The Small Histories of Sussex
The Surveyor and the Stones
I found the first one lying face down in the mud on a bright autumn morning.
I’d woken too early and looked out of the window, wondering if I could be bothered getting dressed and going out with my camera. We live close to one of the best views in Sussex and I tell myself that I have as much chance of taking a decent photo as a professional on a gift of a morning like this. You just point and shoot and nature does the rest. The mist can disappear before your eyes on the top of High and Over; within minutes the whole white serpent of the Cuckmere river reveals itself from the sea to Alfriston at the top of the valley, with only the odd swan to break up the skin of the water.
After an hour of sunrise reveries, I headed for home. Reaching the double belt of trees that leads like a natural avenue to the field next to our house. I thought, I should start looking around about here, this was the place.
I spent all of five minutes scuffing about in the mud with my booted toes. The field hadn’t long been ploughed; it was my good luck to have been looking at exactly the right time of year, when the turned-over stones look like sweeties on a badly-decorated cake; some sticking up at funny angles and some pressed flat against the earth but still clean.
One caught my eye. I picked it up. It sat snugly in my palm, not completely smooth but pleasingly concave. The top was rounded and the sides more or less straight. I rubbed off some mud and all around the top edge were small, deliberate chips. I suddenly wondered what on earth this place would have looked like around twelve thousand years ago.
Alistair Moffat’s The Hidden Ways is a travelogue of Scotland’s ancient and not so ancient roads, with tales of all the armies and peregrinating souls that trod them over the centuries. It had seen me through a week of insomnia – probably made it worse to be honest because I couldn’t put it down. I started thinking about the history on my doorstep.
On the website of the Keep, Sussex’s record office, there’s an online interactive map that pinpoints all the archaeological finds in the county. One click on this with my generally workmanlike but ageing tablet and I knew I’d be waiting a couple of epochs for the thing to download, so I recklessly reached for the laptop. We’re still not talking state-of-the-art, but at least I’d get the information before the next ice age. Every dot on our hill on the map was a connection with everyone else who’d ever lived there for nearly a score of centuries. And one dot was close to that belt of trees: the legend popping up detailed Neolithic flints that had been found there.
Another intriguing resource I dug out at the Keep was an archaeological survey of the land above our house that was produced in 2009 in response to a proposed housing development. What housing development, I thought? Until I saw a scribbled note that said ‘Not real!‘ - the document was a student project, and any threat to our back yard was purely hypothetical, undertaken as an academic (in both senses of the word) exercise.
Amongst other things, I learned about John de Ward. He was a surveyor working in Sussex in the 1620s – there’s nothing of his work on the internet now, but I think you still see a reproduction upstairs at the Gun Room in Alfriston.
De Ward marked something called ‘The Great Burg’ not far from where I found my flint. Here’s the etymological bit: as far as I can tell, the definition of ‘burg’ (which is an obsolete term these days) was a fortified town. It may well have had a different meaning in the seventeenth century and the author of the student paper hadn’t found any evidence of anything so grand. But the paper did point out that the raised nature of the land in that spot could have been associated with a barrow – with a corresponding shallow depression possibly equating to where all the material from its construction had come from. There was also evidence of chalk marl pits, lynchets (ancient plough ridges) and more recently, training trenches from the Great War.
I popped the flint in my pocket and took it home. A couple of weeks later I had an email from the local museum confirming it was a Neolithic tool, possibly made for woodworking. What I loved even more was that it had been made by a cack-handed Neolithic person – spoiled by a chip too far that rendered it useless. And chucked away in disgust, for me to find thousands of years later.
It's not a museum-worthy object. It’s a mongrel kind of thing, without the precision markings of a finished tool. But I’ve read somewhere recently about a horde of thousands of Roman nails that had been dug up; so many that loads were melted down in the end. What a waste! That could kept poor folk like me happy for decades – genuine Roman nail for a quid on eBay! I’d have bought at least one, for the wonder of it.
My find wouldn’t be worth as much as a rusty old Roman nail (over 3,000 worked flints were found at an excavation at Hamsey). But for me, it’s magic. Every time I ramble back to that field, I marvel at how Stone Age man survived and flourished here in the Gore-Tex-free days.
I’ve since found a second flint; slightly better workmanship than the first, with unmistakeably fluted ridges leading to a bladed edge. Dog walks take an age now; I can’t help examining every mucky old stone and there’s a pile of unconfirmed rocks by the back door that are probably just bits of plough-hacked flint.
But as a mindful activity, and one that physically links me with our ancestors, flint-seeking as far as I’m concerned is the new rock-n-roll. I’m walking in the footsteps not just of Stone Age man, but of John de Ward, in his billowing breeches, clutching a quadrant and squinting into the Sussex sun.
Flint Pete: An Epilogue
I googled the name on that student project: Peter Bidmead. He was a retired police officer and archaelogist – as well as a flint and stone building restorer. Not only multi-talented, but a lovely bloke. He turned out to have been a dear friend of my next-door-neighbour’s son, who built a memorial bench for ‘Flint Pete’ in his favourite spot after he died in 2009.