Latest News On The Bourne River Project Blog

About the project

Man with beard and glasses smiling at the camera. Jo Seaman from the Bourne River Project

Listen to project leader Jo Seaman’s overview of the Bourne Stream, Eastbourne, project.

This community project will bring the Bourne’s story alive through a range of activities: archaeology, creative writing, folklore, memory and local history. We’ll be using sound recording to capture and share our experiences and discoveries.

Understanding how water moves in the area is key to helping Eastbourne and south Wealden become more resilient to flooding and in managing water more sustainably.

Follow us on Instagram and Facebook (both @blueheartsussex) for all the latest information.

We’ll also be adding to this blog as the project proceeds.

The Bourne From Source to Sea – “Have You Found Anything Yet?” (part 2)

Bourne project archaeologist’s report

10/06/2024 – Jo Seaman

We now move on to our investigations of the Parsonage Gardens. In brief, we found that throughout the garden something rather strange was going on. Not one piece of medieval pottery was recovered from our test pits despite them being just meters from a late medieval building (that replaced an earlier Medieval building on the same site) with all finds being from, at earliest the latter part of the 17th century. It also appeared that at some point the ground had been levelled and stripped back to the chalk bedrock to make a uniform surface with a path running west towards the existing wellhead (itself a late 20th century replacement of an earlier one). Soil must have been brought on to the site to create beds and gravel may have also been used to form the surface of a drive to what would have been the front of the building. The excavations showed us all this and more, but the question of why such a laborious process would have been undertaken eluded me…until the chance discovery of a reference to a damaging flood in an old history book…

Imagine the scene, it is the summer of 1766 a sudden and violent thunderstorm brings catastrophic floods into the Town of Eastbourne, as described in The Universal Magazine –

“July 18th – On Saturday last, about 5 in the morning, there fell at Eastbourne, in the County of Sussex, the greatest quantity of rain, attended with the most dreadful claps of thunder and lightning ever known by the oldest person living. The water poured from the Downs in such a manner, that the streets soon became several feet deep. Many gardens have greatly suffered, particularly a curriers, where the gooseberry and currant trees look like a bed of cauliflowers, by the muddy chalk washed from the hills. A soldier and his wife, who lay on the ground floor, very narrowly escaped drowning, being awakened by the cries of a child who was swimming around the room in a cradle. The Church has received great damage: and it is feared the inhabitants will not be able to hear Divine Service for many months, especially a sermon, as the pulpit has greatly suffered.”

Given that this report was made on the 18th July, it would seem that the storm took place on Saturday 12th July and we can see the power of the deluge as it noted in the Parish records ten years later that the “…lower or west end of the south aisle [of St Mary’s Church] is out of repair and supported by a shore.”
There are also records of the school attached to the north side of the church tower also having to undergo considerable repairs in 1769. It would seem very likely that this was also a result of the flood damage sustained a few years earlier.

At the time of the flood, the town of Eastbourne ended just to the west of the churchyard and from here were unenclosed fields, running up to the Downs which in turn, were free from trees and therefore gave an open run to the water pouring in a torrent downslope in the storm. At this time too, the garden of the Parsonage ran at one level from the building to what is now Church Lane. It also lies parallel to the High Street/Church Street along which the flood raged and water and which must have poured downslope across the burial ground and on to the Bay Pond and Bourne Stream leaving the garden in its watery wake.

During excavations prior to the development of a site on Baypond Road (adjacent to the plot which used to be the Parsonage garden), it was noted that only C17th-mid C18th finds were recovered, although on higher, more sheltered ground to the west, there is a high concentration of medieval material.  This could be more evidence of the devastation caused by the flood in the removal of medieval and earlier topsoils and the subsequent remodelling of gardens, paths and roads in the area.  

It doesn’t take too much of a leap of imagination to relate this account of a torrential storm event  to the evidence uncovered in our excavation of the Parsonage Garden –  namely by the removal of  the earlier topsoils/ground covering leaving an unusable mess behind or by damaging a more formal garden so badly that it was deemed unsavable.

These one off extreme weather events may not leave much in the way of tangible evidence in the archaeological record, but it should always be considered as a possible explanation for anomalous results such as those encountered here. 

We should also be very careful to consider the human experience of these flash floods, the devastation that they brought, the lives they would have impacted and the very real possibility that very similar events are becoming more and more frequent in this area today. 

We can learn lessons from the past and what this Blue Heart Project has so dramatically documented, is a lesson we just cannot afford to ignore.

“Have You Found Anything Yet?” (part 1)

Bourne project archaeologist’s report

03/06/2024 – Jo Seaman

The title of this Blog includes what is probably the most commonly asked question when undertaking public archaeology.  It is a perfectly fair question but also one of the hardest to answer in a way that will not leave the interested parties a) confused b) disappointed c) offended or d) all three of the former.  On a project like this where we are looking for changes in the landscape, the ‘best finds’ for us are traces of structures or features that may give us clues as to these processes of change. 

Three people in warm clothes, kneeling down and digging a small hole in the lawn to look for archaeological features.
Volunteers digging a test pit in Manor Gardens (Heritage Eastbourne 2024)

In a 1m x 1m test pit these are unlikely to be of a monumental or even particularly discernible nature.  Also, most of the ‘material finds’, as in the objects and artefacts uncovered are likely to be rather unimpressive to the non-experienced observer (generally bits of nondescript broken pottery, tile and stone).  Lastly, when asked this question for the 99th time in a day, it is possible, that a tired, muddy and less professional archaeologist than I, just might overreact in negative manner when the questioner is nonplussed with a revelation about the fascinating post-hole they have been painstakingly excavating for the past two days.

So, did we actually find anything? Yes, we most certainly did.

Black tray with pieces of broken pottery, which have been excavated.
Some of the humble treasures from our excavations in Manor Gardens (Heritage Eastbourne 2024)

This post, Part 1 will focus on Manor Gardens where we dug two 1m x 1m test pits to examine two areas of possible archaeological activity as indicated on the survey results using a resistivity meter to scan for changes beneath the soil.  We also examined a sub-circular garden feature now used as an ornamental planting bed by the Borough Lane entrance, just in case its’ appearance was reflecting an earlier feature such as a well (oh please let it be a well!).

The first two test pits both revealed fairly uniform garden soils representing the last 100 years or so of municipal horticulture, but beneath that was some real archaeology.  The test pit nearest Gildredge Manor House (originally built around 1770 as the Lushington Manor but known as the Gilbert Manor house in the later 18-19th century) was partly filled with unshaped blocks of chalk rubble with some brick and tile and finds ranging from 700 year old pottery sherds to 18th Century clay pipe – so all rather mixed.  This is likely to have been from the clearance and landscaping of this area at some point prior to, or as part of the building of the Manor House and gardens (including an extensive Ha-Ha or ornamental ditch dividing the formal garden form the informal parkland). It is just possible that there were hints of another feature at the base of this test pit but unfortunately the limited time we had on site meant this could not be explored further.

The second test pit, also sited over a resistivity ‘anomaly’ revealed the same later garden soils and then beneath that cut into the chalky subsoils, was a small roundish pit, just 10-20cm deep and filled with a fairly loose soil.  We have no real idea of the function of such an enigmatic feature and that is always a frustration with this sort of ‘key-hole’ archaeology without further context and evidence.  The best guess at the moment, given the lack of finds within the pit is that it may have formed part of a flower bed or garden feature of the 18th century formal garden, but in truth we may never know!

We are on a bit firmer ground with the investigation of the ‘well-like’ feature (see above).  For ages I have wondered if this ring of stones, which seems incongruous in its shape and location, may have hidden depths (sorry!). We know from a 17th century map that a row of houses once ran along the eastern side of Borough Lane and I had hoped that this might have represented a well located in the back garden of one of them. 

One should never preform your theories before starting an excavation and after less than a day excavating within this feature, the ‘well’ story was well and truly (sorry again!) blown out of the water (no apologies for this one).  The ‘well-head’ turned out to be only a few bricks deep and was a complete fabrication of, at the most, 100 or so years old.  It was indeed, a rather fancy and thoroughly deceitful garden feature.  A good archaeologist rarely gives up though (at least not after just one day) and the soil beneath the bricks just had something about that did not feel right.  By that I mean that, it was looser and dryer than it should be and it had material that seemed to be from only 17th-18th century; in short it felt like it was the fill of something, not an organically created ‘deposit’. 

After another hour or so of soil removal and uncomfortable contortions of my less than supple body, we were about a meter down and had revealed a vertical wall of chalk blocks running north to south at the far edge of the ‘not-a-well’.  This was a very pleasant surprise.  Not only could I still fit down a tiny hole and manage to remove soil without getting stuck, but also we had a very tangible feature to investigate. 

Given the depth of the loose fill (over a meter and still going) and the wall itself of an unknown height/depth alongside and its general position in terms of ground level, I am happy to interpret this as being part of a cellar structure that once ran beneath one of the lost buildings recorded on the 17th century map.  Such cellars are a feature of other buildings excavated in developments along the High Street in the 1970’s and chalk is commonly used for internal walls in areas where it is abundant.  This was a real success for the project as although we hadn’t found any link to water management yet, we had, in all of the test pits found really good evidence of landscape change within Early Modern Eastbourne.  Not bad for a couple of days work!

“What is the point of archaeology?”

Bourne project archaeologist’s report, chapter 1

16/05/24 – Jo Seaman

In February this year Blue Heart in partnership with Heritage Eastbourne and The National Trust Changing Chalk Project, undertook a series of archaeological test pits on two sites in the heart of Eastbourne Old Town.

This project aimed to see how areas of the Town have developed over time but in particular whether we could find any evidence of the people’s relationship with water and how they managed this essential, but potentially destructive, resource. By undertaking archaeological test pits in two areas that were in the vicinity of or adjacent to known dwellings, we hoped to uncover something of this story.

The two sites investigated were in Manor Gardens, adjacent to the C18th dwelling now known as Gildredge Manor House (but better known simply as The Manor House or more correctly, The Lushington or Gilbert Manor House) a Grade II listed building and the garden of the Old Parsonage, just north of St Mary’s Parish Church.

Aerial view of the excavation site at Manor Gardens, overlayed with the geophysical survey results.
The geophysical survey and test pits (marked in red) in Manor Gardens and the yellow circle represents the position of the sub-circular flower bed being investigated. (Gary Webster/J Seaman 2024)

At that point, we had no idea that this work would reveal a story that reflects our experience of extreme weather today so closely.

The Oxford English Dictionary definition of archaeology is as follows –
“The study of past human cultures through the analysis of material remains which are usually recovered through excavation.”

Now, I’m not going to argue with the OED but I would say that, for me, archaeology is more than that. It is an exploration of the past human experience, which certainly involves culture, but also adds emotion to the mix. Archaeological finds are not just artefacts, but are traces of a life, have been created, interacted with, valued but ultimately disposed of or lost. In the same way, within a building, a worn stone step is a trace fossil of generations of feet, each leaving a mark, a series of events building a story of the past, created through everyday use.

Archaeology alone cannot give us the full picture of course, but archaeology mixed with nothing more complex than empathy can give us a much deeper understanding of the human experience of the past. Archaeological excavation is a visceral process carried out in a forensically careful way – yes this is an oxymoron but for those who get involved with it, will ring true.

We dig holes, we shift tons of mud, we get our hands (and much of the rest of us) dirty ; we meticulously record what we find, where we find it and what it is associated with, the nuances of soil colour or texture are, to the archaeologist, just as important as a more tangible ‘find’.

Parsonage Garden during the excavation, with the soil in a heal on the lawn.
Creating a muddy mess through careful scientific process in the Parsonage Garden – it all looks fine now! (Jo Seaman 2024)

See what I mean? Archaeology is a destructive process but helps us to preserve moments and events from the past through scientific methodology, but the real beauty of it is that we can all get involved. With supervision and just a little bit of training people of all abilities can be part of the investigation of our collective past. There really is nothing quite like the act of tangible discovery experienced whilst sitting in a muddy hole…in February…in the rain, or at least that is what the volunteers tell me. It really is a wonderful feeling to be the first to set eyes upon and discover something previously unseen for hundreds of years, leaving the finder with a sense of having touched a moment from the past. It is a powerful and
memorable experience and one that even a weary, old, digger like myself is fortunate enough to still get a thrill from!

With a sense of genuine anticipation and not a little trepidation (after looking at the weekly weather forecast) we prepared to start our journey of discovery. Would we actually find anything that would connect the past to the story of the Bourne Stream, flooding or water in general? Or, more to the point, would we find anything at all in less than 10m2 of ground?

Find out next time!

A Slice of History – Easter Bank Holiday in Motcombe Gardens


A woman prepares art materials standing underneath a gazebo in a public garden
Ellie Fryer – illustrator and muralist (@elliefryer)

April showers may have kept some visitors inside on Easter Bank Holiday, but those who did drop in to Motcombe Gardens were treated to creative writing, art and a look at some of the stunning archaological artefacts found in the area.

Annalie Seaman ran a writers’ workshop using the Gardens’ historic and much-loved features as prompts, while Jo Seaman displayed some of the unusual finds found in the pond and surrounding areas.

A wonderful art project led by Ellie Fryer, under the Blue Heart gazebo, encouraged visitors of all ages to draw, paint or sketch the tree of life – representing the oldest tree in the Gardens and younger ones loved the hula hoops and games laid out on the grass.

Naturally, the famous Dove Cote was open to the public and local historians were on hand to share some of the fascinating stories that make up this unique part of Old Town.

Here we go round the Mulberry

03/03/24 – Annalie Seaman

Old tree which is growing at an angle to the right, in a park, surrounded by puddles.

“On a cold and frosty morning…”
We’re not short of memories of cold mornings in this part of the world, those days when your toes curl in, all frost-nipped, and your fingers need blowing on to keep warm, when your nose reddens like a shy blush and your eyes water with the sting of icy winds.

Thankfully we’re stepping out of winter now and the weather is on the up (we hope!) I don’t know about you, but the last thing I want to do on a bitterly cold morning is dance around a bush – or a tree – I just don’t fancy it. So why did we sing about doing just that when we were children?

“Here we go round the mulberry bush,
the mulberry bush, the mulberry bush.
Here we go round the mulberry bush
on a cold and frosty morning.”

Did you ever dance around in a circle, miming face-washing, hair-combing and teeth-brushing? The popular lyrics were set down on paper in the mid-1800s by James Orchard Halliwell, leaning on an earlier folk version of the rhyme which had people dancing round a blackberry bush. The tune that accompanied the lyrics had been used in ‘The Beggar’s Opera’ and was borrowed for ‘Nuts in May’ and later ‘The Wheels on the Bus’.

Rumour has it that while the silk trade was booming along the Maritime Silk Road, elevating China’s role in the global export trade, us Brits were trying to produce silk for ourselves, to get in on a bit of that silk wealth. Silkworms love a mulberry tree. But our cold and frosty mornings proved too harsh for the mulberries – and the worms – so our silk hopes were dashed by our winter climate. Perhaps. This is not the only origin story for the Mulberry Bush song in circulation.

Our Mulberry Tree in Motcombe Gardens has been propped up to make sure its low branches stay attached to its trunk, as legions of children climb its low-lying limbs. It’s been supporting the children of Old Town for the last seventy years, offering a perch, a hiding spot, and a precarious leg-up for reaching juicy berries.

Writing Prompt:
Have you got any memories of the Motcombe Mulberry? Have you danced round it? Washed your face by it? Climbed it? Fed the ducks by it? If not this mulberry, have you got any other mulberry memories you’d like to write about? Or perhaps you’d like to invent an origin story for the children’s rhyme.

Please send your entries into by Monday April, 1st (this is not a joke!).

While you’re here, check out these FREE writing events that will be held in Motcombe Gardens on this coming Monday 4th March (Bowls Clubhouse), and Monday 1st April (gazebo in the gardens). There will be archaeological artefacts and a dovecote to explore after the workshops and an additional art workshop to get involved with throughout April Fool’s Day (not funny!)


27/02/2024 – by Annalie Seaman

Old fashioned colour postcard of Motcombe Gardens with children playing

Nostalgia (noun): from the Greek nostos for ‘return home’ and algos for ‘pain’. By the 18th century, the word had come to mean ‘a sense of acute homesickness’.

What is it about nostalgia that gives us that bittersweet twang of emotions? Is it a wistful longing to return to the past overlaid with a sense of loss that the past is out of reach? Is nostalgia heightened by a collective memory of our shared history?

This scene from Motcombe Gardens in the early 1900s focuses on a group of neatly dressed children lingering by the pond. They all look very well-behaved! Do you think their parents or nannies are nearby?

One of the children walking away from the pond is carrying a small dog, one child walking towards the pond is carrying a basket. This contained moment-in-time seems the very essence of decorum, all the figures are upright, or gently leaning on the railings. The children are sun-hatted and trim-jacketed, prettily-frocked and smartly-shirted. Can those clothes stay neat and clean?

We’re looking towards the South Downs, the Bourne stream is descending underground just to our left. The trees and shrubs are thriving in the Gardens, and the headwaters of the Bourne remain contained, yet healthy. Our Witness Tree is just out of frame and has been growing steadily for the last sixty-seventy years.

Writing Prompt:
Does this spot in time stir some sense of nostalgia in you? Can you place your childhood self in the gardens a hundred years ago and imagine what happens next? Perhaps you could explore the idea of childhood then-and-now, or you might want to imagine what dreams the children have for their futures. See if you can weave in elements of the environment – the water, the clouds, the trees, the downs. You could create a piece of poetry, produce some prose, or try your hand at some creative history-telling, anything goes!

Please send your entries into by Monday April, 1st (this is not a joke!).

While you’re here, check out these FREE writing events that will be held in Motcombe Gardens on this coming Monday 4th March, and Monday 1st April. There will be archaeological artefacts and a dovecote to explore after the workshops and an additional art workshop to get involved with throughout April Fool’s Day (not funny!)

Get writing, with this prompt from historical Motcombe Gardens

21/02/2024 – by Annalie Seaman

black and white postcard of Edwardian gentlemen playing bowls at Motcombe Gardens bowling green

This scene from the the early 1900’s gives us an insight into the development of Motcombe Gardens. The old farmland has been converted into a small pleasure garden and the sporty types are having a (casual) blast on the well-groomed bowling green.

We’re looking from a raised bank at the back of the green towards Motcombe Lane. From this perspective, the Old Town church of St. Mary’s is behind us, the Downs are in the distance to the left and much nearer to our left, the head of the Bourne Stream, Eastbourne, has been blocked into a square, brick-lined pond. The stream now gushes underground, beneath the bowling green towards Terminus Road and eventually out to sea.

The Tree as Old as Eastbourne, or the ‘Witness Tree’ as we’re calling it this year, is standing just next to us (out of frame), also on the left. At the time of this scene, it’s a sixty/seventy-year-old beech tree whose roots have been hedged on all sides by paved paths and bricks. For now, it’s growing straight and tall, but the intervening years are going to make their mark on that smooth, grey bark. As the game of bowls continues, the weighted woods rolling over the short grass towards a bright white jack, the bowlers are having a chat about this and that, adding a new dimension of history to the time-layers of the Gardens. This point in time, captured so clearly in this still frame, is rich in detail. A bowler is striding towards the jack, inspecting the latest bowl. Do you think he’ll be satisfied with what he finds?

Writing Prompt:
Can you take this point in time as a creative starting-point for your own piece of writing centred around the Gardens? You could explore the history of lawn bowls, the fashion of the bowlers, the changing nature of Motcombe Gardens or the action of the scene itself – what’s going to happen next?

You could prepare a poem, bowl us a lawn full of puns, get in depth with some prose or try your hand at a creative historical narrative. Anything goes!

Please send your entries into by Monday April, 1st (this is not a joke!).
As part of the Blue Heart Bourne River Project, exploring historical flooding in Eastbourne, we’ll be looking at the history of the Witness Tree and the history of the town in two upcoming Creative Writing Workshops on Monday 4 th March – A Tree as Old as Eastbourne, and Monday 1 st April – A Slice of History.

Please visit our Eventbrite page (through the links above) to book your FREE place on one of these workshops.

Have a ball with your writing!

Picture of a tree with its brances extending down and light coming through the green leaves. Bourne River project logo in top right corner

Creative events coming soon!

A Tree as Old as Eastbourne

Monday 4 March, 10am-4pm in Motcombe Gardens
Drop-in creative activities for all ages and a bookable creative writing workshop for adults.
more information

A Slice of History

Monday 1 April, 10am-4pm in Motcombe Gardens
Drop-in creative activities for all ages and a bookable creative writing workshop for adults.  
more information

Man with a beard (Jo Seaman) and others kneeling down digging mud out of an archaeological test pit

Bourne Project digs in!

February 26th – March 2nd

Our project to investigate the history and route of the Bourne stream, Eastbourne, has reached its next stage. We’ve done the geophysics and are now ready to venture below the surface to investigate areas of interest in the Parsonage Garden at St Mary’s Church and Manor Gardens, Eastbourne.

We’re working with Heritage Eastbourne, Changing Chalk and a team of volunteers led by Jo Seaman, to investigate the history of the Bourne settlement and stream. They’ll be excavating test pits (small areas of investigation), looking for evidence of wells, gardens and houses that may have been preserved underground.

Visitors can attend the excavation in Manor Gardens on Monday and Tuesday 26 and 27 February between 10am-4pm and at The Parsonage from Monday 26 February – Saturday 2 March from 10am-4pm.

Project-related public event:

Open Day at the Parsonage nr St Mary’s Church Eastbourne
Saturday 2 March, 10am-4pm
Find out more about the archaeology and story of the area, see some of the excavation finds and have a tour of St Mary’s Church.

Woman in a purple jacket operating a yellow geophysics scanner on open grassland in Manor Gardens, Eastbourne

Geophysics in Manor Gardens and St Mary’s Church Parsonage


Volunteers from the National Trust joined Jo and East Sussex County Council’s Heritage Engagement Officer Katherine Buckland for the geophys element of the Bourne Project. Two sites were surveyed ahead of the digs in February.