In Your Street: Batty about old game in Barcombe

8:10pm Tuesday 13th November 2012

By Ben Leo

Where can you buy a refreshing pint followed by a boat trip down a scenic river and still have change from a tenner?

Or where would you find a village that has a dedicated stoolball team – a 500-year-old sport that originated in Sussex?

The answer is the three-in-one village of Barcombe in East Sussex.

Mentioned in the Domesday Book, the attractive village sits five miles north of Lewes and is blessed with heavenly views of the South Downs.

On the crisp November day The Argus paid a visit, the first feeling you get as you turn in from the A275 is of the discovery of a hidden treasure.

The village is made up of three mini-villages – Barcombe, Barcombe Mills and Barcombe Cross. When the Black Death spread across Sussex in the mid 14th century, the old village centre of Barcombe was abandoned.

The population packed their bags and headed for apparently safer climes just down the road in Barcombe Cross.

Today, Barcombe Cross is the largest of the three settlements and is host to the majority of the shops and services, whereas Barcombe Mills is attractively positioned next to the fishing-hotspot of the River Ouse.

On the bank of the Ouse sits one of the select few watering holes that Barcombe has to offer – the Anchor Inn. Built in 1790, the original building was a hotspot for boat owners and their horse-drawn barges that had travelled up from Newhaven en route to north Sussex.


The pub lost its licence in 1885 thanks to the weak-willed landlord, who like a handful of people in that era, found the temptation to make a quick buck through smuggling too much to resist. It was only in 1963 that a licence was granted again, prompting a sigh of relief no doubt from the thirsty villagers.

The Anchor not only offers a well-deserved drink after a hard day’s slog, but also the chance to jump aboard a canoe or boat and sail down the picturesque river to Lewes. Although probably not advised after you’ve had a few, it’s a unique offering that is popular with tourists and locals alike.

It was around the time the pub was re-awarded its licence that the legendary Barcombe Players was formed. Home to the village thespians and lovers of the stage, the group got together in 1955 and for the past 55 years has entertained both young and old with nearly 100 productions.

The group is famed for bringing together the close-knit Barcombe community with performances of pantomimes and plays, including Pinocchio, Jack and the Beanstalk and more recently a comedy version of Macbeth.

Up until 2011 the Players were forced to rehearse and perform in a draughty, damp and cold village hall that failed to mimic the passion of its members. It was agreed that a new hall was needed – and so was the need for funds.

Community spirit

In 2000, the village struggled to generate the money needed for the new hall and unfortunately missed out on the millennium grants that were supporting new building projects in towns and cities across the UK. Rather than wallowing in their own problems, villagers worked together for ten years in order to proudly present the architectural wonder that exists today.

At one fundraising event, the people of Barcombe raised £16,000 by each purchasing a brick that was engraved with a collection of names or the name of the buyer. The bricks were used to build one of the walls at the hall which still shows today the names of each local who made a contribution towards the building project.

Elsewhere in Barcombe, success is on the menu for a group of the village’s sports enthusiasts. Only this time it’s not football or rugby that’s put Barcombe in the map. It’s the 500-year-old sport of stoolball.

First originating in Sussex around 1450, the game of stoolball is said to be the forerunner of cricket and an ancestor of baseball and rounders.

It was first played by Sussex milkmaids who used their milk stool as a wicket and are rumoured to have used stones rather than balls.

Today, the milk stools have been replaced by wickets made of wooden boards on stakes.

Players aim the ball at the wicket and it should not hit the ground before reaching the batter. Typically, teams have eleven players with one team fielding and the other batting.

The bat is the shape of a table tennis bat, made of willow with a long, sprung and spliced handle.

The modern game has found its way to faraway shores such as America and Japan, but for the Barcombe Ladies Stoolball Team, home is where the heart is.

They play in the Sussex County Stoolball Association League Championship, a league open to the winning teams from the five leagues of the Sussex County Stoolball Association.

The winning team receives the Challenge Cup, a prestigious trophy that was donated by the Plumpton Stoolball Club in the 1920s.

The club colours are described as steel blue and the team trains twice a week at the Barcombe recreation ground. After 14 games played this season in the Sussex County Stoolball Association Mid Division, they sit a respectable fourth out of eight.

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