First impressions of Rotherfield? There’s a slight otherworldliness to the village. Difficult to say why - perhaps it’s the formidable and central presence of the beautiful St Deny’s church, or it could be the high altitude (it snows first here) or possibly the knowledge the River Rother begins its journey to the sea, bubbling up mysteriously in the cellar of a house called, appropriately Rotherhurst. You would expect a few hauntings - along with the bubbling.
Sounds of a strange kind were heard at The King’s Arms in the early 1950s when the great Maurice Tate, one-time Sussex and England cricketer, was the landlord.
Footsteps were heard running heavily and hurriedly up the stairs and along a passageway. No ghostly manifestation was ever seen and the sounds only occurred during the month of June.
They were first noticed in 1952 and continued, regular as clockwork, for two more years. There was quite a gathering at the pub throughout the June of 1955 as everyone assembled to hear the ghost - but the stair-climber proved coy and would not perform for the audience, either then or ever since.
One of the bedrooms at The King’s Arms was labelled ‘the special room’ by the Tate family. It was here that Maurice felt someone touch him so deliberately he thought it was one of the children and asked: ‘What do you want?’ Of course, he was quite alone.
The village has a definite ‘look at me’ quality with lovely old houses lining a broad High Street. Famous resident Lise Marie Presley often calls into the local chippy and warrants more than a passing ‘look at me’ too. The village hit local headlines recently when the Earl and Countess of Wessex visited local charity Rotherfield St Martin and the village school.
Women native to Rotherfield were said to be unusually tall which gave rise to the belief that they were endowed with an extra pair of ribs. A formidable female who ended her days here was Sophia Louisa Jex-Blake, who single handedly opened up the medical profession to women. While in the United States in the 1860s she studied medicine and surgery and then sought to qualify in Britain as a doctor. But she found the doors of the London schools closed to her.
She launched the London School of Medicine for Women; within three years the Royal Free Hospital admitted her students to practice and in 1876 an Act was passed in Parliament enabling all medical examining bodies to include women candidates.
A year later, Sophia was able to put up a sign as the first woman doctor in the country. She passed the last 12 years of a fruitful life in Rotherfield and died in 1912.
In the eighth century, Berhtwald, Duke of the South Saxons, was a sick man and, unable to find a cure at home, made a pilgrimage to an abbey in France where the bones of three saints were held to work miracles.
One of the saints was Donusius (or Denys) and it was perhaps these particular holy relics that affected Berhtwald’s cure for, on his return, he founded a church here in AD 792 in honour of St Denys. In his will he threatened grim retribution on anyone attempting to usurp, defraud or curtail his gift.
The laws of sanctuary probably saved two murderers from execution when they sought refuge in the church a century ago, but their subsequent ordeal must have been as bad, if not worse. In due time the two men were removed from the church by the authorities and in lieu of the gallows they were dressed in sack cloth and made to carry heavy, rough hewn crosses on a march of some 30 miles to Shoreham for deportation.
When they arrived there was no vessel in harbour and the two miscreants were forced to walk into the sea up to their necks every day carrying their crosses until a ship arrived. To have put the crosses down for a second would have meant death.
The village has a special place in the Sussex Bonfire world. The torchlight processions take place every week over a three month period in towns and villages throughout the county but the season is always launched here at the end of August.
The pre-war annual Sunday School treat from the long-gone village station (when trains arrived the porter always cried ‘Rotherfield, Rotherfield and Mark Cross’ because Rotherfield was twice as important) was a thrill never to be forgotten, according to the village elders. Whole families gathered to catch the train to Eastbourne where a picnic lunch was enjoyed on the beach.
After swimming and games, everyone formed a crocodile to march to a local church hall where sandwiches, sticky buns, jelly and orange squash were consumed before the sleepy journey back up-country.
Sounds almost Enid Blytonish - doubtless the children tracked down a few burglars in their spare time.