Much like some people, some places just have a presence. And Mayfield in East Sussex is one of them. I’m not sure whether it’s the town’s lofty position overlooking the Weald, which offers tantalising views down narrow twittens and streets. Or perhaps it’s the silence that hangs heavy in the surrounding countryside or the fact that a sense of the town’s long past and history seems to echo around every building, street, and corner. But whatever it is, just being in Mayfield seems to have a feel-good factor and brings with it both a sense of the past but also of wellbeing.
Legends, history, and architecture
Mayfield predates the Doomsday book and according to the sign in the village got its name from a clearing in a field created by early ironworkers where Mayweed grew. The town’s relationship with the devil is well documented. St Dunstan (who was the Archbishop of Canterbury from 960 to 988AD) was working as a blacksmith in the village when, disguised as a beautiful woman, the devil tried to lead him astray. But spotting the devil’s cloven hoof, St Dunstan pinched the devil’s nose with a pair of red hot tongs. The devil fled and soothed his nose in the springs of the nearby Tunbridge Wells. The tongs are apparently available to see at Mayfield School but first, you have to get into the school!
According to another legend, the devil returned as a weary traveller in need of a horseshoe. Dunstan again saw through the disguise but this … is a story for another day and if you want to know more, we have a feature about the legends and folklore of Sussex in our forthcoming magazine. There seem to be conflicting accounts of who built the palace in Mayfield which is now a Catholic school (it was one of the Archbishops of Canterbury) but after the dissolution of the monasteries in the 16th century, it fell into private ownership. It is believed that Elizabeth I was entertained here. The school still towers over the town and feels like an extraordinary addition to this quiet little corner of Sussex.
In the 16th century (during the reign of Queen Mary) four Protestants were condemned to death in Mayfield and burned at the stake in Lewes. The village still has a thriving bonfire society (one of the oldest in the country) to commemorate the event. The village also has a smuggling past and the Mayfield Gang (with their leader Gabriel Tomkins) were known as non-violent owlers (wool smugglers). The Middle House in the High Street has numerous tales of its own – from secret priest holes and prison cells to murders and suicides, and the Mayfield Gang are believed to have used a number of tunnels that run under the village one of which ends in the wine cellar of The Middle House.
The phone box in the middle of the village has lots of helpful local information and just outside it is a map of nine properties of historical interest in the town. These include the 18th century Stone House, Yeoman’s (an early 15th century Wealden hall house), 15th-century Walnut Tree House, 16th century Middle House and of course, Mayfield School on the site of the former palace. Much of Mayfield is classed as a conservation area and the High Street alone contains 40 buildings officially listed as being of special historical or architectural importance. The parish as a whole contains nearly 180 such buildings and lovely property names like April, May and June Cottage (yes, all in a row), Pilgrims, The Smokery and Ancient House all evoke a sense of the town’s past.
Shops and eateries
Mayfield isn’t huge but there’s a good selection of shops and eateries to encourage the weary traveller to stop here. One of the most well-known must be The Pink Cabbage Company cafe restaurant. In the winter, it always seems to feel like an oasis of warmth and welcome, with steamed-up windows and tables buzzing with local life. A short walk up the road, Middle House is compelling with its gorgeous Tudor woodwork and vast wooden door and as well as a restaurant they do afternoon tea and breakfast.
But if you’re not there for eating, The Old Armoury sells an interesting assortment of antiques and books, next to a charming florist, and over the road is Fine Wines of Mayfield if you’re looking to top up your cellars.
Walks and cycle rides
In 1880, a railway line was opened that ran from Eridge to Polegate and became known as the Cuckoo Line after the tradition that the first cuckoo of spring was always heard at the Heathfield Fair on the route of the railway. The route went right past the windmill at Argos Hill on past Mayfield and down to Heathfield. These days a 14-mile stretch from Heathfield to Hampden Park (the Cuckoo Trail) is a fabulous and well-made trail suitable for cyclists or walkers, with a wildlife sculpture trail north of Hellingly.
Mayfield is also on Route 21 of the National Cycle Network. Route 21 is a 95-mile route that runs south from Greenwich out of London to Eastbourne picking up the Cuckoo Trail. In addition to which, there are also a series of six circular cycle routes all off the central Cuckoo Trail that range in distance from 15 km to 24 miles and are a great way to explore the area.
Apart from walking up to the windmill, for those on foot, there is a 5 km circular walk north east of Mayfield village and lots of footpaths that spread out from the village as well as walking at Markly Wood north of Heathfield, and Hawksden Park Wood and Batts Wood to the east of the village.
Nearby points of interest
From the centre of Mayfield, it’s a 3 km walk to Argos Hill and its windmill. Argos Hill Windmill is a Grade II listed building dating from 1835. It’s owned by Wealden District Council but leased to the Argos Hill Windmill Trust (a group of local enthusiasts ). Thanks to their work, in late 2021, the windmill’s Peak stones were turned by wind power for the first time in over 90 years! The windmill has been closed to the public during the pandemic but fingers crossed it will re-open soon because you can’t see much of it from the road.
Other points of interest nearby include the home of Rudyard Kipling at Bateman’s near Burwash (a National Trust property), Mad Jack Fuller’s collection of follies, and Wilderness Wood near Hadlow Down.
There are a number of local vineyards which include Off The Line near Hellingly, Wildwood near Eridge, and Hidden Spring at Horam. Mayfield also has its own gin which is made from local Sussex hops in a copper still and which has wholeheartedly embraced the spirit of the area describing itself as “a diabolically delectable gin” – in reference to St Dunstan and the devil. It has fabulous branding and a range that includes a Cuckoo Line liqueur. Mayfield has cheese in abundance too with the award-winning Alsop and Walker just outside Mayfield and Nut Knowle Farm at Horam.
Mayfield is a particularly compelling Sussex village, although perhaps that’s partly because for my own purposes, my great uncle lived and taught here at the school well over a hundred years ago, and a visit here brings that familial and living connection to the village’s more immediate past. You’ll find more information about things to see and do in Mayfield here.