Ashburnham Furnace was the last iron furnace in Sussex, ending in 1813, because of a drunken party. The foundry was tended by two furnace men, with two men who stoked it with the help of two boys. One of the boys drank a bottle of gin which killed him, while the others were so drunk that they forgot to add chalk to the ore. This caused the molten ore to stop flowing and the furnace became unusable.
The unmade road, where the remains of the furnace can be found, still hides a handful of houses, and, in one of the fields bordering the track, you can still see the sizeable sandpit used by the brickworks. The area has been beautifully described by Wilfred Barden who used to live there.
Ashburnham Furnace by Wilfred Barden
I’m writing a few things about the Furnace hoping it may interest someone. I spent my childhood days there and it is still one of my favourite walks up through the Furnace to Blackhurst Pond and on to Bunces or Rocks Farm.
As you walk up the private road toward the Furnace you come to a gate leading into Coach Road Field. Years ago this gate was kept locked and the road known as Dark Lane, probably because of the trees overhanging. It went round the field rather than through it. Only the Earl of Ashburnham’s coach was allowed through it thus its name Coach Road Field.
When you reach the Furnace today it is so peaceful, with only the singing birds and the waterfall to listen to, that it is difficult to believe that it was once a centre of the iron industry. Years ago there must have been quite a lot of noise from the large hammer and the general activity.
There are only five houses there now but my father could remember when there were two more, one in Andersons Wood near Blackhurst Pond and one in what we knew as Jimmy’s garden near the waterfall.
When I was a boy there were still two apple trees in what used to be the garden of the house in Anderson Wood and the branches of one hung out over the field. This was a French Coddling and if we picked any of the apples up in the field, well of course, to us they were much better than the ones in our garden. We didn’t go into the wood to get any as we were afraid the gamekeeper might catch us, also my mother told us to never to go in there as she was afraid the well had never been filled in and this would be dangerous once the wooden cover had rotted. There was a very large rhododendron bush in what used to be the garden and every year this was loaded with blossom in spite of being half overhung by trees.
The cottage by the waterfall was obviously part of the furnace workings years ago and what was used as a cellar was probably a wheel pit and a culvert runs from it under, what used to be, our garden to the river down below. As a boy I often thought I would like to crawl up it but I was afraid to do it. We called this Jimmy’s garden as it was the name of the last man to live there. My father was given the use of the garden on the condition he kept it tidy. He certainly did that, also the embankment that held the water to form Furnace pond and the holly hedge on top of this embankment.
There are two large yew trees at the entrance to this garden and another one just outside the back door of the old cottage, it is there because a little girl living there broke a twig from one of the trees and stuck it in the ground and it struck root. Later the little girl died so her parents let the tree grow in memory of her. This garden was an ideal place to play in and I often climbed up into the yew trees to see what kind of birds nests were up there in the branches and it brings back happy memories when I am under them now.
The waterway heading to the old wheel pit was still supplied with running water from what was Furnace pond when I lived there. Along the side of Furnace pond, a tall fence of bundles of gorse was erected for a hide for sportsmen wishing to shoot snipe, as it takes a quick and accurate shot to get one if approached from the open. This pond has now dried up.
All the houses relied on a spring for their drinking water, it was a lovely clear spring with red brick sides and near white sandstone base. Just past this spring is an old boundary stone with APD carved on it, years ago this was the boundary of Ashburnham, Penhurst and Dallington.
The allocation of the gardens was rather unusual, all the ground at the back of the three joined houses went with our house, known now as Bay Cottage. A hedged in square plot and a large orchard across the bridge, over the waterway, went with the other end house and a piece of land, now part of the wood on the right hand side of the road leading to Blackhurst Pond, went with the middle house as well as another piece beside the hill in front. All these boundaries have been altered and more sensibly allocated.
Just along the road leading to Hogstye Wood is an old gravel pit where gravel was dug for the roads of Ashburnham Estate. We passed this on the way to school and had some fun jumping from the bank on to the heap of soft gravel below. It was an ideal place for birds’ nests. Wrens always built under the overhanging ledge of earth and I once found a flycatchers nest, also a kingfishers as it is near the river.
At the side of our pig sties was a very large walnut tree, it didn’t have many nuts but it was ideal for playing under in its shade as there was a stile with a very large footstool just right for sitting on, this stile lead to a raised footpath across the field at the back. This was a public right of way and we used it to go to Barn Chapel when the fields were dry enough. The walnut tree blew down some years back and smashed a garage and damaged a car under it.
Just inside the gate at the bottom of the hill is a large shed known as the Cabbin (?) Lodge. In this shed Mr Harmer, known locally as Arthur Jimmy, was in charge of the Cabbin making. These were small bundles of fire wood for lighting the fires at Ashburnham House.
Along the embankment in Jimmy’s garden was a wide bridge and three flood gates as we called them. These held the water back to form furnace pond, this was the home of many water fowl. These flood gates used to be raised a little to allow water under them if the pond level rose too high during heavy rains. I can remember the night they broke away with a mighty roar and much flooding below.
The old waterway in front of the houses was kept well stocked with fish but of course no one was allowed to catch them. Well I think this is enough to let you know what the Furnace was like 65 years ago, I wonder what it will be like 65 years ahead.
The Sussex County Magazine February 1933
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