KEVIN GORDON - A place of sanctuary for many

The Star Inn as it looked when visited by Arthur Beckett
The Star Inn as it looked when visited by Arthur Beckett

I was a bit worried when I heard that the ancient but rather beautiful Star Inn at Alfriston was to be renovated.

What would the great Victorian Sussex historian Arthur Becket have said? He rated the Star Inn as one of the best in the county. He gave us a fascinating account from the 1880s. Beckett was a great writer and tells us how one day he entered the Star and, as he smoked a black briar pipe, he drank locally brewed beer, ate a supper of beef, bread and cheese, and carefully observed the clientele.

On one long table sat some farmers, one of whom was a large, ruddy, burly chap with his sleeves rolled up to expose his thick, hairy arms. He looked strong, hale and hearty but seems to have just one topic of conversation – crops. Beckett suggests that if you want to make conversation with any farmer, the subject of crops will never fail – although you are likely not to get a word in edgeways!

On another table there was little conversation. Here sat some local shepherds, who were distinguished by their long knee-length smocks and ruddy, wrinkled faces. Their trusty sheep dogs sat obediently under the benches. The other occupants of the pub (Beckett explains) were two tradesmen, the Alfriston blacksmith and some labourers, whose topic of conversation was about who owned the best thatched roof in the village. At that time, the majority of houses in the villages had thatched roofs.

The Star Inn was the focus of Alfriston’s administration. Church vestry meetings were held there and it was often the location of inquests for people who died in the village. The last I have been able to trace was in 1938. The Alfriston Sparrow Club (a local friendly society) and the Alfriston Benefit Society met in the pub and every November the landlord would provide the Bonfire Boys with drinks as their bonfire crackled in the street outside. Another bonfire was built in front of the pub in May 1866 to celebrate a horse called Dalby winning the Chester Cup. The colt was from Alfriston Stables. I also have details of political meetings and auctions being held in the pub.

A much anticipated event in the rural calendar was ‘Harvest Home” when a local farmer would treat all his workers to a slap-up meal to thank them for their work during the harvest. Naturally the Star Inn was the venue for these celebrations and in late September 1865, over 80 people sat down for a feast followed by plenty of beer and many ‘loyal toasts’. Alfred, Lord Tennyson visited Alfriston (probably when he was staying at Seaford in 1852) and I am sure he would have stopped off at the Star.

With all this activity it is amazing if any of the original atmosphere of the inn remains, so I was delighted to be invited along to have a look around just before the Star was re-opened last week. Julie Garvin, one of the mangers, was obviously proud of the new work and I must say that it does look splendid. The decor, both in the public areas and in the bedrooms above, was very much in keeping with an ancient inn.

As you enter the Star from the High Street there is a large open area to the left (surely the room where Becket saw all those Alfristonians, although today it is clean and airy and not a fugg of smoke from those briar pipes. To the right is a smaller bar and I was particularly concerned to check that the ancient graffiti carved into a beam had been undamaged.

This shows the letters IHS and is a remembrance from when the Star was a pilgrims inn. Pilgrims travelling between the tombs of St Richard of Chichester and St Thomas Becket in Canterbury would be pleased to stop at Alfriston and the building is covered with ancient religious carvings which were revealed during an earlier restoration in 1902. Because it was a religious house, legend has it that you could seek sanctuary in the Star and we know that in 1608 a man called John Birrel used the Star as a place of refuge when he was being tracked down after stealing a horse in Lidd, Kent.

So what would Beckett have thought of the restored Star Inn? Well I think he would be disappointed that it is no longer a place to go to spy on rural folk, they have long since gone, along with the thatched roofs and smelly briar pipes. However, I am sure he would have been pleased that it has retained its medieval feel with exposed beams and many other original features such as the massive mossy Horsham tiles on the roof. He would still be able to get himself some ale and a goodly supper. The hairy farmers, shepherds’ dogs and horse-thieves have long since gone.

You won’t get to see any Alfriston Bonfire Boys or get to hear an inquest, but the Star Inn at Alfriston still provides a sanctuary from the busy world outside and long may it do so.