A rich history and a regenerative future at Furnace Brook

5th May

Excavation work in 1978

We are fortunate to live in a particularly beautiful and tranquil part of Sussex.  It is a surprise for many of our visitors to find out the depth of human history within the High Weald and discover how during a period around four centuries ago Furnace Brook was anything but peaceful and tranquil.

Today, the team’s ongoing work here in the field of environmental educational and biodiversity enhancement continues to have many links back to the way this land was once used thousands of years ago.

The High Weald landscape looked a little different back in 8000BC, although today it has the greatest amount of ancient woodland in any Designated Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. Dense woodlands with glades among the trees, shaped somewhat by the wild herbivore that resided there. Rocks provided shelter and narrow streams and springs provided a water source for deer and wild boar which in turn were hunted. A perfect setting for camping and foraging endeavours consisting of nuts, berries and honey to sustain the hunter-gatherers.

The vegetable patch at Furnace Brook

Although the land has changed vastly over the centuries through farming and iron manufacture, Furnace Brook remains a haven for wildlife and ongoing efforts to protect and nurture their habitats and ecosystems are key to our approach as custodians of this little watery area.

In the 14th Century, the area was rich in clay soil and iron ore. Together with charcoal produced from the abundance of local woods and water from the stream held all the components necessary for iron production here at Furnace Brook.

In 1978 an excavation proved rewarding when the only remains of a medieval wooden waterwheel in the area were found on site. The water wheel is the earliest source of power known to man. Water is diverted from a river or pond to the water wheel, usually along a channel or pipe. The force of the water drives the blades of the wheel to power the machinery, in this case, furnace bellows.

Excavation taking place in 1978

Also excavated, was some 14th-century pottery and an Edward III half-groat (coin) dated between 1351 and 1361. The remains of the watermill still lie beneath our car park. The mill was part of a 700-acre estate owned by the de Batsford family, situated on the Clippenham stream, north of Trolliloes Bridge. It is thought that the mill would have gone out of use when the estate was inherited in 1406 by Roger Fiennes, Lord of the Manor of Herstmonceux on the death of his grandmother, Margery de Batsford.   Meanwhile team members are currently looking into the prospects of re-establishing hydro energy generation at the weir and doing so through replicating the water wheel design from seven centuries ago.

Beer brewed at Furnace Brook

The clay soil used by the pottery remains here at Furnace Brook and the iron-rich water is also planned to be available for use for the onsite craft brewery, where we are continuing the tradition of producing real craft beers from local, Sussex hops with all profits supporting community events and activities here. Hop growing for beer production became the new favoured industry as iron production declined around the mid 17th Century.   The water needs for general purposes such as irrigation for food growing is all drawn from the lakes and nearby streams, thus simply working in harmony with what nature provides.

The water mill was not the only fascinating find during the excavation dig in 1978.  Also discovered were the remains of a blast furnace, with evidence of two phases, the second larger furnace built directly over the remains of the first. In addition, a gun casting pit was unearthed in the same area. Furnace Brook, formally known in 1571 as Batsford Farm was home to Batsford (sometimes referred to as Clippenham) Furnace. The proximity of Batsford to the coast with water access via the Clippenham Stream when it was full in winter, made an ideal location for the casting of guns for coastal defence and naval warfare.

Fire use for the furnace was integral for the locals’ livelihoods and protection but the earliest known evidence of the use of fire is around 1.8 million years ago. The importance of fire to human life and development was essential. Cooking with fire is thought to have played a huge part in the evolution of human brains. On site today, we utilise fire to produce ‘biochar’ – a magical ingredient used for enriching topsoils and sequestering substantial amounts of CO2, turning our waste wood and brash into a soil enricher which, when mixed with lake silt and our pony’s manure, provides the perfect foundation for onsite vegetable production.  

Current conservative modelling for the use of biochar in various areas across the planet indicates that more than 1 gigaton of CO2 emissions can be drawn down annually by 2050.  One of the courses regularly offered here is ‘an introduction to biochar’ where the axiom is ‘biochar not bonfire. Centuries after iron ore production ceased when the country’s towns and cities were bracing themselves for the blitz of the Second World War, many children were evacuated to the High Weald from London to escape the frequent bombings.  Efforts to boost the country’s food supply were aided by the Land Army spearheading the morale boosting ‘Dig for Victory’ campaign. This was set up by the British Ministry of Agriculture, which encouraged everyone across the country to grow their own food in times of harsh rationing. The clay soil in the area would have been used to grow plenty of shallow-rooted crops. The self-sufficiency movement also allowed ships that would usually have been used to transport food supplies to be used instead for ammunition and raw materials that were vital for the Armed Forces. 

Biochar made at Furnace Brook

Today we face a picture with some similarities from these times.  As a result of land degradation and the immense costs of transporting food from all over the world we are seeing increasing food security challenges, alongside an associated huge rise in carbon emissions related to food transport and food waste. So now seems a good time to look back and learn from how local communities on the ‘Home Front’ successfully navigated through the challenges during WW2.  This time, our ‘Dig for Victory’ challenge includes taking on ways of adapting to a changing climate and applying methods of restoring ecosystems.

At Furnace Brook there is a range of unique WW2 Home Front artefacts exhibited in the barn that capture the action and efforts displayed through community resilience over 80 years ago.   Over the next 12 months the team will be working on integrating these displays in the barn, alongside the changes to the rear of the barn (including demonstrating approaches to gardening for wildlife and methods of generating and storing renewable energy) into a ‘Resilience’ themed space for visiting school children, and others to learn from.

Connecting with the past enables us to better adapt to the present and shape a brighter future.  In some instances, we can achieve this by referring to simpler and more harmonious ways of living in accordance with nature. It is clearly most important that we change the way in which we shape the land now by implementing restorative strategies, increasing biodiversity, and supporting healthy ecosystems that will sustain us and the next generations.

We very much welcome local support in our collective endeavours and have recently, following local support, allocated a couple of areas inside and adjoining the barn for historic displays on farming in our immediate locality.  Last year Lawrence Fairall kindly donated some of his family’s old farming implements; Lawrence’s move from Trolliloes Farmhouse last year marked the end of his family’s continuous residence there since the sixteenth century.   We welcome hearing from anyone else who may be able to share any pictures and/or written recollections of local farming activities in the past.

You can find out more on the history of Furnace Brook and other aspects of the activities here – it’s not just about fishing! – from our website www.furnacebrook.co.uk

You can also keep updated with current activities here on social media platforms:
Instagram @furnace.brook and Facebook @furnace.brook.cic