When Sussex folk music specialists Chris and Ann Hare entertained their audience with ‘An Old South Downs Christmas’, their tales of winters past sent a chill down the spine.
Chris and Ann are members of the folk band ‘Emily and the Hares’ and came to Lewes Town Hall last Tuesday to present a selection of carols and readings.
What froze in the memory were tales of record blizzards and snow drifts in the 19th century that left stage coaches stranded and cut off swathes of Sussex from the outside world.
The accumulation of snow at the top of Cliffe Hill in Lewes led to an avalanche just after Christmas in 1836, killing 11 people.
The local stagecoach was grounded for eight days and drifts were as high as hedges.
Record blizzards struck again in January, 1881.
Chris Hare read a passage written by naturalist Richard Jefferies who recalled a “strange looking scarecrow” in a field.
On closer inspection, the scarecrow turned out to be dead man, frozen to the spot, with his “ragged clothes hanging off him and his eyes pecked out by crows”.
The audience was left wondering what other horrors the cold snap of 1881 had left in its wake so I decided to find out.
After the Hare’s performance I delved into the Middy’s archives. On January 19, 1881, the Middy’s founder, Charles Clarke wrote:“For upwards of a week the frost has continued with unabated severity”.
But it wasn’t all doom and gloom. Captain Sergison permitted local families to skate on his frozen pond in Cuckfield Park or as Charles Clarke phrased it:
“Captain Sergison with his accustomed liberality, permitted the assemblage of the inhabitants for a few hours’ pleasant disport upon the ice.”
About 500 people came from Brighton and the surrounding villages to skate on another pond, ‘Pond Lye’ between Haywards Heath and Hurstpierpoint.
Nowadays, our usual Christmas weather bears no resemblance to the snowy scenes of 1836 and 1881 but Chris and Ann Hare’s renditions of a some of our oldest carols in their evening of readings and music at Lewes Town Hall, certainly warmed the heart.
Chilling tales of snow blizzards aside, there is something magical about singing ‘God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen’ and a ‘Sussex Carol’ at full throttle.