor of Crowhurst. Because the reeve stayed loyal to his Saxon king, he was hanged from the Great Crowhurst Yew. The trouble is – the tree by then would only have had a girth of 10 feet so could not have been that imposing. But where is the treasure of Crowhurst now?

In 1669 Evelyn Silva alleged that the Yew  had a diameter of 10 feet and as most schoolchildren know, we can calculate its girth then using the formula: C=piD = 31.42 feet. In 1842 it was reported to be ‘flourishing’ at the topmost branches. Then in 1870 it was claimed to be 33 feet around – but gradually through storms it began to split and the top of the tree is past its best – like we would be if we were over a 1,000 years old. Twenty years ago it had a health & safety check and a fence was put around it to stop people from climbing up its temptingly convoluted and amazing branches.

Please note that all the photographs of the yew tree above are of one tree only – the King Harold – all parts connected to the roots in one massive structure – an awesome survivor.

There are more large yews and some huge oak trees in the churchyard too – it is a quiet place full of butterflies and moths, with wild flowers and well as commemorative bunches. Here for example is a magnificent holly.

And here’s a great oak…

Crowhurst also has a direct descendant tree of Joseph of Arimathea’s Holy Thorn at Glastonbury – but that’s another story!

If you have enjoyed this article please ‘Follow’ this blog – there’s lots more history and wildlife information to come. Thank you. David

St George’s Church, Crowhurst, East Sussex, England

Article copyright 2021 David EP Dennis BA (Hons) FCIPD LCGI RAF

Combe Valley Warden

Combe Valley Countryside Park is a nationally and locally undervalued heritage resource containing almost 1500 acres of wildlife habitats, including woods, meadows, marshes, lakes and pools, willow carr, reed beds and beachlands – and 2,500 known wild and plant-life types/species – but much is still to be discovered. It is winter-flooded – adding to the richness and complexity of the landscape. It has a proven archaeological history covering 10,000 years.

Friends of Combe Valley (FoCV) is a national charity – number 1163581. It has a Board of Trustees – Peter, Rebecca and Will. I (David) raise funds for the charity and have been delighted to have been awarded £2,000.00 by the Police and Crime Commissioner for Sussex from the Community Safety Fund for a warden service.

An ideal warden

A woman or man who has time to spare, who loves Combe Valley and knows its paths and ways. Ideally someone retired who can go out on short or long walks without a regular pattern – in all weathers and seasons – and report back to the Trustees and the Friends of Combe Valley Facebook page (@CombeValley) on a range of factors covering the areas listed below and – receive a small amount of pocket money each month (perhaps £100.00 or more) for doing so:

  • Vandalism and graffiti
  • Fallen trees and flood-risk to walkers
  • State and safety of paths, bridges and boardwalk decking
  • Wildlife and habitats including bat & bird boxes and seaside
  • Schools liaison
  • Farmer communication and livestock safety issues
  • Fly tipping, pollution and environmental damage
  • Preservation of local heritage.

The person chosen by the Trustees will need to be fit, carry a fully-charged mobile phone with phone camera, a first aid kit, water and torch, be DBS cleared to work with children and be first aid trained (current certificate) to cover emergencies when walkers are found in distress. They will need a basic understanding of mental incapacity in case they are called to support police seeking lost persons who may be ill. They will also need to have full awareness of tidal dangers and quicksand areas on the Park beach frontage.

The warden will be expected to liaise with the Sussex Police Heritage and Wildlife Officer and can expect to be interviewed periodically by the staff of the Police and Crime Commissioner who will be checking on how the grant is being spent. They will also liaise with the Countryside Park Community Interest Company (CIC). This is an independent body not connected to our charity.

Both the Friends of Combe Valley and the Police and Crime Commissioner will give full publicity to the warden service.

Frequency of dates and times of patrolling will not be given to the public for obvious reasons. All paths and locations will be covered but known problem areas will be visited more frequently.

Filsham Reed Beds (above) and Combe Haven river winter flooding (below)

The Friends of Combe Valley Charity Committee will meet shortly to discuss the detailed operation of the scheme and to decide how applications for the warden role may be made to the Trustees. Further details will be published here in the blog.

Please ‘Follow’ the blog to receive updates. Please also comment on the general concept, especially if you think of something that needs protecting that is not included in the above list of patrol factors. Thank you.

Friends of Combe Valley National Charity works to preserve wildlife, landscape and local heritage and to educate the public.

All photographs copyright David Dennis 2019

The Heron – A superintelligent messenger

by David EP Dennis BA (Hons) FCIPD LCGI RAF

Once upon a time when I was younger, I was walking near Force Jump Waterfall in the Kentmere Valley over in the eastern Lake District. A grey heron glided into a marshy field and began to look for frogs. It was the first time I had been so close to this bird. Then it died. It just fell down in a collapsed heap. Obviously, I was dismayed – hand to mouth. It raises questions about the deaths of large birds. Not many people ever see a large bird die a natural death. Maybe a ghillie in the Scottish Highlands might see a naturally dead eagle once in a lifetime, or a walker might find a dead Great White Egret in the Somerset Marshes, but to be there when one dies on the spot – that is a very rare event.

This eerie occurrence gave me the impetus to study the heron in life and in myth. Here are some things I’ve learned about this graceful and fascinating bird with a wingspan of 6.5 feet, only a few inches less than a Golden Eagle.

Grey Herons (Ardea cinerea) are in the family Ardeidae which includes egrets and bitterns.  ‘Ardea’ in Latin means ‘heron’ and ‘cinerea’ means ‘resembling ashes’. They eat fish, frogs, rats and all sorts of other food. They ‘operate’ on the seashore as well an inland. They sit in the tops of trees, stalking through marshes, often standing and staring for many minutes before striking their prey.

They have invaded urban civilisation, flying over the rooftops of housing estates in Worcester Park, London for example, or sitting on the roof of a caravan at Chichester Harbour. They are becoming like foxes in their integration with human society.

Watts, George Frederic; The Wounded Heron; Watts Gallery;

Over the past 4,000 years, herons have been hunted by humans for food, feathers and sadly, also for sport. The painting above, The Wounded Heron by George Frederic Watts, 1837 (Watts Gallery) is in the public domain.

In Combe Valley, East Sussex, where I do much of my wildlife photography, there are many herons. It is a rare day, rain or shine, when you don’t see one. In our winter-flooded valley you can see six at once all patrolling the pools and lake margins. So what are the legends behind the reality? Are there any herons in literature or Greek myths for example? Well, certainly there is one in Shakespeare’s Hamlet – it is called a ‘handsaw’! Shakespeare causes Hamlet to say in line 1460:

‘I am but mad north-north-west. When the wind is southerly I know a hawk from a handsaw.’

And yes, there on page 158 of the Penguin edition of the Iliad, the goddess Pallas Athene (Roman equivalent = Minerva) sends a heron to guide the Greeks on the right path at night – Odysseus and his men could not see the heron but heard its cry in the dark. Then Odysseus praised Athene for saving him for her ‘special love’. Because Athena is the goddess of wisdom then the heron became to be known as a very wise messenger – a superintelligence.  So next time you think you are watching a heron, remember that it may also be watching you, and perhaps reading your thoughts.

Those of you who love Dartmoor will be pleased to see this internet page dedicated to the Dartmoor heronry:

A heronry is a colony of perches and nests – we have one in the tall trees near the end of the old Bexhill to Crowhurst railway viaduct site not far from Three Bridges and the 1066 Trail…here:

The Grey Heron lays a clutch of 4 to 5 eggs in one brood per year between January and May. Obviously because our valley floods in winter, this site is ideal for them being right at the side of the greatest flood section of the Combe Haven river – ready for plenty of common and marsh frogs in spring. Herons use the bridge handrails and perches to stare down into the Combe Haven in the early morning.

In Japan, the heron is thought of as representing calmness, determination and above all – patience. It is a solitary bird, in the sense that it does not regularly flock-feed like an ibis or avocet, but slowly stalks – attracting other hungry herons who may join it at random. Juveniles have spotted necks and no crest feathers, and their heads are pale grey rather than the black of the adult bird. Their beaks are black but turn to orange daggers as they grow.

Herons are masters of aerial flight, retracting their necks and hunching up in flight but using their huge wings to brake when landing in the marshes. When the heron looks down into a pool it must be able to see and therefore recognise itself. I have never seen a heron try to eat its own reflection. Its cry – for us and Odysseus too, is said to sound like ‘fraink’ followed by a rattle and a croak.

In China, the heron is seen as a good luck wish – ‘May your Path be Always Upward’ and white herons helped souls to get to heaven. In Egypt, the heron becomes the world creator – the Bennu Bird, Lord of the Jubilees, linked by rebirth to the Phoenix legends of Herodotus.

So we should be pleased and proud to live near so many herons and I am sure you all get great satisfaction from the peaceful observation of this superintelligent messenger as it hunts the doomed frogs of Combe Valley.

Copyright 2021 David EP Dennis BA (Hons) FCIPD LCGI RAF

Red Kite in Sight – Sheer Delight

By David EP Dennis BA (Hons) FCIPD LCGI RAF

If you love Wales and are interested in poetry, you may have heard of the early Welsh poet Dafydd-ap-Gwilym. He flourished from around 1320 to 1370 AD. He was born at Brogynin and died probably from the Black Death.

He is said to be buried in Strata Florida Abbey in West Wales although in the 1600s, another place 20 miles away, tried to claim his body.

Many years ago, my wife and I set out to find Strata Florida Abbey and see his grave, as his poetry was so beautiful – and also fun – because much of it was about chasing girls. We drove up from Bexhill towards Shrewsbury and then travelled into Wales on narrow winding roads – across mid-Wales, and as we did so we saw our very first Red Kite. These lovely birds nearly became extinct. They were hunted to death because they were scavengers. A small set of breeding pairs remained in this remote part of Wales. Then they were introduced into other parts of Britain – for example, the Grizedale Forest.

Now you can see Red Kites (Milvus milvus) in Combe Valley. The last sighting was 6 June 2019, so I am told by someone who lives near the Valley. I have seen three flying in circles above Three Bridges on the 1066 Trail a few months ago (2020). The RSPB state that there are so many that they cannot be counted in population surveys. The UK is the only country where the population is increasing. In some countries they have been reduced by 50% or more.

However, If you travel up the M40 to Oxford Services you will see them on many parts of the route in Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire and when you get to the service area to park they will probably be scavenging in the bins.

It has to be said that the fact that we have buzzards, kestrels, marsh harriers, hobbies, sparrowhawks and hunting owls as well as Red Kites in the Valley is a great sign that these animals at the top of the food chain can all find enough to eat.

So what do they eat? The answer is just about anything edible: mice, voles, shrews, rabbits, weasels, mink, young hares, fox and badger carcasses, earthworms and your sandwiches! So please try to find out when watching them, what sorts of foodstuffs they have in their beaks. We don’t often see any voles or shrews when walking. There is a population of weasels in Fore Wood, Crowhurst but they have not yet spread to the Valley.

Red Kites bond for life and start breeding at around two years old or slightly younger. They make their nests in the forks of big trees and lay between one and three eggs. So please also look out for possible breeding nests – or let us know if you think they come into the Valley from elsewhere.

Red Kites are very capable of aerobatics. They are lighter and more manouevrable than a harrier. The RSPB have reported frequent groups of ten hunting and up to 40 feeding naturally. On some Welsh farms, they feed the birds each day and hundreds can be seen circling and landing.

It is an exciting time in Combe Valley, with all sorts of new wildlife discoveries. Pete Hunnisett and Combe Valley Nature colleagues are doing an outstanding job of tracking down a wide variety of plants and insects and I am doing my best, too. The results we find show that the Valley is pretty healthy – but there is some fly tipping and the Combe Haven river is in a poor state in parts being blocked by fallen trees and rubbish. It could be a lot healthier and the better it is as a river so the more wildlife it can support and then hopefully more Red Kites and other creatures will be able to feed successfully.

The 25,000 breeding pairs to be seen in Europe at present represents 95% of the total world population. If we could start to see breeding pairs in our Valley, we’d be delighted but maybe the other raptors would not be!

I watched a pair of wheeling crows attacking a buzzard over the ‘Tip’ area last Thursday. The crows won – so too much competition is not good when food is scarce. Please keep a sharp eye out for these lovely Red Kites and drop me a line if you see one – photos? Even better!

One of Dafydd’s poems is about the wind – but it could equally be about the Red Kite – here’s the last verse of the Poem ‘Wind’:

Go up high, see the one who’s white,
Go down below, sky’s favorite.
Go to Morfudd Llwyd the fair,
Come back safe, wealth of the air.

kind regards


Keeping track of local raptor sightings in Combe Valley

Last sighting 6 June 2019

Previous photos – long range telephoto – 22 May 2018

Copyright 2021 David EP Dennis BA (Hons) FCIPD LCGI RAF

Noah’s Local Flood!


a blog essay by David Dennis

Will global warming and rising sea levels cause a flooding disaster in Combe Valley?  This sounds like an apocalyptic caption for a far-fetched film. What could possibly go wrong? Let us peer into the future and see what the legacy of mismanaging nature is bringing our way.

In April 2002 the UKCIP02 Scientific Report called Climate Change Scenarios for the United Kingdom was published.  It explained that the planet was getting warmer, that as a consequence of this heating (molecular vibration and spacing) the sea was expanding and rising. With an overheated energetic atmosphere causing storm surges with greater power and frequency, coastal flooding was more likely around the world.

Now our government has produced this latest report which sets out the flooding containment strategy:

The melting of sea ice north and south makes very little difference but the melting of Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets is the danger. Add to this the increasing turbulence of the atmosphere and the storm surges that weather systems produce, and it can be seen that coastal, estuary and land drainage problems will increase. Sea level rise estimates vary wildly from a few centimetres to one metre within a lifetime. In addition to storm surges there are annual tidal fluctuations. If a storm surge coincided with spring tides for example, then rivers would back up and land would be flooded a long way inland, especially if rainfall had been high and river gradients are shallow – remember Somerset in 2014, for example.

Our part of England has been slowly sinking over thousands of years and many coastal harbours and marshes have been formed.  Pagham Harbour and Selsey Bill, the Cuckmere, Eastbourne and Pevensey Marshes and the Combe Haven valley are all shown as being flood-prone on the national flood maps set out by DEFRA on the internet for all to see.

Rainfall intensity in our Bexhill-Hastings-Battle-Crowhurst area is greatest in October to January with total rainfall for those 4 months in the Combe Valley being 15 inches (384mm). The ground becomes saturated and water tables are high. Since there is no regional strategy to help farmers to control run-off from fields, the water in the Combe Valley accumulates, much to the delight of wildlife observers, lovers of marshes, reed-beds and waterfowl.

But this huge volume of Combe Haven water with its Watermill and Powdermill tributaries has to get to the sea. To do this the Haven has to flow past Combe Haven Caravan Park part of which is built on its flood-plain, it then flows between Bexhill Road and Bulverhythe Road to the sluice and the sea pipe just before Bo-Peep.

The sluice can only be opened to let the water out to the sea when the tide is low enough.  Here lies the problem because the number of hours available for the sluice to be opened will depend on the height of the tide – and the tides are rising by a known amount.

In the last 100 years the sea in Sussex has risen by 10cms. Due to planetary warming, the Sussex sea level is expected to rise by 55 cms by 2080 or 85mm per year.

As the Sussex climate changes with drier summers and wetter winters, the plants and animals will be affected. Some winters may be so wet as to kill off some types of life and some summers may be so dry as to kill the roots of plants and trees in the natural environment.

In Combe Valley, the growing intensity of the rainfall within a short duration and the rising sea levels closing the sluices will leave Combe Haven Caravan Park managers to build higher and higher barriers to save their flood plain caravans.  As they do so, understandably protecting their commercial interests, the flooding of the Bexhill playing fields and homes backing onto it will get worse since the water in their kitchens would have been lower if the flood fencing had not been so high.

So what to do? Do we ask the Caravan Park owners to remove their caravans and free up the flood plain expansion point, or tell the people of Bexhill Road to move?  Is there a third or even a fourth alternative?

Pumping the Combe Haven excess flooding at a very fast rate during low tide times will cost money but it is obvious that a powerful pump could keep water levels lower than they are now despite rising sea levels. Powerful pumps cost money. There is little government money available for such engineering, but Hastings Borough Council is looking at loaning money (£6 million?) to pay for such pumps so that they can build a housing estate on Bexhill Recreation Ground.

A fourth alternative would be to ask the farmers to plant more trees and cut more ditches to slow the run-off of rainwater. But harsh strategies such as turning the Combe Valley into a permanent lake or reservoir would just mean the total loss of all farmland and the Haven is not suitable for building a dam in any case as the valley has such a broad front. Using the part-natural choke point between the hill made by the now closed tip and the hill slope of the caravan site would mean the total removal of the caravan site – and in any case the water would flow out through Pebsham and Sidley and the stream at Crowhurst would back up, flooding the cricket ground. At the end of the last Ice Age, Combe Valley was tidal to Filsham Reed Beds and so it would become again. A salt marsh would develop similar to that planned for the Cuckmere which has had its flood defences removed.

So pumping seems to be the short-term answer with the money for this found from private sources perhaps.

How long have we got before disaster strikes? The forecast for Pagham Harbour and East Head nature reserve at Chichester is that the next big storm surge will destroy these two landmarks permanently. Along the Bexhill coast to Hastings, there are clear signs of concern as the beach is supported by rocks to save the railway and the Fairlight cliffs topple into the sea on live TV. Even the wavecut platform of sandstone rocks and the petrified forest at Bexhill are collapsing, with huge pieces breaking off – never seen before in my lifetime.

I am personally convinced about global warming. I have walked on the Greenland icecap and seen its erosion and lived on and mapped the retreating glaciers of the Okstind range in north Norway, so I can safely say that Nature is coming to get us. When you sleep on a glacier, the night is silent but by noon to 3pm the whole surface is melting – thundering and roaring down through cavities to lubricate the underneath and make the glacial ice flow faster to the sea. If the Greenland icecap melted totally the sea would rise by a small amount, but – as the UKCIP02 Scientific Report states, if the whole West Antarctic ice-sheet melted the sea would rise by 5 metres and Bexhill would be taken over by fishes.

As a conservative estimate, the government is looking at a range of a few centimetres to 2.5 metres for Britain. So a local debate is required. There will be more winter rain, higher tides and more storm surges for sure. What shall we do about it?  Shall we continue to build homes along the coast? Your comments are welcome.

I will publish some of them in my blog – maybe in shortened form but without personal names unless you say not to in your replies to this blog essay.

Kind regards to all