GALLERY: Independent but pulling together in Sutton, Barlavington and Bignor

Is this tiny remote corner of West Sussex surviving? The answer is clear long before the village sign invites motorists to drive safely through Sutton.

There is a crossroads a mile back down the road where a huge oak shelters the sign inviting visitors to choose Sutton or Barlavington.

Crowded around its base are a host of posters heralding the next events in what might seem to be the sleepiest backwater on the map.

But the noticeboards announce a jumble sale at Sutton Village Hall to raise funds for the children's Christmas party, advertise the latest concert at Bignor Church and sign the way to another garden open day at Bignor Park.

There they are, again and again on every other garden gate and dotted along the lanes. And organisers have no doubt members of this little community will emerge as usual and give full support.

These three communities are fiercely independent and alive in their own right, but they draw strength from each other, support each other and join forces when they need to.

Several years ago Barlavington joined with Sutton as the common parish council of the two communities.

Sebastian Anstruther, whose family have owned Barlavington Estate since the l950s, has been on the common parish since it was formed.

"My father was chairman of Barlavington meeting before that and I took over from him. We talked about forming a parish council and in the end we formed the common parish council of the two communities."

Sebastian, who was brought up at Barlavington Farm House, has been running the estate for the past 20 years.

His special interest has been the preservation of the land and under his watchful eye the farm has become organic. There are several Sites of Special Scientific Interest on his land and he has been heavily involved with conservation work for many years.

Farmer David Green is chairman of Sutton and Barlavington Parish Council, where currently the most vexing issue is the lack of broadband.

"We are one of the two per cent of the nation that doesn't have it and it is impossible to contact BT to talk about it. This is one of our big issues and we are trying to get BT to enable our exchange."

And computers are more and more important in an area which has not had a shop since 1971.

The school disappeared in the l960s, but among villagers who attended are Brian Verall, who is now 75, and Sue Dudman who lives just a stone's throw from the house she was born in 57 years ago.

Sue's father, Laurie Vile, was born at the White Horse pub which was run by his parents and their parents before that.

"I went to Sutton School and so did my father and his parents," said Sue. "But the school closed because of falling numbers and a new school was built at Duncton so the few children left here all went there instead."

Sue met her husband Chris at Sutton Youth Club, now long gone, when she was 15. She left Sutton for two years to work in Horsham but returned and the couple married when she was 19.

They set up home in Greenfelds where Sue was born and have lived there ever since, bringing up their two sons Matthew and Martyn there, too.

Mr Verrall came to Sutton aged five when his father was appointed head gardener at Sutton End for Colonel and Mrs Holland.

"Sutton has changed a lot," he said. "There used to more tradesmen and agricultural workers. Now it is different but there is still a very good community spirit here."

There are three big things in Sutton – the Women's Institute, which has been going strong for 90 years, the Sutton and District Horticultural Society and the village hall where everything happens.

Sue Dudman is currently secretary of the horticultural society and both she and her husband are avid supporters. "We have about 50 members and get more than 200 entries in our spring and summer shows."

The WI president is Margaret Eatock and the group meets in Sutton's village hall built on land given to Sutton by the WI.

Over the past five years membership has grown to more than 40 as WIs in other areas have folded and the growing Sutton institute has extended its programme to include the menfolk at three evening meetings a year.

The hall itself tells the story of a lively community pulling together.

In the early l990s residents decided they wanted to replace the old wooden hut which served as the village hall.

From dozens of fundraising events, by selling bricks and with the help of grants, they raised 100,000 and in April, l992 they opened their fine new hall which serves all three communities.

Today it is the focus of village life and the chairman is Tim Fenner. Besides the WI and the horticultural society there is a popular flower-painting class run there by artist Toni Green, wife of the parish council chairman.

In addition there are jazz nights, barbecues and movie nights organised at the village hall which are all supported.

But inevitably life has changed: "When I was a child it was more of a working village and there were many more children," recalled Sue.

Over the years small tenant farms disappeared and little cottages were joined, making bigger homes.

"But it's still a thriving village," said Sue. "There are so many things going on each month it's a job to keep up with them."

The biggest date on the calendar is the hospitality day when villagers open their gardens to the public.

This takes turns with the church fete, so each event happens once every two years.

Villagers have fought to keep the village pub. In the 1950s when Sir Ian Anstruther moved to Barlavington the White Horse was under

threat and he bought it to ensure it did not become a private house.

The family ran it for many years, latterly in partnership with chef Albert Roux, who then lived at Sutton End.

"Eventually we sold it," said Sebastian, "with a covenant attached that it would always be run as a pub.

"The most recent landlords are Nick and Jo Hajigeorgiou who moved in just four months ago and gave the pub a complete facelift."

Church life is an important part of these communities where priest in charge David Brown is kept busy with churches in Bignor, Barlavington and Sutton as well as Burton and Coates.

At Bignor life very much centres on the little church of the Holy Cross where the large pots of paint and the ladders stacked against the church wall as well as the newly-cut grass show the commitment of this tiny community.

And they have found an unusual way of paying for the upkeep. There are not only monthly concerts including classical jazz, folk and guitar, but the intriguing wild flower and weed festival and even a big band concert.

Nick Symes is church warden. He and his wife Angela had a weekend cottage in Bignor, but loved the place so much they bought a permanent home there 15 years ago.

"We started the concerts to raise money because the lychgate was falling down and the floor needed repairing, but they became so popular because the acoustics are so good in the church that they have become a regular thing."

The church also plays host to the twice-yearly parish meetings: "It's rather nice because they are held once every six months and most of the villagers in Bignor go," said Mr Symes.

But there is not much that ruffles the feathers of these villagers who look out of their windows at the South Downs and hear only the sounds of birds or the occasional tractor.

A couple of years ago there was an outcry when Nyetimber vineyards erected a 'prison- like' fence around their new vines, but this was eventually resolved.

Villagers are now keeping a watchful eye on the redundant buildings which were home to the Individual Travellers Company and where there are plans to build homes.

Bignor is also unusual in that it has a parish meeting rather than a council.

The current chairman is Anna Gillam: "People do tend to turn up and we

have informal discussions with everybody included, about anything that

concerns people."

But she said there were occasions when Bignor turned to Sutton and Barlavington. "Smaller organisations sometimes need to join forces informally to make their voices stronger."

Not much has changed for generations. Probably the biggest change came about in 1811 when farmer Thomas Tupper's great, great, great, great-grandfather struck a large stone while out ploughing and Bignor Roman Villa opened to the public three years later. Now around 35,000 people visit each year.

As curator John Smith proudly tells visitors, the villa at Bignor is part of the 7,000 years of history which have left their mark along the ridge of the South Downs enfolding this corner of West Sussex.