The future of the early 15th century Priest House in West Hoathly hangs in the balance with the recession and lack of public funding at the root of its struggle to survive as a visitor attraction.
The timber-framed Priest House nestles idyllically in its own traditional cottage garden on the edge of Ashdown Forest.
Around 3,000 people visit it every year including Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor at the height of their fame as a couple in the 1960s.
More relevant historically is its ownership in turn by Henry V111, Thomas Cromwell, Anne of Cleves, Mary 1 and Elizabeth 1 with the tapestry of colourful history associated with each of them forming part of its appeal.
But the future of the house as a visitor attraction is uncertain in the light of on-going financial pressures faced by the Sussex Archaeological Society (SAS), which owns it.
The SAS is responsible for eight of East and West Sussex’s most famous landmarks including Lewes Castle, Fishbourne Roman Palace, the Long Man of Wilmington and Anne of Cleves House and the Bull House in Lewes.
Bull house is home to the SAS and for six years between 1768 and 1774 was residence to revolutionary writer Tom Paine, the intellectual inspiration behind the American revolution.
Critically, the Priest House is one of three SAS properties that are currently in the red, the others being the maritime Marlipins Museum at Shoreham-by-Sea, whose chequerboard flint and Caen limestone facade is part of one of the oldest Norman buildings in Sussex, and Michelham Priory, home to England’s longest water filled moat which surrounds the 800-year-old site.
However, SAS relies on public contributions through membership, entrance fees and visitor spending at its cafes and shops and receives no government funding.
Chief executive officer of the Lewes-based 3,000-member organisation, Tristan Bareham, said it was suffering substantially from the effects of the on-going recession plus the summer of 2012, which was confirmed as the wettest and dullest for 100 years.
Mr Bareham said: “We had about 160,000 visitors to our properties in 2007, which went down to 133,000 in 2013. Collectively, that represents a massive loss of income for us.
“We were up by about 6,000 in 2012 and in 2014 we hope to be up by a similar number. However, even that rise will not help us with the enormous running costs such as upkeep, insurance and conservation of our properties. The upkeep alone is phenomenal. We, like every other body of similar type across the country have experienced real difficulty.”
Mr Bareham said that £3.7m had been invested in Fishbourne Roman Palace in 2006/7 to maintain it as a modern-day visitor attraction, while SAS hoped to generate and invest a further £3.4m in its properties over the coming few years.
But he said the viability of the 150-year-old organisation, which is the largest county archaeological society in the country covering East and West Sussex, was the legal responsibility of its trustees who could not allow its financial problems to continue indefinitely. with its diminishing reserves covering its current losses.
Mr Bareham said sale of the Priest House was a consideration which would remain if the situation did not improve.
He said: “If push comes to shove and all our latest plans don’t come to anything, we have that as an option, yes.
“It is not a preferred option and in 2014 we are planning to open.”
The Priest House, which has among its treasures a handkerchief embroidered by 66 women suffragettes while they were incarcerated in Holloway Prison in 1912, has a live-in custodian. His continuing position is under review as a way of cutting costs with approaches being made to the Friends of the Priest House for volunteer stewardship.
Mr Bareham appealed for further support for the Friends, who were vital to the survival of the Priest House and who had contributed £45,000 over many years.
“These guys do need any additional help they can get,” he said.
Mr Bareham added that the struggle faced by the SAS and its properties, which were part of the national heritage, was one currently being played out up and down the country by other organisations charged with maintaining public buildings and Britain’s ‘amazing heritage’.
SAS’s deficits currently stand at around £200,000, although the £250,000 spent on Michelham Priory in the last two years is helping to increase visitor numbers and bookings to off-set its very high running costs.
But the Priest House, with its restricted site, lack of car park, wedding or function facilities, cafe, shop or educational rooms is a more difficult entity to deal with.
Mr Bareham said: “We know somewhere like Michelham Priory can make a profit and is looking up but others like Marlipins Museum and the Priest House are always going to be more difficult.
“We are all doing all we can to safeguard these buildings under our framework but, if not then under someone else’s.”
n The Priest House is open from March to October 10.30am to 5.30pm and from 12pm on Sundays. It is closed Mondays except during August and Bank Holidays. Admission is adult £4, child £2, concessions £3.50, family £10; Garden £1.