MANY towns and villages suffered when the Black Death tore through England after it landed on British shores in 1348.

But the ancient village of Hamsey, near Lewes, was particularly stricken with the plague.

Once the proud site of Anglo-Saxon King Athelstan’s royal court in the tenth century, the small hamlet was nearly wiped out by the deadly disease 300 years later.

In a last-ditch show of dignity, the survivors gathered at Hamsey Church on the village hill and isolated themselves from the rest of the villages.

As food stockpiles ran out, they starved to death – if the plague had not got them already, of course.

Only the village church, almost untouched since its medieval days, stands as a reminder of Hamsey’s existence.

At least that is how the legend goes. No one really knows if this tragic story happened. No one even knows where the story came from.

But Hamsey historian Sue Rowland is quite certain the myth is just that: a myth.

“Lots of archaeologists have investigated the whole of the River Ouse and they just can’t find any evidence of an abandoned village,” she said.

“There is no scientific evidence to suggest the village was wiped out by the Black Death.

“When you see a church by itself, people often think it was in a village destroyed by the plague.

“But in Hamsey there weren’t even enough people to form a village. It was very small.

“There was a manor house which was built in 1321, but the local landowner died before it was finished.”

But regardless of the dramatic story, Hamsey Church is still a remarkable place.

Resting on top of an island in the Ouse Valley far away from the villages of Offham and Cooksbridge, it is hardly a convenient place for worship.

The journey there is somewhat hair-raising, ending in a steep drive up a thin country lane.

Even in the 1850s this was a problem.

The church’s then-rector George C Shiffner said: “The present church is most inconveniently placed, being so remote from the habitation of the people as to be inaccessible to the old and infirm, and to render the attendance of the rest almost as variable as the weather.

“A new church is needed.”

And according to historian Ms Rowland, Hamsey was undergoing major changes at the same time.

“Everyone moved to Offham in the 1860s and Cooksbridge because of the rail line,” she said.

“Back in the 1850s the local parson was preaching in the church and he said to his daughter playing the harmonium ‘Should I preach to you or will you preach to me?’ because no one else was there.”

Eventually Reverend Shiffner’s prayers were answered and a new church was built in Offham in 1860.

Hamsey was mostly neglected and was even touted for demolition by the Victorians.

But in the 1920s a group of villagers banded together and raised enough money to repair the church.

Outside the winter months, residents of the nearby area still pack into the medieval church for regular services.

It may seem odd so many people would make such an effort to visit a cold, dark place with notoriously uncomfortable wooden pews and no heating or electricity.

But it is the fact Hamsey Church is so untouched that appeals to so many people.

“It’s good the Victorians never touched the church because they had a reputation for tarting them up,” Ms Rowland said.

“If you look at the church today it looks mostly as it did in the 12th century.

“The tenth century kings used to travel around and hold court, and once it was held in Hamsey.

“The original settlement dates back to 987 with King Athelstan.”

And though the dramatic plague tale surrounding Hamsey might not be true, that does not mean there are no more discoveries to be made.

In fact, an archaeologist will soon visit the church to carefully chip away at its walls in search of rare medieval wall paintings possibly hidden under the paint.