KEVIN GORDON - This was once a place of desolation

Coastguard cottages at Cuckmere Valley estuary
Coastguard cottages at Cuckmere Valley estuary

The view of the Coastguard Cottages with the Seven Sisters in the background is one of the most familiar scenes in England but in the past it was a remote and inhospitable place to live.

Seaford Museum has some notes written by a man who lived there for a few months more than 100 years ago, Edmund Ransom (known as Ted).

Ted’s father, William, was a coastguardsman and early in 1899 he was posted to the coastguard station overlooking the Cuckmere River estuary.

The family, William, Elizabeth and their two sons including Ted aged five years, moved in too.

Although several coastguard families were based at the Cuckmere station, Ted remembers the place as being quite desolate with only a cottage on the beach (presumably a temporary bolt-hole for local fisherman). The closest building was the farm at Foxhole on the other side of the river which was accessible via a ferry across the river mouth. As the currents could be strong at certain tides, a ropeway was placed across the river mouth to guide the boat. There were no roads, just a rough cart track from the main road.

Provisions such as bread, meat, oil and candles were purchased in Seaford and carried across Seaford Head along a cliff-side footpath marked out with piles of chalk every few feet to guide people when it was dark or foggy.

There was no source of running water. Rainwater was collected and filtered for use but when that supply was short, a huge hogshead (barrel) containing 57 gallons of water was brought from a nearby farm (presumably Chyngton Farm). This hogshead was put into what Ted calls a ‘budge’ cart and on at least one occasion he remembers the wheels breaking under the weight.

Ted did not attend Seaford school as it was too far away, something that he remembered suited him well!

He used to explore under the cliffs with his brother. They once went as far as Birling Gap in search for a ship’s figurehead which was reported to have been washed ashore but the weather turned foggy and they got frightened and had to turn back.

Another time they found that a small boat had been pulled onto the shore under the Seven Sisters and men were stealing shingle from the beach and using wheelbarrows to load the hold. Ted also remembers a red flag being flow to warn fishermen and others that there would be shooting practice on the nearby military range (across the river).

He also spent hours watching the Cuckmere being dredged to keep the river-mouth open. Dredging was done by horse drawn ‘shingle-ploughs’ which were wooden boards drawn behind a pair of horses. Ted would sometimes accompany his father when he went to Birling Gap or Newhaven Coastguard Stations in order to collect official letters and instructions.

One strange task for the coastguardsman was to bury cows or sheep when they were washed ashore, each animal was covered in lime first.

The coastguard’s core duty was to protect and assist shipping. Ted remembers the night when the huge square-rigger, The Peruvian, was dashed ashore at Seaford. The coastguardsmen from Cuckmere raced to the scene but in their haste missed one of the chalk markers and nearly all ended up falling over Seaford Head cliff. When they arrived, the Newhaven lifeboat was effecting the rescue of the crew. The cargo of ivory nuts spilled onto the beach and Ted helped to collect some to earn some money which was paid for salvage.

Later that year, Ted’s father had to attend a training course in Portsmouth and, as his wife was heavily pregnant, the whole family went too. They stayed with an old aunt. Ted’s brother Michael, was born in the middle of the night and in the morning the old dame told Ted that the noise from his mother’s room was a cat. He asked where little Michael had come from and she had said that babies were found under bushes on the common.

William Ransom decided that the remote cottages at Cuckmere were not suitable for his young family and managed to obtain a post at Lancing in West Sussex.

Edmund always remembered his few months in Sussex. He died on the Isle of Wight in 1988 aged 94 years. All that sea air must have done him good.