Winkle Week and The Winkle Stone

Fairwarp has a very special link with the past. – The Winkle Stone.

It is highly probable that other communities within the Weald also, at one time, celebrated this far from unassuming rock – but it is possible that Fairwarp is the only place still celebrating the stone today. For in Fairwarp, they recognise this traditional English custom of the month of May, and celebrate the tiny winkle with aplomb it being the main component of the village’s Winkle Stone.

It is a tradition that has largely fallen into the sediment of time due to its more popular team member, May Day with its associated maypole, fairs and such like. But Fairwarp has kept the tradition alive over the generations.

Fairwarp is the only village completely enclosed by Ashdown Forest. Some villagers refer to it lovingly as Timewarp and the tradition of touching the Winkle Stone certainly comes from the past.

If you’re unsure about Winkles (or periwinkles,) they are a small edible snail. They have dark, sometimes banded shells, and, whilst commonly found by the sea, freshwater winkles are to be found in overgrown, stagnant water, muddy pools, creeks, ditches and swamps. Fairwarp had and still does have a number of areas of boggy swampy land where these creatures have lived for millions of years. To the poor of Fairwarp, whose livelihood and existence has long been tied to the land, they were a regular supplement to their diet. The use of winkles was such a normal addition to the villagers’ food supplies that the almost daily task of collecting them is sometimes overlooked in the record books. However in compiling the history of Winkle Week in Fairwarp we hope to make sure that their legacy is remembered.

Winkle Week

Nowadays the collecting and eating of winkles is no longer about adding an essential source of nutrients to a poor rural countryman’s diet but an act of fun for children and adults who in so doing, continue the tradition in a light-hearted way. But by maintaining the Winkle Stone, villagers combine two traditions in one. The village’s Winkle Week starts on the first Monday in May with a dance around the village green (sometimes scavenging the bog behind it for winkles), shaking gilded shell percussion instruments, handmade and handed down from generation to generation, each generation repairing and repainting the shells to show them in their glorious whorls. Some villagers subscribe to the idea that they must act as one with nature and add to the tradition by wearing masks of animals which make them more on a par with the winkles, others do not include this element of the tradition in their tour of the village green. But whether you do or not, be prepared to wet the winkles’ heads with a wee glass of something in the village hostelry after the dance has been completed. Perhaps with a tasty cup of winkles to go with it?

The rest of Winkle Week can vary, often depending on who is in charge of organising the celebrations but events can vary from a simple meeting of local villagers intent on maintaining village traditions to tea time on the village green. Stoolball matches on the QE2 Field (near to the supposed location of the Wise Woman’s abode – see The Winkle Stone) or forest walks – taking in part of the Roman Road (see connection in The Winkle Stone) which still lies across Ashdown Forest. The weather will also contribute to the plans.

A toast to the Winkle Stone is usually held every evening of Winkle Week at the Foresters Arms.

The Winkle Stone

The actual physical origin of Fairwarp’s winkle stone is unknown. It is believed to have been quarried from one of the many natural quarries in the area. But its history is part of village folklore. Perhaps the tales are hard to believe but, as with all good local lore, the stories get carried from generation to generation, often losing the thread and being embellished along the way.

We have taken the most commonly told points of the story and tell it as it is known today.

It was in the time of the Roman occupation of Britain, when Emperor Claudius and his army was marching through the south of England that he fell ill. His men, fearing the worst found shelter for him in the tiny hamlet of Fayre-Warpe and whilst his physician endeavoured to find the cause of his ailment, the local people, in fear of their lives from the army that surrounded them, offered sustenance to those men occupying their village, including Claudius’ men.

As the soldiers realised that the locals weren’t about to murder them in their beds they learned that a Wise Woman lived by the stream in the woods on the outskirts of the village. The villagers trusted and consulted the Wise Woman for all their illnesses and as each day passed with Claudius not getting any better, the suggestion that they should consult the Wise Woman became more audible.

Eventually, Maximus Maximii, one of the most trusted servants of Claudius was led to the Wise Woman in the wood and he explained Claudius’ ailments to her. The Wise Woman was unimpressed with the Roman invader but followed her natural instincts to cure. Collecting a reed basket from beside the stream she led the servant deep into the wood to a highstanding bog which, being surrounded and enclosed by trees, was dark and cold. Standing ankle deep in the foul oozing mud, she scraped her hands along the banks. Moments later she started to drop tiny shells into her basket. Moving slowly around the edge of the bog, she repeated the action until she had a basket full of tiny winkles.

Returning to her hovel she poured the winkles into a cloth lined with leaves, tying it closed securely with a creeper. She then suspended it in the gently running stream. Leaving the water running through the bundle she filled her only cooking pot with water and, blowing gently on the ashes of her fire, pushed the pot into the centre of the lapping flames.

Who knows what the odd couple talked about as they waited for the water to boil but eventually it did and the Wise Woman returned to the stream and collected the winkles. Muttering a quiet incantation in some language long since forgotten, she splashed the winkles into the boiling water.

It was only minutes later that she hauled the pot from the embers and poured the contents through a strip of material until all the winkles lay steaming on the ground. Withholding a single winkle, she pulled the edges of the strip of cloth together, and handed it to Maximus. Holding the single winkle she showed him how, with a sharp pointed stick, to ease the little morsel from its shell and gave it to him to eat.

Maximum was wary of this strange food but knowing Claudius’ paranoia of food being poisoned, he took courage and chewed the strange food. He was astounded. The taste was almost sweet, nothing could have prepared him for the flavour, especially given its origin. He thanked the Wise Women holding out coins to her. She waved him away with a shake of her arms and pointed back to the camp.

Maximus hurried back and against the wishes of the physician, persuaded a sweating Claudius to try one of the little snails. Thereafter it was but a short time before he was once again well and demanding to meet the Wise Woman who had sent the cure. The Wise Woman would not be brought and it was Claudius who went to her. The Wise Woman greeted him as she greeted all, with little reverence and when Claudius asked what he could do to thank her, she shook her head and held her hands up as if to ward off his offers. However, as Claudius turned to go she held his arm, staying his departure and reached into a scrap of material tied to her waist. From it she drew a rough piece of rock which as she handed it to him, he could see it was made up almost entirely of the tiny shells of the winkle. ‘Take this as you travel. With this you will find a cure for all,’ she told him. ‘But mind, it cannot leave these shores and must be returned to its homeland should you leave this isle.’

Claudius was as superstitious as the next Roman and carried the stone back to camp, stashing it carefully amongst his prized possessions and in a short time was ready to carry on with his men on their march northwards.

Now back in good health, and as a hale and lusty man, Claudius’ physical desires needed to be gratified and as he travelled northwards he met and took occasional pleasure from local women who followed the

army as they travelled. But it happened that one night he had failed to succeed in his act. It happened again, and then again. Eventually he confided in Maximus Maximii who suggested that Claudius remember the Wise Woman of Fayre-Warpe.

Claudius recalled the stone he had been given and pulled it from his pack. Alone that night he studied it, wondering how it would help cure this rather intimate ailment. Eventually, when no other suggestion presented itself, he rubbed his member over the rock and then called for a woman. That night he performed as he had not been able to for many a night.

The Winkle Stone was indeed a cure for all ailments.

On his return journey to Italy, hoping to catch calm seas in the month of May, Claudius remembered the words of the Wise Woman and stopped once again at Fayre-Warpe and went in search of the Wise Woman, taking with him the Winkle Stone. But there was no sign of her in the woods where he had met her. Just a circle of stones, covered by fallen leaves, where her fire had once burned.

As Claudius slowly returned to his men, a young girl of the hamlet walked beside him and he asked her where the Wise Woman would be found. But the girl could only say she had gone, perhaps to the afterlife. One day she had been there and the next not. Her leaving had caused much sorrow as her knowledge and ability to cure the sick could not be matched and many of her hamlet had need of her skills.

Claudius realised what the Wise Woman had wanted him to do. He explained what the Wise Woman had given him and how it had to be returned. The girl asked him if she might see the stone and he held it out to her. As she took the stone, Claudius felt a charge pass between them and he understood that he was doing the right thing in returning the stone to the village. The girl was confused at first but eventually understanding that this was what the village needed, she cradled it protectively in her hands.

Claudius’ history is well-known, although perhaps in the moment of eating the poisoned mushroom which killed him he might have wished for the Winkle Stone’s cure, he had done right by the Wise Woman and the village and the Winkle Stone which had been returned to the village of Fayre-Warpe was now to be revered in its own right.

Over time, in the village of Fayre-Warpe, the girl who had taken the Winkle Stone from Claudius became the Wise Woman herself, her faith in the Winkle Stone to guide her efforts giving her the assurance she needed to help her people. When all else failed she would rub the Winkle Stone gently over a person who ailed and it was always the turning point in their illness.

Recognising the importance of the winkles in the stone, she gently encouraged her village to show reverence to the little creatures and in the month of May, in recognition of when Claudius had returned the stone to the village, she called everyone to the Green to pay homage to the little winkle before joining in a celebration, whereby everyone was allowed to touch the Winkle Stone to ensure good health and fertile loins.

Local stories say that the young men of the village would visit the Wise Woman and ask for ‘Claudius’ remedy’ as it had become known and it is true that the village of Fayre-Warpe never wanted for a population as sturdy babies were regularly brought forth by the girls of the village, many of the children having birthdays in the early part of the year – perhaps 9 months after touching the Winkle Stone?

The Winkle Stone was handed down through the generations along the line of the oldest daughter. At one time it is believed to have been mislaid but it is more likely to have been loaned to someone with a greater need and then returned, just as Claudius had done.

With the foresight of a wise woman, the winkle’s place in Fayre-Warpe was established and in times to come, the little winkle was once again to play their part in the History of Fayre-Warpe.

1066 and all that

Without doubt, the people of Fairwarp were represented at Hastings in the historic battle. Areas of excavation around the battle site have produced small piles of winkle shells amongst the bones of long dead

soldiers. It would be hard to prove that the bones were those of a Fairwarp man but it’s nice to think they might have been.

After the battle, Sussex was divided into five Rapes (administrative areas of Sussex) and each Rape administration levied taxes on the towns and populaces in their control as one of the ways to subdue the English. Legend tells of the village being unable to pay the taxes levied. And so, with little to lose, following instruction from the then Wise Woman, three women from Fairwarp carrying a trug full of winkles wrapped in moss and lichens, walked to Pevensey Castle, held by William the Conqueror’s half brother, Robert, Count of Mortain, under whose jurisdiction Fairwarp fell within the Rape of Pevensey.

They had been told by the Wise Woman that they would know what to do once they got there. The women thought perhaps that they needed to offer them as a part payment. After days of trudging they arrived in Pevensey but were forbidden entry to the castle. Tired and hungry the three women set up a fire in front of the castle, boiling up some water to cook some of their supply of winkles to given them sustenance after their journey.

The story goes that Count Robert was returning from travels, walking through the town having sent his servant ahead with his horse, so he could stretch his legs after a long day in the saddle. Alone and covered with the dust and dirt of the day’s riding, he arrived at his castle unrecognised by any. He stopped by the women’s fire asking what they cooked having only had a noon-piece much earlier in the day. Not knowing to whom they spoke, the women offered the hungry stranger a sample of their winkles which he looked at curiously but picked out skilfully and ate with relish. Asking if he could taste more they generously shared their supply but apologetically said they could not spare much more as it was a gift for the new Lord. Robert asked from whence the gift had come and why they had brought it. The women told the stranger of their tiny village and its poorness, its inability to meet the demands of their new Lord and how they hoped to persuade him to accept these winkles of their village as a part payment rather than bring down harsh measures on their village. The man nodded and wished them luck, bidding them farewell and walking onwards towards the castle.

Later that evening the women were summoned from their campfire and brought before the Lord. Their faces must have registered surprise and perhaps fear when they realised that they had already met him – at their campfire. Despite being a man who was making many very aware of his hard rule, Robert is supposed to have given the women thanks for their winkles and in acknowledgement of their generosity and willingness to feed a hungry man, gave them leave to advise their village that no further taxes would be laid upon them other than a wicker basket of winkles every year on the first Monday in May.

Henry VIII

In the time of Henry VIII there is reference to their being used to provide sustenance to the drivers of the wagons whose job was to take cannon balls made in the ironworks of Fairwarp and Buxted to the ships waiting to fight the French at the Isle of Wight. A long slow journey with no guarantee of food along the way, the winkles were parched on shovels on the foundry fires and packed into material bundles easily manageable on the journey.

Geology and the Winkle Stone

The reason for its existent stretches back through to the geology of the area millions of years ago when this part of Sussex (and Kent) was covered with swamp which was inhabited by freshwater.

The Winkle Stone is also known as Sussex Marble, Petworth Marble, Bethersden Marble and Laughton Stone. It is a fossiliferous freshwater limestone material which is prevalent in the Weald Clay of parts of Kent, East Sussex and West Sussex in southeast England.

The quarries of this unique stone ran out many, many years ago and it is no longer easily obtained