What makes the Clergy House special?
The significance of Alfriston Clergy House is drawn from its status as the first building saved for the nation by the National Trust and the role it plays within the organisation’s early history. If the efforts to purchase and restore it had failed it is possible that the National Trust may never have acquired another building again, meaning it would not have saved the many great houses it now owns. On a visit to the Clergy House there are many significant highlights not to be missed and here are a few of our visitors’ favourites.
The Hall is the communal centre of the building, the key room where residents and guests were entertained so it was always the most impressive room in the house. In fact, the decoration of the hall illustrates the high status of the property with the carved service room doorways and evidence of red ochre paint on the dais beam. The most fascinating though is the carving of the oakleaf that survives from when the house was built.
The oakleaf sits in the north-east corner of the room where a spotlight highlights it. There is a frequently assumed link between this decorative oak leaf and the National Trust’s symbol. Although untrue, for many people this forms a further aspect of the site’s symbolism for the National Trust’s foundation and early history. The National Trust’s oakleaf symbol was designed by Joseph Armitage in 1936 who won an open competition held by the charity to create their emblem.
Whilst in the hall do take a moment to look up at the roof timbers and crown post in particular, which is the main support for the roof. What a wonderful piece of architecture. Then look down to discover the sour milk and chalk floor, this type of floor was quite common in medieval England. Chalk was easy to obtain from the locality and when rammed into the floor then sour milk was added to strengthen the it for heavy footfall.
The house is currently dressed to reflect different time periods and stories they tell. The hall is medieval while the parlour is early 1600’s telling the story of one of the residents of the house Rev. Hugh Walker. The bed on the first floor is dressed in late Victorian style where you can learn about tenant Harriet Coates and her role in the saving of the Clergy House. The reading room transports you to the 1920’s when it was home to Sir Robert Witt who, along with his wife Mary, played a big part in the design of the garden.
The Witt’s terraced the garden toward the river and created the brickwork paths and lead around the garden ‘rooms’. During a walk around the garden you will see many different amphora and large urns, these were brought to the property by Sir Robert Witt, tenant of the Clergy House from 1907 to his death in 1952. According to a letter by his son John these amphora and urns were brought back from Naples by his father on his various excursions. They bring a Mediterranean feel to a typical cottage garden.
The National Trust was founded on the 12th January 1895 with the purpose of:
“promoting the permanent preservation for the benefit of the nation of lands and tenements (including buildings) of beauty or historic interest and as regards lands for the preservation (so far as practicable) of their natural aspect features and animal and plant life.” Alfriston Clergy House, the first building permanently preserved is a pilgrimage for supporters of the National Trust worldwide.