Secrets – until a few months ago, that was the name of the shop that occupied the premises in Arundel High Street just to the right of Lloyd’s bank.
Secrets and Friends has now moved a few doors up the street, but there are secrets galore being uncovered in its old building during its current renovation.
Had the current owner, Jason, known the amount of work involved, he might have thought twice before purchasing the property and converting it into an antique emporium.
I was been lucky enough to have been granted unlimited access to the whole building over the past months to observe the work in progress, but more importantly, to observe the hidden history of the building as it is uncovered layer by layer.
The oldest part of the building, adjacent to the street, is much older than it appears at first glance.
From what I have observed, I believe it must date from the mid/later part of the 1500s.
Under the more modern outer skin one will find timber framing, with the areas which would have once been wattle and daub having, at some point in time, been replaced with knapped flint, instead of the more usual red brick.
You can currently see three small areas of exposed timber beams, with this flint infill, on the front of the building that Jason has opened up in the course of the renovation.
Unfortunately, space prevents me from being able to fully describe the inside of what is clearly one of the older and most fascinating buildings in the town, so this article will concentrate on just the ground floor of the older part of the building.
One of the first things Jason showed me were some small paintings on a cupboard, above head height, of what appeared to be dogs.
Did these possibly date back to the Victorian era, when it is known the shop was owned by a taxidermist by the name of ‘Benner’ Ellis, or do they predate even him?
Following one of my investigations it became clear to me that at some point there must have been a fireplace on the ground floor.
Following up on this, Jason uncovered a fine old inglenook fireplace along with a fine example of a bread oven, which he plans to keep uncovered as an historical feature.
Even the daughter of late Alderman Harry Mitchell Jacob, JP, whose family occupied this building from 1923 to 1988, was unaware of the existence of the fireplace, even though she had lived there for many years.
However, the building had only just started to reveal its secrets.
The next discovery came to light after the floorboards and joists on the ground floor were lifted for work to be carried out.
I noticed some unusual features in the soil that had been disturbed during the work and I carefully moved some of the soil aside to see what it was – I studied landscape archaeology at university.
About 15cms under the earth floor, a section of red clay peg tiles emerged that had clearly been badly burnt.
These sat on top of a layer of wood ash about 8cms deep, and I was able to identify three features (6cm diameter) as a line of post holes filled with the remains of the burnt posts.
These ashes and tiles clearly pre-dated the current building, although not by many years, and appeared to be the remains of a single-storey timber structure with a tiled roof.
In the far right-hand side of the building, in what was a later extension, the foundations of a flint and lime mortar structure were visible.
I believe this was a demolished chimney stack that had been built on the outside of the older part of the building, and then a hole knocked through the wall where a fireplace was then built.
This was common method of adding a chimney to a structure that was built without one.
Another method was to insert one through the centre of the building, a much more costly and time-consuming method.
It is worth remembering in these days, where central heating is often considered ‘the norm’, that prior to the 16th century, many general houses were built without chimneys.
However, I have held back what I feel is the most exciting find until last.
A few weeks ago, while showing me the progress of the renovation, Jason pointed out a small reddish mound in the centre of the room and asked me if I knew what this feature could be.
With a brush, I carefully cleared away the loose soil, fully expecting to find a pile of old bricks, when I was amazed to see the remains of a fireplace.
No, not a built up fireplace we would be familiar with today, but the kind that stood on clay tiles, partially embedded in the soil, which are often found in older pre-chimney open-hall buildings, and which easily pre-dates the inglenook in this room.
I am unaware of this kind of fireplace being unearthed anywhere else in Arundel – one can see such fireplaces in the Weald and Downland museum at nearby Singleton.
I took photos of all the features I have described above, although the amount of dust constantly in the air made it impossible to use a flash.
These will ultimately be deposited with Arundel Museum.
When I returned a couple of days later, the features in the earth floor had been carefully covered up to avoid them being damaged and to preserve them for future generations.
And the covered-up timber and flint front of the building?
Well, Jason would dearly love to fund the removal of the chipboard to expose this rather beautiful feature in all its glory, but sadly, he does not believe he will be able to obtain the required permission because ‘it would not be sympathetic with the adjacent buildings’, although he has vowed to keep trying.
Forthcoming events at Arundel Museum:
• Until Sunday, August 10 – Mike Payne Exhibition. The award-winning cartoonist and illustrator and creator of Tatty Teddy will be exhibiting some of his work in the Jubilee Room.
• Sunday, August 17 – Come and Sing day, The Songs of WWI. Rehearsals from 1pm at the Cathedral Centre, led by Deirdre Christiansen with a performance in the Jubilee Gardens at 6.30pm. To take part, buy a ticket from the museum, £5 adults, £2 children eight to 16 years.
• Sunday, August 17 – Painting Poppies. Help create a stunning backdrop for the Come and Sing performance. From midday onwards, go along to the Jubilee Gardens with friends and family, in old clothes and be prepared to have some creative fun. Free, all ages welcome.
For more details, visit www.arundelmuseum.org.uk or call 01903 885866.