Beddingham is a place that thousands of us drive past each day but few actually stop to spend time there.
Today, Beddingham is known for its roundabout and bridge over the railway but it also has an ancient church. Between 750 and 825 there was a minister nearby and in 825 one of its abbots, Plegheard, was mentioned in a charter.
The Domesday book records the village but it had been populated for centuries before. In 1800, Lord Gage exhibited ancient swords and jewellery at the Society of Antiquities, they had been found in a field at Beddingham and were believed to have been Roman.
On January 8, 1823, Beddingham was scene of a pitched battle between smugglers and local excisemen from Newhaven. Some 16 casks of spirits were recovered and during the affray one smuggler nearly had his hand severed by the sword of one of the officers.
The village has also been severed. The Lewes to Eastbourne turnpike grew into the busy A27 and the railway of 1846 left the village seemingly without a heart. The bridge over the railway (opened in 2008) means we don’t even stop at Beddingham now to wait at the level crossing. One dark, rainy night in November 1859, a dreadful accident happened here. A four wheel horse-drawn cart belonging to local farmer Mr Ellman approached the crossing gates. The driver was an 18-year-old labourer, Charles Moore, who was travelling with 50-year-old Samuel Payne, who was a shepherd. The men were en-route to Lewes to collect a farm worker.
The gate keeper was an elderly man called John Norman who had been working at Beddingham for some eight years and lived in a cottage at the crossing. The railway was protected by two double gates on each side of the line each held with a hasp. They were always closed to traffic and at night a white light was replaced by a red one to warn train drivers that the gates were opened across the line. On the fateful night, Norman heard a cry of “Gate!” and went out to advise the driver of the cart that they would have to wait as the London express was due from Lewes. When he got out, maybe because of the impatience of Charles Moore, the horse was nudging against the crossing gates. Suddenly the gate flew open and the horse, as the way ahead was barred turned down the track towards Glynde. The express train consisted of two first class carriages, one second class and two brake vans. James Steel, the driver, estimated that he was doing about 40mph when he slammed into the cart.
According to the press the cart was ‘smashed into atoms’ and both men and their horse were instantly killed. Dr Lewis Smythe attended the scene from Lewes with Mr Brook, the Lewes Station Master. The bodies were removed to the Trevor Arms at Glynde where an inquest was held a few days later. The inquest lasted for seven hours and the jury announced death was accidental, however, recommended that the railway should have taken more care in the management of the gates.
That Sunday, prayers for the men were said at St Andrew’s church. The church is large and obviously built for a larger congregation than it has today, however, when I visited last week a vase of fresh cut flowers on the font showed that the church is still loved.
The church dates from the 12th century but was enlarged presumable to accommodate a growing rural congregation. The population in 1831 was 264 and it is clear that the pews could seat each and every one.
Early English arches lead to the aisles and are decorated with 13th century wall paintings. One of these shows a female saint, unidentified although some believe her to be St Lewenna, a seventh century saint martyred near Seaford (probably at Bishopstone). There are also two crude but charming and obviously ancient carved heads.
There are few monuments in the church, although I was impressed with the memorial to the Carr family which includes Sir Thomas Carr who died in 1814. He received a knighthood through the simple means of congratulating George III for surviving an assassination attempt.
There is one notable grave in the churchyard which is overlooked by the imposing Mount Caburn, that of Annie Piggot, a member of the Women’s Royal Air Force who tragically died just two days before the Armistice of 1918.
Annie was originally a sail maker at Newhaven Harbour and was employed by the newly formed RAF to literally sew damaged aircraft back together again. I believe she may have been stationed at the seaplane base at Tide Mills between Seaford and Newhaven.
Maybe the next time you pass Beddingham you will take a few minutes to visit St Andrew’s Church and savour a few minutes of reflection in this ancient but frequently overlooked village.