WENDY’S WANDERING’S SMUGGLING DAYS
Still on the trail for stories for my book, I visited the village of Alfriston this week home of smuggling. Whenever I think of the county of Sussex I think of walks on the glorious downs, the rugged coastline with smuggling and shipwrecking, and the picture postcard English villages and Alfriston is certainly one of the villages. During the 18th century when smuggling was an acceptable trade Alfriston was home to the infamous Alfriston gang, and all three of its Inns were connected in some way. The George and the Star face each other in the narrow street, and the third, once the Market Cross, now the Smugglers on the side of the small square and all are worth a visit.
The Star Inn is believed to have been built as a hostel by the Abbot of Battle in 1345 to accommodate monks travelling to the shrine of St Richard in the City of Chichester. In the 1500s it was turned into an Inn with numerous fascinating colourful wooden figures built into the front of the buildings that gaze down on passersby today. Outside the Inn sits a rather strange looking figurehead of a red lion, taken from a Dutch ship wrecked in Cuckmere Haven 300 years ago, and raided by the infamous gang. The George is also a fine 15th building with oak beams and wall paintings dating to the 16th and 17th century, but it is to the other Inn that I found most interesting.
The leader of the Alfriston gang was Stanton Collins who came from a good family and lived at the then Market Cross Inn, now The Smugglers, and when he took it over from his father he turned it into a bar and smugglers’ haunt. It is a curious building with 21 rooms, 48 doors six staircases and numerous hidden exits including tunnels, one of which led under the floor of the bar down towards the river, though it was filled in a while ago. If customs men came into the bar the smugglers could escape through a space beside the chimney into a secluded hideout, and when the customs men left, so the story goes, their friends would shout up the chimney that it was safe to come out. The notoriously violent gang used the stream that meanders beyond the High Street to bring their illegal gains from Cuckmere Haven to the village ready for distribution, and of in those days the river would have been wider. The gang were never caught, but broke up when Stanton Collins was arrested, not for smuggling, but for burning a barn. He was tried at Lewis Winter Assizes in December 1831 and sentenced to transportation to Tasmania, for 7 years, aboard the Lord William Bentinck. The gang had a reputation of being ruthless, and one tale tells us that one of the smugglers was in hiding above the cliffs overlooking Cuckmere Haven one dark night, waiting for a sign that the booty had landed. His job was then to alert the gang that it was safe to collect it. He was about to go and tell them when he noticed a Revenue Officer at the cliff top picking his way through the dark, guided by large chalk rocks set at intervals along the path. Of course the gang was well prepared, and had moved some of the rocks so they led directly to the cliff edge. As the officer tumbled down the cliff he yelled out, but managed to grab the edge of the cliff. The smugglers rushed from their hidey-hole, and stood looking down the man hanging on by his fingertips. The officer begged them to save him, but stepping forward, one of the gang stamped on his fingers sending him spiralling to his death. Everyone thought the officer had accidently falling in the darkness, and it was only a deathbed confession by one of the gang that revealed the truth.