Horse racing at Southease? Yes there was, but not furlong

A footpath runs alongside the fields where the racecourse was located. Mount Caburn can be seen in the distance.
A footpath runs alongside the fields where the racecourse was located. Mount Caburn can be seen in the distance.

Most readers will know that once there was a racecourse in Lewes. Indeed there are still stables and gallops on the site of the course up on the hills above Nevill Estate. Many will also remember the day of the last ever meeting that was held 50 years ago on September 14, 1964. I know I do. But I bet only a few folk know of the other racecourse that was very close to Lewes. No – I’m not talking about Plumpton; this other course was situated between the Lewes to Seaford railway line and the River Ouse and was close to the village of Southease.

The Sussex Express and South Eastern Advertiser of June 1, 1928, described the setting thus: “Amid the most picturesque surroundings, a course of nearly seven furlongs has been laid out, and one advantage is that during the races the horses are visible from every part of the course the whole of the time.

A grandstand is being erected and there is a popular enclosure with booths for refreshments. The Southern Railway have constructed a new platform and are preparing to run special trains for the various meetings, which will be held every Tuesday and Thursday during the season.”

The report appeared in the week when Southease enjoyed its first day at the races. This took place on Whit Monday, May 28. Apparently it was a “flapper meeting” to which Jockey Club or National Hunt rules did not apply. Such meetings were popular in the North of England and bringing one to Sussex was the work of three Liverpool businessmen who set up the Southease Racecourse Company.

Clearly the fact that trains stopped at the nearby Southease and Rodmell Halt was key to choosing the location. The land was cheap too; the Liverpool trio reckoned to pay just two shillings and sixpence annual rent to Itford Farm. That famous Rodmell resident, Virginia Woolf, was unimpressed at finding a racecourse suddenly appearing on her doorstep.

She wrote to her sister, Vanessa Bell, bemoaning how it had been laid out “on the flats by the railway halt with stables and a stand run up from cheap wood.” The latter material came from wooden crates that had been used for the conveyance of a batch of Studebaker cars brought over from America.

That Sussex Express report goes on to name all the race officials and all the owners, runners and riders of the horses that competed in a card of six races. The names of the Southease Racecourse Company’s directors - Alfred Quayle, Robert Thornton and Sydney Beatty – are prominent. Between them they also had a number of winners. Despite this encouraging first report it seems the course was not popular with the punters and it quickly disappeared from the news, though the outline of the course can clearly be seen on the 1931 Ordnance Survey map of the area, which indicates where the grandstand and winning post are situated.

I came across this equine tale in a fascinating little book, “Southease Through The Centuries” that I picked up in the lovely and very ancient Southease Church during a visit to the village for the annual Chilli Festival.

I have subsequently had a chat with the author, Brigid Chapman who tells me that the church is the only place it can be obtained. Half of the £4.99 cover price assists with the maintenance of the building so buying a copy not only yields a very good read but also helps preserve an important part of our Sussex heritage.