Mayfield Furnace

At the bottom of this page there is a description and map of a 2 mile circular walk from Mayfield down to the furnace and back

Mayfield  Furnace

An interpretation board has been erected at this site, produced by Angel Design Partnership for Wadhurst Park Estate. This deals with the history of the Tudor Furnace and explains how Wadhurst Park is managing the land.

The site is about half a mile north of the village, east of Little Trodgers Lane, marked on the Explorer Map as “pond bays”, reference TQ 593282.

The text below is reproduced from “A Guide to Walks around Mayfield and Five Ashes” published by Mayfield Parish Council. Also attached is a copy of the information on the interpretation board.

THE FURNACE – In the late 1560s Thomas Gresham moved from Antwerp, where he had been the Royal Agent, raising money and buying arms for the Crown. The revolt of the Dutch Calvinists against their Spanish masters destroyed the international arms market and gave Gresham the opportunity to become an arms producer when he took possession of the Old Palace estate in Mayfield. Using local iron ore, charcoal and water power, he established a blast furnace in Vicarage Wood in Mayfield. Gangs of labourers with shovels built massive dams, cut channels to manage the water and built the furnace, water wheel, bellows and pits for casting the guns.

At the same time, gun foundries were set up in Wadhurst, Jarvis Brook, Eridge and Cowden, (possibly at Gresham’s instigation) all making cast iron cannon for the international market. One hundred whole culverins (huge naval cannons  about 10 foot long, weighing two tons and firing an 18lb shot) were made for the King of Denmark and the Dutch bought many to use against the Spanish.  Cast iron guns were twelve times cheaper than their bronze equivalents. Gresham’s guns had a reputation: fitter to kill the user than the enemy was one verdict.

On Gresham’s death in 1579, control of the foundry passed to the Neville family. In 1584, on his marriage, Henry Neville moved to Mayfield to continue the business. By 1592, working in a syndicate with one of the Sackville family and with two foreign partners (from Germany and Holland) he gained the Royal Patent or monopoly for the export of cast iron guns from Queen Elizabeth. So, for a period of thirty years, the Mayfield  Furnace was one of the main gun producing centres in Europe. Mayfield guns have been found in Nevis in the West Indies, in Zwolle in Holland and in a wreck in the mud of the Thames Estuary (the latter now in Fort Nelson in Portsmouth). The gun in the High Street is a small version of what Mayfield once produced. By 1610, gun production was phased out and cast iron was produced for the forge. The whole operation closed down early in the eighteenth century.

If you stand on the bridge over the Little Rother stream, upstream you will see the earthworks of the dam or pond bay. This structure was repeated in two more dams further up stream and one in a side stream. Substantial amounts of water were necessary to drive the bellows for months on end. The Furnace was built over the stream (the structure destroyed by the building of the bridge) perhaps four metres square, and four metres high. The Furnace (stone-built and lined with brick and clay) was fed with locally-dug iron ore and locally-made charcoal, tipped down the chimney from a ramp leading off the top of the dam. The wooden water wheel, perhaps four metres high, was fed by an oak trough, part of which, remarkably, still exists in the pond below you (downstream) which is at least three hundred years old. The Furnace was probably blasted  by a pair of bellows, each revolution of the wheel delivering three blasts from each pair. Once sufficient molten iron was contained in the furnace bottom, the iron was tapped out into gun pits, dug up to 4 metres vertically into the ground below and lined with a clay mould.

The Furnace would operate continuously, day and night for months, until the water supply ran dry or the Furnace lining collapsed. Other products included fire-backs, made in sand moulds with a pattern pressed from a wooden design or cast iron pigs or sows for later use in a forge where the brittle cast iron was  hammered into a workable form. Once the Furnace went out, the residue left in the Furnace bottom, comprising half burnt iron ore, charcoal and clay was called a “bear”. The rectangular slab below you on the far edge of the pond (downstream) is the remains of one such “bear”. The surrounding area is marked by extensive quantities of glassy black slag, for every ton of iron produced three tons of this waste material which was used in road-building. The woods on your right-hand side, looking downstream, contain evidence of the storage of considerable quantities of charcoal, which blackened the earth. The site is designated a Scheduled Ancient Monument under the protection of English Heritage.

For further information, Wealden Iron Research Group publishes an annual Bulletin. For membership details and full details see www.wealdeniron.org.uk.

Click here for a map and details of the site

2 mile circular walk from Mayfield to the furnace (courtesy of Routopedia)

This walk has a steep climb, uneven surfaces and can be muddy.

Walk instructions:

  1. From the car park in front of Mayfield Memorial Hall take the concrete path that goes left by the side of the hall and downhill.  Where the path turns left to the Skate Park, keep straight on with the football pitch on your right and go down steps in the far corner.
  2. Cross the farm track, climb over the stile, keep to the right of the next field, then over another stile and come to a crossing of paths at the top of a hill (signpost on your right).
  3. Turn left downhill with fence on your right heading just to the leftt of the buildings ahead.  Go over a stile into a short dark stretch and then through a kissing gate into a field where you turn sharp right, past buildings on your right, into another field where you go downhill, initially following the field edge then towards the bottom heading straight down into woods.
  4. The path goes down through the woods to cross a stream and slightly up to meet a large track.  Turn right and down to a bridge and the site of Mayfield Furnace.  The  interpretation board is just ahead of you on the right.
  5. After looking round the furnace, take the path right which goes alongside the stream.  Just before the end of the woods, turn right across a narrow concrete bridge and then go uphill, keeping to the right where another path turns off to the left.
  6. Shortly the path turns left and becomes a sunken lane.  At the top go over another stile onto a narrow path which then opens out into a field.  Keep to the left side and then cross another stile to climb in a narrow strip of trees.
  7. Climb over the stile at the top and climb up steeply up a field where you come back to the crossing of paths in point 2.  Now you can retrace your steps to the beginning of the walk.

For a slightly longer walk which also passes the Furnace, look for the Mayfield Circular Walk on the main Walks and Rides page