A Brief History of Poynings
by Sheila Marshall
Human beings have been walking the downs in and around what is now the parish of Poynings for possibly as long as 10,000 years. The relative safety and vantage points of the Devil’s Dyke and Newtimber escarpments, which cradle the present-day village, would have attracted the original hunter-gatherers. The South Downs Way could have originated as early as this. The proximity of the springs at the foot of the Downs would have been essential for survival and the large lake that they fed, the plentiful supply of timber and the flint for tool-making would have been very useful. The large earthwork on the Dyke hill probably dates from 1000 BC when farms were already established, the animals grazing on the hills above and the crops growing below. During these times The Weald would have been a dense forest, inhabited by wolves and wild boar.
The village itself would have originated when the Saxons moved down from the hillsides to near the springline (8th– 9th century). The name “Puningas” (960AD) could either have come from “Puna’s people”, Puna being the nickname of a speculated fierce Saxon leader or from “The people of the pond”. The Saxons built the original church and probably the two water mills mentioned in “Domesday Book”, one by the lake near the valley; the other in what is now Mill lane. Mill House, Mill Lane, still remains, although the millpond was filled in during the 1950’s. The large lake near the valley was also drained in the 1950’s when most of the spring water was pumped away to Burgess Hill. One can only speculate when the forge (now Forge Garage) originated further along the stream below the church.
After the Norman Conquest, the “De Poynings” family lived in Poynings Place, the manor house, which eventually burnt down in 1737 only the meagre remains still visible at Manor Farm. The family was essentially a fighting race of Knights, barons and statesmen, present at all the famous battles. The line finally died out at the end of the 18th century. In 1370 the Holy Trinity Church was almost entirely reconstructed by Thomas De Poynings and his brother as a “thank you” for their safe return from the wars. The present Church has remained little changed – cruciform with a central tower, the original Saxon chancel being where the south transept is now. Much of its original brass and stained glass would have been lost in either the reformation or the civil war. With the booming Medieval wool trade, the narrow downland parish would have provided pasture for thousands of sheep and their accompanying shepherds who moved them daily from the lower fields to the downs, forming trackways, still visible today.
Victorian to pre- war Poynings.
Village life remained relatively unchanged from the major advent of sheep farming in Medieval times until the mid 1800?s when sheep farming began to decline and the tourist trade began to take off. As nearby Brighton grew from a tiny fishing village to a large and fashionable seaside resort in the reign of the Prince Regent (1810-1830) and the London to Brighton railway was built (1840), the Devil’s Dyke escarpment became the most easily accessible and popular viewing spot in the locality. In 1818, the main facility on the Dyke hill was a wooden hut on wheels, which was replaced by a small Inn. William Thacker, landlord for 50 years, rebuilt this in 1835. Visitors arriving by coach and horses at that time included William 1V, Queen Victoria, Sir Walter Scott and John Constable R.A. who described the view as “one of the greatest landscapes in the world”. In 1885 the Brighton to Devil’s Dyke railway was constructed, terminating at the Dyke Farm and bringing hundreds of visitors. By the early 1900’s, the great traveller and big game hunter H.J. Hubbard owned the “Dyke Park”. He turned the whole area into an amusement resort complete with funfair and all manner of games and rides. A steep grade or funicular railway was constructed on the north slope (1889-1909) and an aerial railway across the valley in 1894 (the first in Britain); the remains of both being still visible. In 1891 the Brighton and Hove ladies only golf club with a nine-hole course was started on the hill. The Dyke Hotel was burnt down shortly after the war and has subsequently been rebuilt to cope with more visitors than to Stonehenge.The National Trust bought the land from Brighton Corporation in the late 1990’s. Much work for locals was provided for both up the Dyke and in the village by the tourist trade. During the first half of the 20th century there were at least four tea gardens in Poynings, one of the most notable being “Auntie’s” (corner of Dyke Lane) which was also a sweet shop and youth meeting ground. The other most notable one was both opposite and belonging to the Royal Oak Inn, owned at this time by the Winchesters. The Poynings brass band both practised and played here in as well as leading the procession for the annual Church Parade.Poynings flower show, originally held at Dyke Farm, later moved to the present day cricket field. The Poynings cricket team was started in circa 1900 had a break during the Second World War and still continues to this day. The original public house appears to have started in a couple of the cottages behind the present day one, then for a time co-existing with the Royal Oak Inn, built around 1861. The Zion Chapel next door was built in 1842 and was responsible for Sunday school and its accompanying outings and Christmas Parties in the 1930’s. Behind the pub were buildings used for various trades, most notably a builders yard, wheelwrights, carpenters shop and undertakers – they were pulled down for houses in the late 1990’s. Further up the village stood the Poynings brewery, built in 1862 and most famously owned by Stephen Cave Cuttress who once owned much of Poynings. The brewery became an armaments factory in the Second World War and then a metal workshop before being pulled down in the early 1960’s. Adjacent to the brewery, the village shop was built in 1887, it’s large oven providing bread for the village. The village shop was converted into a house in the late 1990’s and the forge to a builders’ yard in the 1930’s before becoming a garage in the 1960’s. Down near the mill were allotments which later became Mill Close and the playing field. The village school was built in 1858,donated by Queen Victoria and educated local children until the early 1970?s when it became the village hall. The original village hall had been donated by Quakers in 1931 and was host to many a tea dance, wedding reception and whist drive as well as being used for the Women’s Institute and Girl’s Brigade. Close by is the entrance to Downmere, long-time home to Emile Littler, brother of Prince Littler, founder of the “London Palladium” and “ITV”. “Cora’s Walk” which runs between the church and the pub and the stone shelter opposite the church are dedicated to Emile’s wife. Another famous personage was Tommy Walton, who grew wealthy from his greengrocer’s shops at one time on every London station platform. He lived at Greenacres, opposite the shop and kept racehorses at Dyke Farm in the 1930’s. In the late 1990’s, Greenacres was temporary home to “The Spice Girl’s” manager!
The major changes coming to this peaceful, though now busy, idyll were the Second World War and the increased mechanisation of both farm machinery and general transport. In the 1930’s nearly everyone was employed locally. After the war, farm work ceased to be the main occupation and people began increasingly to find work outside the village During the war, the whole area around the Dyke hill and valley were shut off to the public and used as a military firing range for the Canadians. The last flock was forced off the downs in 1942. Many of the larger houses (Downmere, Fox Ash) were compulsorily taken over by the military and the RAF was stationed behind Grange Farm as was the Poynings’ Auxiliary Fire service. Poynings also had it’s own Homeguard. About four planes came down in dogfights over the parish – one German, and the rest English. The sound of “doodlebugs” passing by was very familiar during these troubled times. Five local men were killed in action over the course of the two world wars. Wartime farmers were encouraged to farm more intensively and they often ended up cultivating areas never ploughed before, sometimes with dire consequences for the downland turf. Over more recent times various conservation bodies have encouraged scrub clearance and the promotion of sheep farming in order to protect the rare downland flora and fauna.