Down by the River

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When did you last stand on Lindfield Bridge and look at the river? It is quite easy when driving from Lindfield towards Ardingly not to notice you cross a bridge over the Ouse, as only the briefest glimpse of the river is possible. The dark, slow flowing water passes through private land with no public access, perhaps making it Lindfield’s hidden and forgotten river.

The Ouse is 3.3 miles long and flows south in a gentle curve. Starting as a trickle near Lower Beeding it gains strength from a spring at Slaugham, and further small tributaries join as it journeys towards Upper Rylands Bridge (by the Balcombe viaduct). By the time it flows to the north of Lindfield it has grown into a river. The Scrase Stream that meanders through Lindfield joins beyond East Mascalls. The Ouse continues on its curving journey passing through Lewes and onward to the sea. Until medieval times it entered the sea at Seaford, but, due to silting up, the mouth became inaccessible to the larger ships being built at that time. In 1539 a man-made cut was made to take the river directly to the sea, with the new exit being named Newhaven, allowing ships to access Lewes. From Lewes to the sea the river was known as ‘The Great River of Lewes’ then pronounced Looze, from which the name Ouse is derived. The river upstream from Lewes was known as the Middewinde (various spellings) meaning middle. The last evidence for this name being formally in use was some hundred years ago when Midwyn Bridge was renamed Lindfield Bridge. The current bridge dates from 1938.

Throughout history the river has been a route for small craft to journey into the heart of mid Sussex. Thomas Pelham of Stanmer Park, MP for Sussex, arranged in 1787, at the height of canal mania, for William Jessop to undertake a survey to see if the river could be made navigable for barges from Lewes to Slaugham. Jessop’s report suggested the river be ‘canalised’, that is straightened, widened and deepened, from Lewes to Pilstye Bridge (on the Cuckfield-Balcombe road). The estimated cost was £13,595. The Upper Ouse Navigation Act passed through Parliament in 1790, creating The Company of Proprietors of the River Ouse. A contract for construction at the cost of £15,199 was signed and work started with a completion date scheduled for May 1792. Work did not go to plan and the builders were replaced in 1802. It was not until 1809 that 30 tonne barges, measuring 50ft long, could reach Pim’s Lock at Lindfield. From the passing of the Act, it had taken 19 years to complete 19 miles with 15 locks. The decision was then made to terminate the navigation at Upper Rylands Bridge (the hump back bridge by the Balcombe viaduct). This final section opened on 22nd April 1812, required four locks and a small basin for the barges to turn in, which has long been filled in, but the wharf cottages remain to this day.

The total cost was massively more than the original estimates. Tolls never reached the expected levels and, to make matters worse, the clerk responsible for managing the toll money was accused of misappropriating the money over a ten year period.

The main cargos were wood, chalk, marle and coal, charged by the tonne per mile. Trade gradually improved and in the 1830s the canal company secured a contract from the London Brighton & South Coast Railway to transport the building materials to build the viaduct at Balcombe. The coming of the railways signalled the terminal decline of the Ouse Navigation and the company closed in 1859.

A trade reliant on the river that lasted significantly longer was milling, with many mills being built on the river above Lewes. From the eighth century, land in and around Lindfield was controlled by the Canons of South Malling, with their Dean holding the land adjacent to today’s Lindfield Bridge. A short distance downstream, the Dean was responsible for building a water powered mill on the banks of the river, hence the name Dean’s Mill. A mill has existed on this site for over a thousand years. After the dissolution of religious houses by Henry VIII in the mid-1500s the mill passed into secular ownership. Following changing owners several times, it was acquired in the 1700s by the Pim family and a new mill was built in 1761. For a time their mill was both a corn and paper mill with both trades continuing to about 1850 when paper making ceased.

By 1858 the Pim family had left, and the mill was next occupied by Robert Jenner and his son, Samuel. In 1880 a new mill, which stands to this day, had to be built as the Pim’s mill building was virtually destroyed by a severe storm. The milling continued, with a succession of millers, until around 1930.

Dean’s Mill was bought by Mr and Mrs Horsfield in 1935 and milling recommenced, and, with a change in ownership in 1957, production of stoneground flour continued until 1976 when all milling ceased. The mill is now a private residence.

Shortly after acquiring the mill, Mr Horsfield diversified the business by converting the Elizabethan barn that stood in the grounds into a tea room and constructed a narrow gauge railway, Dean’s Mill Railway, as a visitor attraction. The railway opened in 1937 and comprised some three hundred yards of track with cuttings, a short tunnel and station platform. Passengers travelled in an open carriage fitted with rows of bench seats, initially pulled by a small steam tank locomotive but this was soon replaced. Service was suspended during the war and recommenced with a petrol powered locomotive. The railway remained popular until its closure in 1957 following the mill’s change in ownership. A Lindfield Life reader, Ron Batchelor, fondly remembers ‘it was a real treat to be taken by my parents on a Sunday afternoon to Dean’s Mill for a ride on the little railway with tea afterwards.’ A memory no doubt shared by many youngsters in the decade after the war.

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