KEVIN GORDON - Sussex diamonds make excellent walls

The Pelham Buckle picked out in knapped flints at Bishopstone.
The Pelham Buckle picked out in knapped flints at Bishopstone.

Man has been trudging around Sussex for about half a million years and for most of that time flints were used as tools and building materials.

Although flint is found in layers within chalk, exactly how it was formed is still unclear. It is possibly the silica from the shells of the marine creatures whose bodies make up the chalk itself. In any case, they made useful sharp tools and even up to the 19th century flints were used in the firing mechanism of guns.

Flints could be picked off the ground but it was found that the best specimens were from deep underground and there are several flint mine sites across Sussex including some on Windover Hill above the Long Man of Wilmington. I have heard of flints being referred to as Sussex Diamonds.

Flint is hard wearing, but when nodules fall into the sea they break up and become rounded. These are known as ‘beach boulders’ or ‘pitchers’ and could be used for building roads (a good example being Keere Street in Lewes). They were also used for houses and walls along the coast.

Further inland ‘field flints’ would be used. When a farmer’s plough struck a nodule of flint which had worked to the surface, he would probably swear and throw it to one side. When he had a decent pile of flints he would sell them to a local builder. Field flints are uneven in shape so are better for holding mortar together and made for stronger walls.

Flints could be cut in two or ‘knapped’ so that the blackish-grey interior showed outwards.

There are many examples of buildings made from knapped flints in our area. If the owner of a building wanted a better finish, they could pay for flints to be knapped and squared into small building blocks.

It was much easier to knap flints that had been recently excavated so that knapped and squared flints were usually mined. They were also known as ‘dry flints’.

Knapping flints was time consuming and therefore costly but worth the extra effort and expense.

Again there are many examples including St Andrew’s Church in Alfriston, Willingdon and at Lewes Grammar School. In Seaford, Pitt House in the High Street is built from knapped and squared flints.

It was once used by William Pitt the Elder who was MP for Seaford and Prime Minister from 1766 to 1768.

Walls were of varying standards and you could tell how wealthy a person was just by looking at their flint walls. Where the flints are set in uneven layers it is called ‘snail-creep’.

Sometimes slivers of flint would be pressed into the mortar between flints either to strengthen the wall or for decoration.

This would be known as ‘garretting’, examples can be seen on many buildings including inside St Andrew’s Church, Alfriston.

Several Sussex churches, like Seaford and Eastbourne, have towers where flint and sandstone have been inserted in a chequerboard effect. Other designs could also be included. At Silver Lane in Bishopstone, the flint walls around the Pelham estate included a diamond pattern and a buckle design, the buckle being the family emblem.

Flint walls last a long time and are difficult to date, although many are several hundred years old and several are listed.

So are flint walls perfect? Not quite – when the construction of Lewes Prison was being debated, it was mentioned that the exterior walls should be of brick and not flint as ‘some men can climb up a flint wall easier than a cat!’