Seaford Museum likes to mark Heritage Weekend in three ways.
Firstly, old photographs from the Museum Archives are now on display in shops and businesses around the town.
This is an innovative idea to take the archives of the museum out into the community. This has been a popular scheme - shoppers like to see how the streets and buildings looked in the past and shopkeepers like potential customers looking into their windows!
Secondly the Martello Tower Musuem will be open for free over the weekend. The Martello Tower will be one of over 4,500 historic buildings open throughout England in a scheme that celebrates its 20th anniversary this year. The initiative was started in 1991 by the Council of Europe to encourage the owners of historic buildings across Europe to open their doors for free for one weekend every year.
England had its first Heritage Weekend in 1994. Seaford Museum is pleased to participate and to make the event extra special, on Sunday we have arranged for the First Foot Guards (Redcoats) to be present. It is always wonderful to see these military enactors at the tower as they seem to be so ‘at home’ when they visit.
Martello Tower 74 was the last of these Napoleonic forts to be built along the coast starting at Folkestone. (Isn’t it strange we call this time ‘Napoleonic’ rather than ‘Wellingtonian’?) It was the base for 25 men from about 1808 but after our victory at Waterloo the tower was taken over by excisemen keeping vigil for smugglers.
By 1828 the men of the Customs Cutter HMS Hyperion were based at the tower which was used to hold captured smugglers. Eighty years later the building was empty and crumbling but it was purchased by a Mr John Lee who opened it up to the public for tuppence a visitor.
The following year, 1881, saw the tower incorporated into a sea-wall constructed by the Seaford Bay Estate Company.
They intended to improve the fortunes of Seaford by building a pier and turning the tower into a salt-water swimming baths, with a library where the visitor could ‘enjoy his morning paper or a novel’.
As part of the restoration it was decided to remove the cannon from the roof but unfortunately as this was being done the rope tackle slipped and the gun crashed through and destroyed the drawbridge.
In 1911 the Tower was bought by Tom Funnell for £600. He also had plans and ingeniously built a six-roomed house on the roof. After the war (during which time the tower had been requisitioned by the military) a cafe opened at the Tower.
The Polar Bear Cafe also had branches in the town and in Lewes. An adjoining amusement arcade, however, did not get planning permission as it was thought that this would be ‘alien to the atmosphere and repose which exists in the town’
The tower was sold to Seaford Council in 1948 for £6,000. The council planned a solarium and a swimming pool in the moat but, like Napoleon’s Invasion, it never materialised. Seaford Museum moved into the tower in 1979. The building was much bigger than the previous premises in West House, Steyne Road, so a call went out for items to be donated and today the building contains an eclectic collection of domestic, maritime, military, computing and archaeological exhibits.
I hope you are able to make a visit to the museum but there are plenty of other local buildings open for Heritage Weekend including 18 in Lewes alone. The beautiful medieval Clergy House at Alfriston will open its doors for free tomorrow and the 14th Century Dovecote and Garden at West Dean will be open for free from 10am to 4pm Saturday and Sunday. Over in East Dean the Local History Group have an exhibition of historic photographs. It is on at the village hall and although there will be a small charge for entry, refreshments and lunches will be available.
If you have an interest in our history you have no excuse for staying at home this weekend but do beware on Saturday as many local roads will be closed as Bradley Wiggins and other members of the Tour of Britain cycle race will be zooming towards the race finish at Brighton.