Over on social media, Sussex Exclusive has been running an A to Z of Sussex ruins. It’s the month of October after all, and that means all things spooky, and nothing makes an autumn walk more enigmatic than exploring ancient ruins. As it turns out, Sussex is a veritable haven of ruins, so here are our top 17 of the best Sussex ruins (some of which are completely free to visit) for you to explore.
Bramber Castle (free)
Built in about 1073, Bramber Castle was one of many that sprung up across Sussex as a display of the wealth, strength and power of the new Norman regime. It was built by William de Braose and he also owned lands elsewhere including the castle where Sedgewick Park House now stands and Knepp Castle, and he would have known William de Warenne at Lewes Castle. Today, you can walk up to the castle ruins which are quite extensive and have some fantastic views. There are some useful information boards, that help you piece together the castle and its story.
Bedham church (free)
A small but eery church ruin found just outside Petworth. The building was built as a church and school in 1880 for families and children living in the community of Bedham. It remained in use as a place of worship until 1959, but was then abandoned. It’s on the edge of The Mens Nature Reserve and has a mysterious feel.
Lewes Castle dominates the town and dates back to just after the Battle of Hastings (1087). Built by William de Warenne, who was William the Conqueror’s brother-in-law, in what’s known as the motte and bailey style, the castle was owned by the De Warenne family for the best part of 300 years. It also played an important role in 1264 during the Battle of Lewes. It’s now owned by the Sussex Archaeological Society and is a fantastic example of a Medieval castle, and great fun to explore. There are helpful information boards and amazing views across the town to the South Downs.
Amberley Castle (free to view)
The land at Amberley has been owned by the church since 683 AD and the castle was originally a 12th century manor house that was then fortified in 1377. It became known as the Bishop of Chichester’s Summer Palace. Even after the Norman Conquest, the castle was held by the Bishops of Chichester. The castle suffered damage in the civil war and in 1872 was sold to Robert Curzon, 15th Lord Zouche, who sold it to Henry Fitzalan-Howard, 15th Duke of Norfolk in 1893. It’s been sold a number of times since and in 1988 was converted into an award-winning country house hotel. Some of the castle has been well restored and you can stay here or eat in their restaurant, but you might just want to visit the enigmatic ruins that sit behind the impressive front wall.
Boxgrove Priory (free)
Boxgrove Priory near Chichester was founded in about 1107 although a Saxon church had existed on the site before the Norman Conquest. The Priory was founded by three Benedictine monks and monks lived here until the Priory was dissolved in 1536. At the time of the dissolution, there were eight priests and one novice, as well as twenty-eight servants and eight children living here. The remains are now owned by English Heritage and include a fine two-story, roofless guest house.
Lewes Priory (free)
Lewes Priory was founded by William de Warenne and his wife Gundrada between 1078 and 1082 on the site of a Saxon church. It became one of the wealthiest monasteries in England and at its dissolution in 1537, it owned over 20,000 acres in Sussex with other lands elsewhere. At its height, as many as 100 monks lived here. Today, it is owned by Lewes Town Council and is a Scheduled Ancient Monument and on a list of Buildings of Special Architectural or Historic Interest Grade I. It’s free to visit and explore, and again, there are helpful information boards that really bring monastery life alive, so that on a quiet day, you can imagine the monks going about their routines.
When you start exploring the best Sussex ruins, you really start to get a feel for the impact the Norman Conquest must have had on the Sussex landscape as vast and impressive buildings sprung up. Battle Abbey is the partially ruined Benedictine abbey built on the site of the Battle of Hastings. It is a Scheduled Monument and is now managed by English Heritage. William the Conqueror had vowed to build a monastery in the event that he won the battle but died before it was complete. The monastic buildings were about a mile in circuit and formed a large quadrangle, the high altar being on the spot where Harold fell. The church was virtually destroyed during the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1538 and in due course sold. All that is left of the abbey church itself today is its outline on the ground, but parts of some of the abbey’s buildings are still standing: those built between the 13th and 16th centuries. Battle is such a marker in the sand in our Sussex and English history, and any visit here is always poignant.
Tide Mills (free)
For Sussex ruins that are completely different, head to Tide Mills in between Seaford and Newhaven. Once an entire village lived and worked here but the last residents were moved out in 1939 and now all that remains are the enigmatic ruins of different buildings, a stable, and an abandoned railway siding.
Winchelsea is really a story of ruins, within ruins, within ruins! The original Winchelsea was on the confluence of the Rivers Brede, Rother and Tillingham but was destroyed in a storm. So, in 1281, Edward I decided to build a new Winchelsea (the one that we see today) on the site of an existing settlement. Recent research has revealed the ruins of that settlement including evidence of a castle in the aptly named Castle Field.
These days there are various ruins in and around the town. The roofless ruins of Greyfriars Friary on the outskirts of town can be seen although they are not open to the public. Blackfriars Barn in Rectory Lane is the remains of a 14th century building, beneath which is a 14th century cellar that can occasionally be visited by arrangement with the National Trust. You can find the remains of St John’s Hospital, an almshouse that catered to the needs of the elderly poor near Monk’s Walk and three of Winchelsea’s Medieval gateways remain. Finally, in the centre of the town is St Thomas the Martyr Church which it’s thought was either damaged by the French in 1380 or was never completed.
A beautiful house destroyed by fire is always going to create compelling ruins, and never more so than at Nymans in Handcross. After buying the property in 1890, Messel started to transform the original Regency house into a German-style structure. His son then replaced the German-style wood-beam house with a picturesque mock-Medieval stone manor. In 1947 a terrible fire destroyed much of the house although it was partially rebuilt and became the home of Leonard Messel’s daughter, Anne Messel and her second husband the 6th Earl of Rosse. In 1953 Nymans became a National Trust property and is famous for its gardens.
Pevensey Castle is a Medieval castle and former Roman Saxon Shore fort, now managed by English Heritage. Built around 290 AD and known to the Romans as Anderitum, it’s thought to have been part of a Roman defensive system to guard the British coast. Having fallen into ruin after the departure of the Romans, it was reoccupied in 1066 by the Normans. It had been abandoned again by the late 16th century and remained a ruin until it was acquired by the state in 1925. There are lots of interesting information boards, and it’s an impressive ruin in the heart of the village from inside or out!
Sedgwick Castle (free but hard to find)
In the grounds of Sedgwick Park, near Horsham, the remains of this moated Medieval castle are in a poor state. Originally a hunting lodge dating back to the early 13th century, it was fortified in the mid-13th century. At that time, it was owned by Lord de Braose and later by the Howard family (The Duke of Norfolk) but it was demolished in the 17th century. What remains includes the west curtain and a tower together with parts of the Tudor fireplace in the Great Hall.
Bodiam Castle is a 14th century moated castle near Robertsbridge. It was built in 1385 by Sir Edward Dalyngrigge, a former knight of Edward III, to defend the area against French invasion during the Hundred Years War. It was also the home of the Dalyngrigge family and the centre of the manor of Bodiam. It eventually fell to ruin until bought by John Fuller (AKA Mad Jack) in 1829. In due course, it was sold on and has been owned by The National Trust since 1925. Fabulously atmospheric with its moat, it’s a great ruin to visit with children in tow.
Another English Heritage site, Camber Castle, also known formerly as Winchelsea Castle, is a 16th century Device Fort, built by King Henry VIII to protect the coast against French attack. The first fortification was constructed between 1512 and 1514. In 1539, it was rebuilt and extended with further work carried out from 1542 to 1543. The finished castle was initially equipped with 28 brass and iron artillery guns and a garrison of 28 men, commanded by a captain. It was bought by the state from private owners in 1977. The exterior is free to view but the interior is only open by guided tour and is managed by Sussex Wildlife Trust.
Cowdray Ruins (free)
Tall, proud and compelling, Cowdray Ruins stand watch over Midhurst. The ruins are the remains of a great Tudor house known to have been visited by both King Henry VIII and Queen Elizabeth I. In September 1793, whilst undergoing repairs and refurbishments for the impending marriage of the 8th Viscount Montague, a devastating fire took hold and most of the property was destroyed. The Kitchen Tower is the only part of the mansion to remain intact. You can walk around the outside ruins for free and occasionally the Cowdray Estate runs special guided tours. However, perhaps even more compelling than these ruins, a short distance away, you’ll find St Anne’s Hill and the magical reamins and footings of a 12th century Norman castle.
Another legacy of the Norman Conquest, Hastings Castle is a keep and bailey castle ruin. Immediately after landing in England in 1066, William of Normandy ordered three fortifications to be built, Pevensey Castle, Hastings and Dover. In 1216, King John gave orders to destroy the castles at Hastings and Pevensey, while he retreated from a French army but in 1220, Henry III re-fortified Hastings. In 1287, violent storms battered the south coast for many months and left the castle badly damaged. In 1951, the Hastings Corporation purchased the site. It has magnificent views from its lofty position and helpful information boards.
Rye Castle, also known as Ypres Tower, was built in the 13th or 14th centuries before and after attacks by the French and is a Grade I listed building and a Scheduled Ancient Monument. Rye became one of the Cinque Ports and was involved in both defence and trade. In the 16th century, Rye Castle was used as a prison and courthouse with a full-time gaoler being appointed in 1796. An exercise yard was added and then a women’s prison in 1837. In 1891, it became the town’s morgue.
If you’ve enjoyed this post about the best Sussex, you may also like: