As a London commuter of the 1990s, Pevensey and Pevensey Bay conjure up muted memories of the train announcements. They weren’t automated back then and as someone who got out at Haywards Heath, the announcer always managed to persuade me that if I stayed aboard the train, I was headed to the ends of the earth, namely Pevensey (a name he would announce with all the enthusiasm of a man facing the gallows). By a strange twist of fate, that same train announcer occasionally walks past my office window and one day, I will dash out and ask him whether he ever actually got out and looked around. Because what I know now is that Pevensey is a beautiful little village, with lots of wonderful history and a fantastic Medieval castle. Not the ends of the earth at all.
Pevensey Castle is an English Heritage site, and whether you approach it from the High Street side or the Westham side, it is bound to elicit a gasp. Surrounded by an imposing perimeter wall that encloses a large “Outer Bailey” area, there are two main gates, a moat and then the castle itself, built on the remains of a Roman fort.
The Roman fort was built here in the 290s but later abandoned for over a century. The Saxons also invaded here and at the time the Normans arrived, Pevensel was an Anglo Saxon borough. In 1066, William the Conqueror landed at the very start of the Norman Conquest and although it’s now a mile from the sea, at the time, the area where the castle stands was a peninsular pointing out into a bay. Shortly after the invasion, William gave this piece of land to his half-brother who built the castle.
For several hundred years Pevensey Castle was a prestigious building, rebuilt several times and owned or used by royals and their favourites. The stone walls and towers that you now see are from the 13th century and the castle was subjected to several sieges as well as being used as a prison.
You enter the Inner Bailey via a 13th-century gatehouse that once had two towers. Each tower had a dungeon or “oubliette” and there’s an illustrative information board that shows how busy and populated it would have been within the walls in the 13th century.
Once inside, a couple of things immediately stand out; there is a large gun that was made in the 16th century and is one of the oldest English cast-iron guns. It’s believed it was used to defend against the Spanish Armada. There’s also a pile of Medieval trebuchet balls that were discovered in the moat. You can also see the footings of what was once the chapel.
The North Tower
On a viewing platform outside the North Tower, there’s another information board with an illustration of the boats landing in the bay beyond the walls, which really helps give you a sense of the coastal position the castle once had. In the basement of the North Tower, there is a vaulted ceiling which is one of the best-surviving examples of a Medieval interior in the country.
The castle fell into ruin in the 16th century but during WWII it once again became a centre of defence. Although by the outbreak of war, Pevensey Castle was already owned by English Heritage, it was an obvious strategic position and military barracks and administration headquarters were built within the walls. There are still WWII-era pillboxes discretely hidden in the castle walls and there is a small WWII exhibition in the East Tower.
Pevensey and Westham
Pevensey was a Cinque Port and like the castle, the village dates back many hundreds of years. It has a pretty High Street with lots of period properties and three pubs: The Smugglers, The Royal Oak and Castle Inn. There is also a small museum which is in the building of the old court house (and where, in the summer, you can visit the old prison cells). Just across from the castle, you’ll also see The Mint House which dates back to the 16th century.
There are two churches, one on either side of the castle. St Nicolas Church on the Pevensey side is early 13th century. Crosses on the wall are thought to have been carved by crusaders leaving for war. St Mary’s Church on the Westham side is believed to be the first church that the Normans built and has Norman windows. It also has a Squeeze Gate … to let the people in but keep the cows out! To the west of here, Peelings Lane is an old Roman road and smugglers’ route with hedges believed to be up to 900 years old.
There is a well-signed hour-long Heritage Trail around the castle and surrounding area for those who wish to linger. Alternatively, you can pick up the 1066 Country Walk. This is 31 miles of trail which starts in Pevensey and ends in Rye with various sculptures along the route.
Other English Heritage sites in the area include Battle Abbey and Camber Castle. If you’re in the area, you may also like: