Sunday, 20 December 2009

St John the Baptist, Llanblethian

Tucked away to the south of Cowbridge, the prosperous village of Llanblethian feels more like a suburb of the larger market town, but Cowbridge was in fact founded (in the 13th century) within the older parish of Llanblethian. It is fitting, then, that Llanblethian has a very fine, well-preserved mediaeval church, located in an enviable position at the top of a overlooking the River Thaw and its newer neighbour.


The earliest documentary evidence for the church is a charter from the mid 12th Century, when it was a possession of Tewkesbury abbey. The current fabric dates from between the 12th and 15th centuries, the most notable additions being the tower (said to have been the gift of Anne Neville, wife of Richard III, in 1477) and a substantial late-Gothic porch with pinnacles. The inevitable Victorian restoration stripped the interior of its plaster, but it is still atmospheric and beautifully maintained. The church was originally dedicated to St Bleddian, the Welsh form of St Lupus, the 5th-century Bishop of Troyes who (according to tradition) accompanied Germanus on his visit to Britain in 429AD.

The church

From the outside, the church presents a simple plan of west tower, nave and chancel, with a substantial south transept and adjoining south porch. The 15th century tower is reminiscent of those of Somerset, with stepped diagonal buttressing, pretty traceried bell openings, battlements and corner pinnacles. On entering, the interior is dominated by those stripped walls, but is softened by a beautiful roof, with sturdy arched bracing, and a generous collection of wall memorials dating from the 17th century onwards. Indeed, more ancient memorials cover the floor throughout, as well as the walls of the porch.

The chancel arch in the Early English style is clearly modern, but the tower arch is original, with two wonderful corbels of rather stout men in late 15th Century costume. The tower space contains a number of ancient tomb slabs with crosses, presumably from the tombs of earlier priests. The south wall of the transept incorporates a large Gothic niche containing a mediaeval effigy of a priest; investigations in the crypt uncovered a skeleton of a man - presumably a priest - holding a pewter chalice to his chest. The chalice is now in the church’s possession. Other fittings of note include an ancient wooden door in the north wall, a handsome modern wooden reredos, and some attractive Victorian stained glass.

The church will amply repay a visit; note that the roads in the village are both steep and subject to width restrictions.

St John the Baptist, Church Road, Llanblethian, CF71 7JF

Saturday, 19 December 2009

Holy Cross Church, Cowbridge

Cowbridge is a small, prosperous market town, roughly half way between Cardiff and Bridgend. Although there is some evidence of Roman occupation, a mediaeval walled town was founded by charter in 1254 within the older parish of Llanblethian. The centre of the town still retains its mediaeval street plan, including the South Gate.

Church history

The parish church was originally built as a Chapel of Ease of the parish church in Llanblethian, and was probably founded along with the town. Until the 20th century it was dedicated to St Mary. Although the church contains elements from the 13th century, the most remarkable feature is its semi-fortified tower, built around 1300.

The church was extended in the 14th and 15th centuries, and restored by John Pritchard between 1848 and 1853, and by George Pace in the 20th century. A recent grant from Cadw, the Welsh Historic Monuments agency, has restored the tower to its mediaeval appearance, complete with external rendering. The building is listed at Grade 1.

The building

The church is tucked away off the High Street, a short walk from the old Grammar School and the remaining mediaeval south gate. Looking from Church Street, the building is dominated by its massive, squat, tower: hugely buttressed and with a projecting staircase, it is surmounted by an octagonal battlement. Other notable external features are the substantial south aisle, almost as large as the nave, and a large north chancel chapel, now used as a vestry.

Inside, the combination of the nave and south aisle make for a spacious interior, with an arcade of elegant clustered piers separating the two. There is no crossing as such, the space under the tower leading to the heavily-Victorianised chancel.

The most notable fittings are two memorials. The first is a very fine Jacobean memorial to William Carne, of Nash Manor, and his wide Elizabeth, located in the South Aisle. They are depicted facing each other, with their three sons and daughters below as mourners. The women are dressed identically in black, the men in armour, all with fine ruffs. The other is an elegant 18th century memorial to the extensive family of David Jenkins (d. 1664) in the nave.

Both nave and aisle are filled with low (and apparently very uncomfortable) mid-Victorian box pews, although some of these have been removed in the nave and there are plans to remove even more. While this creates a large flexible space, I am less sure about the choice of bright red for both seats and carpet, which for me rather jars with the mediaeval and Victorian fabric. On a jollier note, the church was filled with Christmas trees on my visit, each donated by a different group or institution, as part of a Christmas festival.

The church is the centre of a very busy parish life, which encompasses a total of eleven churches.

Holy Cross, Church St, Cowbridge CF71 7BB

Tuesday, 24 November 2009

All Saints, Lullington

Photograph courtesy of Frank Collins

Lullington's village green has a small scattering of houses, a former school, a farm and a church. So perfect is this little ensemble, it could almost be a film-set.

The church is ancient however: possibly a Saxon foundation, it was in the ownership of the Bishop of Coutances in 1086. The building we see today dates from the 12th century, with a South Aisle added around 1280, the Chancel in 1340, and South Porch around 1450. Extensively but sensitively restored in 1862, it is chiefly known for its Norman work, regarded as among the best in Somerset.

On the exterior, this is most clearly visible on the north side, where the north door has a fine Tympanum with Christ in Majesty, above an arch of two orders, one zig-zag and the other a series of wonderful beak-heads. Beneath, two animals eat from the Tree of Life. The supporting columns have zig-zag and spiral carving with heavily weathered capitals. Above, the corbel table is a delight in its own right, with the subjects including a surprised-looking king and two beasts embracing. The south doorway is also Norman, although of a simpler design.

Inside, there is yet more Norman work in the tower and chancel arches, with carved capitals depicting a green man, a winged lion and a peculiar ox with two bodies apparently joined by a single head. But the best furnishing is its font: dating from the 11th century, it has interlinked arches under a frieze of flowers and an inscription which reads: "Hoc Fontis Sacro Peveunt Delicta Lavacro". Above the inscription is another frieze, this time of 'Green Cats', linked with long bands of foliage spewing from their mouths. Such green cats were probably meant to be lions, but were carved by masons who had never seen the real thing. Whatever their origins, it makes the font a unique and fascinating object.

Well worth a detour.

All Saints, Lullington nr Frome, BA11 2PG

St Andrew, Mells

Photograph courtesy of Frank Collins

Mells is a pretty and interesting little village just west of Frome, with houses scattered along steep lanes. At its heart is the impressive church of St Andrew, set alongside an equally impressive Tudor Manor House, approached along a planned 15th century street - the combination being described by architectural historian Nikolas Pevsner as "among the happiest in Somerset".

The church itself - now Grade I listed - was founded in the 13th century, but almost entirely rebuilt in the 15th and 16th centuries in the Perpendicular Gothic style. From this period, the most notable features are the wonderful porch and tower - the latter with impressive pinnacles. Indeed, the whole church is decorated with battlements and pinnacles, as well as an unusual two-storied polygonal vestry. Both porch and tower have elaborate fan vaults, of a quality which would grace any cathedral.

Inside, the roofs and furnishings are largely Victorian, but it still feels like a mediaeval church: the north chapel has its original wooden roof, and the south chapel - largely filled with the 19th century organ - has two very impressive brasses to earlier Vicars, unfortunately rather hard to appreciate in their cramped surroundings. Look closely and you can also find the remains of the odd Jacobean pew.

The adjacent manor house was once home to the Horner family, and passed by marriage to the Asquiths. Around the turn of the century, the house became something of a magnet for the artistic worthies of the time such as Eric Gill, Edwin Lutyens and Burne-Jones, who left some impressive fittings and furnishings, including tombs, memorials, glass and tapestries.

Most notable are a tapestry and a plaster memorial depicting a peacock to Laura Lyttleton, both by Burne-Jones; and the handsome equestrian statue by Mannings and Lutyens in the north aisle. This is a memorial to Edward Horner, the last of the male Horner line, killed in action at Noyelles in France in 1917, aged 28.

Outside, behind the East end of the church are memorials to the Horners and Asquiths, to Lady Violet Bonham-Carter, and - most notably - to Siegfried Sassoon, who asked to be buried close to his friend, Ronald Knox, the Catholic priest and scholar. To the north, a clipped avenue of yews is another example of Lutyens' work.

St Andrew, New Street, Mells nr Frome BA11 3PT

Monday, 19 October 2009

St. Martin-Le-Grand Church, York

St Martin's is one of York's most notable landmarks, best-known for its impressive clock which hangs over Coney Street. But it has also had a tumultuous history, and contains one of York's most impressive mediaeval stained glass windows.

The church was one of one of York's largest and finest, prior to a fateful night in 1942, when an air raid reduced the church to a smouldering ruin. Before then, it boasted a large nave and chancel with full length aisles and chapels. The fabric dated from the 11th to the 15th centuries.

The well-known and large double-sided clock on Coney Street was fitted in 1668, and which was topped by a statue of the 'Little Admiral' in the 18th century.

The clock and statue survived the bombing, but little else did. The church was eventually rebuilt between 1961 and 1968, with the 15th century tower and south aisle becoming the church, and the remainder (most of the former nave and north aisle) becoming an enclosed garden of remembrance. Substantial parts of the north walls survive, however, including elements from the 11th century.

Although much smaller, the restored church is an attractive space, combining modern works with a 17th century memorial to Sir William Sheffield (d. 1633) and - above all - its mediaeval stained glass. This had fortunately been removed for safe keeping in 1940, and includes one gem: the window depicting the life and works of St Martin of Tours, dating from around 1440.

Formerly the west window, this is now in the new north wall and faces visitors as they enter. It is huge for a parish church (and is the largest in the city outside the Minster): 9m high and 4m wide, it is one of the best preserved of its type and contains no Victorian additions or repairs.

The church is normally open during weekdays for private prayer and visitors.

Coney Street, York, YO1 9QL

All Saints, North Street, York

If you visit just one church in York (aside from the Minster, I suppose), make it this one. This fascinating little church, tucked away on the rather less touristy west bank of the Ouse, has much to interest visitors and contains one of Britain's most impressive collections of mediaeval stained glass.


There has been a church here since at least the 11th century, probably predating the Norman invasion. In the 12th century, the single-cell church was expanded with aisles, some of which incorporated Roman columns from the original Roman settlement of Eboracum.

The chancel was reconstructed in the 13th century in the Early English style, but a major rebuilding in the 14th century saw the East End rebuilt in the Decorated Gothic style, with the aisles extended to form a rectangular plan. Later in the same century, the tower and 120ft spire were built, and the fine chancel and aisle ceilings were added in the 15th century.

The church

On entering, the church has a slightly rustic and homely feel to it. With no crossing, the nave is divided from the chancel only by the rood screen, and the aisles run uninterrupted from east to west. The arcades are in the simplest Early Gothic style, with simple capitals. One of the original Roman columns can clearly be seen between the north aisle and chancel.

But the main event is unquestionably the stained glass: almost all of it is mediaeval, and of very high quality. There is simply too much to describe here in great detail, but there is more information available on the church's website. But essentially, the north and south aisles and east end contain windows which are complete or almost entirely complete in their original form, and date mostly from the 14th and 15th centuries.

The most famous are in the north aisle: first, the 'Corporal Acts of Mercy Window' shows a bearded man (who may be the donor, Nicholas Blackburn, a merchant and mayor of York), carrying out six of the seven bodily acts of mercy, ie feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, offering hospitality to strangers, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and relieving those in prison. The final act (burying the dead) is omitted.

Next along in the aisle is the unique 'Pricke of Conscience' window, so named after a Middle English poem, written in the Northumbrian dialect, describing the last 15 days of the world. The panels depict the destruction of the world and the fate of humankind, each panel underscored with the relevant passage of the poem, and all intended to call people to repent. As you might expect, the images include some wonderful beasts, demons and devils, along with people in varying states of terror or torment. The families of the donors sit watching all this at the bottom of the window.

Finally, in the south aisle, look out for the bright and colourful 'Orders of Angels' window in the south aisle: in one of the lower panels is a man wearing a pair of very uncomfortable looking 15th century spectacles.

Other fittings of note include a fine 15th century memorial slab on the floor of the south aisle near the chancel arcade, and the imposing late 17th cetury pulpit. Don't forget to look up, either, to the chancel and aisle ceilings with their beautifully carved 15th century hammerbeams depicting angels and men of the church.

The church is in the Anglo-Catholic tradition, and Mass is said on Thursday at 12.45, and on Sundays at 12 noon and 17.30. The church is normally open for visitors in the middle of the day.

North Street, York, YO1 6JD

Monday, 28 September 2009

St Wulfran's, Ovingdean

The charming village of Ovingdean, tucked away in its own little valley a mile inland from the sea, is now part of Brighton but remains a world away in spirit. It is also famous as the birthplace of Charles Eamer Kempe, the renowned designer of stained glass: his work fills the church and he is buried in its churchyard.


There was a ‘little church’ and settlement here in Saxon times, recorded in the Domesday book, and it seems that it was rebuilt almost immediately after the Conquest, when the current Nave and Chancel were erected. This was followed by the short, robust tower early in the 13th century, followed by the south porch around 1300 (rebuilt around 1867). The south wall shows the unmistakeable signs of a south aisle of two bays also built around the 13th century, and which may have been destroyed during a French raid. A south chapel was added leading off the chancel in 1907 on the foundations of an earlier structure.

The dedication to the 7th century French Bishop St Wulfran is unusual, shared only by the Parish Church of Grantham and the collegiate church in Abbeville, in France, where he is buried.

The Church

The church is set into a steep hillside, and the floor progressively descends from the tower to the chancel. Save for the corner stones, its walls are entirely of flint, with a red tiled roof and a typical Sussex pyramidal cap on the tower. The walls are pierced only by narrow Norman windows or simple lancets, save for the Decorated Gothic windows in the south wall of the nave. These, as well as others through the church, contain glass by Kempe, with his tell-tale wheat sheaf signature.

Inside, the interior is something of a surprise: the walls of the nave are bright with whitewash, and the eye is immediately drawn to the unusual arrangement of three chancel arches, underneath a rood screen. The plain central arch is the Norman original, with the two flanking arches added in the 17th century and rebuilt in the 19th; the rood is Kempe’s work from 1867. Opposite the south door are the remains of the original Norman north door, complete with water stoup. To the west, a generous pointed tower arch leads to a spacious tower room, which now contains additional pews and the font. High the east wall above the arch is the original mediaeval bell wheel.

Turning east, the Chancel has yet more lancets and Norman round-headed windows; the tiles reredos and painted wooden panels either side of the East Window are late Victorian, while those in the gable above by Maude Bishop were painted 1957-63. Of greater interest to most visitors, however, is the painted ceiling: although the ceiling is a 19th century replacement, the paintings of birds and foliage was done was Kempe in 1867. Off the Chancel is the small south east chapel, built in 1907 on the foundations of an earlier chapel.

Back outside, the old churchyard is worth a look; as well as the Kempe family tomb, is that of Magnus Volk (1851-1937), builder of the electric railway which still plies its trade along Brighton’s seafront.

The Green, Ovingdean, Brighton BN2 7BA

Monday, 3 August 2009

St John the Evangelist, Preston, Brighton

St John’s an impressive late 19th century church on the London Road just north of Preston Park in Brighton. Completed in 1902 to designs of the famous Victorian architect Sir Arthur Blomfield, it was extended with the addition of a chancel in 1926, and is a Grade-II listed building. It is one of the most prominent buildings on the approach to Brighton from London.

The church consists of a nave and chancel, with a baptistery and narthex at the west end. Built of ragstone, with a tiled roof, the exterior is dominated by a tall wood-and-lead fleche at the junction of the nave and chancel. The style is essentially Early English, with simple lancets throughout, except for the impressive Decorated Gothic East Window.

The church is entered through the baptistery and narthex, separated from the nave by a three-bay arcade. The nave is impressively spacious - both long and generously aisled, with an Early English style arcade of five and a quarter bays on round piers, and a tall clerestory. There are lancet windows in both aisle and clerestory in five sets of matching pairs. These are all filled with clear glass which, with the pale cream walls, gives the interior a bright and spacious feel.

A simple Gothic screen separates the nave from the chancel, which has a sedilia, an elaborately carved stone reredos and a mosaic tiled floor. Fixtures and fittings of note are limited to the impressive carved Gothic pulpit, a brass eagle lectern and attractive stained glass in the East window. The church has a busy parish life, and adheres to a liberal catholic tradition.

Saturday, 25 July 2009

The Lord Mayor's Chapel, Bristol

The Lord Mayor’s Chapel is often overlooked by those visiting the nearby Cathedral, which it faces across College Green. But this small, Grade I Listed chapel contains a wealth of history, including an impressive collection of tombs and stained glass behind its modest but attractive west front.


The chapel was established to serve a religious hospital foundation in 1230, to care for the sick, feed the poor and educate 12 poor boys. Originally administered by the Cathedral, it became a separate institution in the late 13th century. It was endowed with lands by wealthy Bristol merchants until it was dissolved, along with other such religious foundations, in 1539.

Fortunately, it was purchased by Bristol Corporation in 1541, and has remained in their possession ever since: it is now the country’s only functioning chapel in civic ownership. Most of the foundation’s other buildings have long-since disappeared.

The building

The nave was erected around 1230, followed by the south aisle around 1280. The tower – visible from the passage at the side – was erected in 1487, and the chancel was rebuilt and the south aisle chapel added in 1500. In 1523, Sir Robert Poyntz, a close associate of Henry VII and Henry VIII, built a chantry chapel south of the chancel. The church underwent a major restoration in 1889, undertaken by the renowned church architect J L Pearson, who rebuilt the West Front (albeit retaining the window design) and North Transept. The original west window now resides in a garden, as a romantic ruin, in the Bristol suburbs.

Although the chapel has some fine Tudor architecture – the nave roof, the fan vaulting of the Poyntz Chapel and the East Window are all impressive – the church is chiefly known for its rich stained glass and fittings.

Pride of place must go to the tombs, dating from the 13th to the 18th centuries. Most of these were moved to the south aisle and south aisle chapel in the 18th century. There are simply too many to describe in detail, but as a collection they would flatter any cathedral.

The earliest are two crusader tombs in the South Aisle Chapel, with effigies in full chain mail armour, believed to be of the co-founders, Maurice de Gaunt (d. 1230) and his nephew Robert de Gournay (d. 1269). In the south aisle is a very rare merchant’s tomb from around 1360, wearing civilian dress, including short ‘pixie’ boots, stockings and a full-length cloak. Most poignant is that of John Cookin, dated 1627, who died aged 11. He is depicted, life-size, on one knee, carrying his schoolbooks, under a fine classical canopy.

But the stained and painted glass is also impressive: although some is original, most came from the Abbey of Fonthill in 1823, and dates from the late mediaeval period. Made in England, France and Cologne, much of it was inserted in the East Window, but the south aisle chapel also has 23 roundels of German and Flemish glass from the 16th and 17th centuries, and the Poyntz Chapel roundels from the 15th century.

Also of note are the fine 15th century reredos, and a large number of mediaeval piscinas and carved heads (mostly corbels) - don't miss the wonderful grotesque face in the south transept. Finally, the Poyntz Chapel floor is laid with 16th century floor tiles from Spain - said to be the largest such collection outside the Iberian Peninsular.

College Green, Bristol, BS1 5TB

Friday, 10 July 2009

St Mary the Virgin, Eastbourne

The Eastbourne familiar to most visitors is that of the genteel, largely Victorian, seaside resort. But it will surprise many that the town's history goes back a lot further: the area has been settled since the Roman period, and the Domesday Book records a church, watermill, salt pans, fisheries and ploughlands.

This settlement was a mile or so inland, and is today known as the 'old town’. At its centre is the surprisingly large church of St Mary, which dates from the 12th-14th centuries: it was fortunate in being sensitively restored in the 19th century, and is full of fascinating architectural and historical details.

The church was built around 1200, and the nave and chancel both survive from this period. The church was enlarged in the 14th century, with an additional west bay to the nave, a robust tower and north and south aisles. On entering, the Norman arcades and chancel arch dominate the spacious interior: the chancel arch, strangely, is rounded, whereas the nave and chancel arcades are pointed, although they were probably built around the same time.

The nave arcades have alternating round and octagonal piers, with stiff-leaf carving. The chancel arch and chancel arcades have a type of zig-zag decoration, whereas those in the nave are plain. The clerestory has large, simple lancets. The 14th century gave the tall tower arch and the decorated style windows in the aisles, tower and chancel. Two windows at the east of the south aisle are slightly later, from the 15th century.

The interior has a wealth of interesting details, fittings and furnishings. The chancel has decorated sedilia, piscina and Easter sepulchre, all with decorated ogee arches from the 14th century, and the south chapel has a tomb recess from the same period.

There is a rare rood piscina high on the south arcade next to the chancel arch, and there are two delightful faces in the south aisles - the one under the rood stair has a wonderfully bulbous nose. Both north and south chapels have 14th wooden screens with delicate ogee decoration. The font is slightly later, in the Perpendicular style.

The church has a superb collection of memorials on the walls and floors, dating from the early 17th to the mid 19th centuries. Most notable are those of Katherine Gildredge and her two infant children (d. 1625), carved by Edward Marshall, master mason to Charles II, and located in the north chapel. More poignant is that to Henry Lushington in the South aisle, (d. 1763). He was the eldest son of the vicar and a member of the East India Company. He survived the 1756 'Black Hole of Calcutta' uprising, but died in another incident in 1763, defending his colleagues in Patna.

Outside, the “Old Parsonage” - actually a Rectory Manor house - survives from the 16th century, alongside a timber-framed barn. More oddly, the churchyard contains a tall Norman cross, brought from St Erth in Cornwall.

Church Street, Eastbourne, East Sussex BN20 9HR

St Saviour, Eastbourne

Pevsner’s Sussex volume of the Buildings of England is blunt: “Eastbourne, as against Brighton and Bournemouth, is poor in worthwhile Victorian churches. In fact, there is only one: Street’s St Saviour.”

Whatever one thinks of that view, there can be no disagreement that St Saviour is an impressive building. Its architect was George Edmund Street, best known for the Royal Courts of Justice on the Strand, and a favoured architect of the 19th century Oxford Movement, which espoused traditional catholic liturgy and theology.

For St Saviour, Street designed a building in his favoured Gothic style, mixing Early English and late 13th century styles in blood-red brick with ashlar trimmings. Begun in 1867 to replace a iron ‘mission’ church, the spire – its dominant external feature – marked its completion in 1872.

Moving inside, you are immediately struck by the sense of space: the nave is wide and tall, with generous aisles leading dramatically to an apsidal East End. The next thing to strike you, as your eyes adjust to the light, is the decoration: the interior abounds in it: glass, mosaics, tiling, murals, painting and marble. Most of this was executed by the firm of Clayton & Bell (normally better known for their stained glass), with marble by the Italian form of Saviati.

The decoration reaches its climax, appropriately enough, in the sanctuary, where the scheme is almost overwhelming in its richness and complexity. The gilded reredos (1937) is by W H Randolph Blacking, and is dedicated to Henry Urling Whelpton, second incumbent and son of the first Vicar: in any other church it would dominate, but here must jostle for attention. More restrained, but equally impressive, are the murals over the chancel arch, painted directly onto the brick, and depicting Christ in glory with saints and angels.

There are two chapels: that on the left is dedicated to St Peter, in recognition of the parish absorbed by St Saviour’s in 1972, and on the south side the memorial chapel to its first Vicar, Henry Robert Whelpton. The baptistery at the west end houses an onyx font designed by Street and has murals depicting St Augustine preaching at Canterbury and St Oswald.

As one might expect, the church has a vibrant parish life, with worship in the Anglo-Catholic tradition. Happily, they keep their church open daily for private prayer.

South Street, Eastbourne, East Sussex BN21 4UT

Monday, 6 July 2009

St Andrew, Greensted

This unassuming church, tucked away in the Essex countryside, is not just rustic and charming - although it is both of those - but is also historically very important. A closer look reveals that the nave walls are built of upright, halved wooden logs, making St Andrew's Europe’s oldest extant wooden building, and the oldest wooden church in the world - as well as Britain's only log church.

The history of the site dates back around 1300 years: the land of the East Saxons - now Essex - was evangelised By Saint Cedd in 654AD, who was based at nearby Bradwell on the Essex coast. Remains have been found under the present church of a wooden building dating from the late sixth or seventh century, which may have been a sanctuary used by those early missionaries. The dedication to St Andrew also suggests a Celtic foundation.

The present nave is rather later, and has recently been dated by dendrochronology to around 1060. It was originally dated to some 200 years earlier, but, even with this later date, its status as Europe’s oldest standing wooden building and the world’s oldest wooden church remains.

The original church was probably thatched, and without windows. The Normans built a chancel, although all that remains now are the footings and a pillar piscina. The present brick chancel was erected around 1500, and at the same time the handsome chancel arch inserted, and roofs rebuilt and tiled. The date of the tower is uncertain, but it may have been added in the 17th century - one of the bells is dated 1618. The east wall of the chancel was rebuilt in the Victorian period and the roof and walls also repaired.

An interesting piece of local history is that some of the Tolpuddle Martyrs, after they were pardoned, were settled in Greensted on their return, and one of them, James Brine, was married here in 1839.

The church now is set in a pretty country churchyard, full of yews and lichen-covered gravestones. The porch was built next 12th century Crusader tomb, and leads directly into the Saxon nave. This is incredibly dark inside, despite the insertion of dormer windows, and retains its box pews. The chancel is somewhat brighter, and whitewashed.

The church has some interesting fittings: the pulpit was donated in 1698 by London pewterer Alexander Cleeve, and in the chancel are the Norman piscina and a memorial to one Jone Wood, dated 1585. The eagle lectern is an impressive bit of Victoriana: most of the glass is also Victorian, save a small but well preserved piece of 15th century glass set in the quatrefoil window in the west wall.

The rear of the church has all sorts of items for sale to help fundraising, from the usual postcards and guides to a wide selection of country jams and other sweet treats.

Church Lane, Greensted, Essex, CM5 9LD

St Martin, Chipping Ongar

St Martin’s is a historic Norman church in the pretty little town of Chipping Ongar, and is situated just off the High Street. Built just after the Norman conquest, around 1080, the original nave and chancel still survive, the flint walls incorporating reused Roman bricks and tiles which are clearly visible from the outside. The church was extended in Victorian times, but still retains its 15th century steeple, complete with 17th century clock.

Inside, the atmosphere in the nave is dark, thanks to the low, heavy 14th century roof, and some rather heavy Victorian stained glass. The porch, south aisle and nave arcade are also Victorian, and you have to look to find the mediaeval features: narrow, round-headed Norman windows in the north wall, above a stoup for Holy Water.

The chancel arch was rebuilt around 1350, but some Norman windows also survive in the chancel, alongside 14th and 16th century insertions, and some of the 'scissor’ roof beams are also thought to be Norman. The East window is a nice Decorated Gothic example from about 1300.

The fittings include a 16th century pulpit, a 15th century font and, on the south wall of the chancel, a memorial to Sara Mitford (d. 1776) by the noted English sculptor Joseph Nollekens. Under the south side of the altar is another memorial, to Jane Pallavicini, cousin of Oliver Cromwell (whose father fought on the Royalist side). Back outside, on the north wall of the sanctuary is a small recess (now with a door). This was originally an anchorite cell - where a hermit could take part in the service without being seen or coming into contact with the parishioners.

Finally, one of the Victorian windows depicts David Livingstone - who lived in Chipping Ongar in 1838-40 to undertake probationary year at the London Missionary Society school.

Off the High Street, Chipping Ongar, CM5 9JJ

Friday, 3 July 2009

St Mary, Udimore

Udimore is one of those small English villages strung out along a road, with no real centre, which is so easy to drive through. But just off the busy B2089 is the lovely church of St Mary, situated in an idyllic spot next to a farm and to a duck pond (which actually had a family of ducks on it when I visited).

Udimore is recorded in the Domesday Book, and there was an important lodge here in mediaeval times, in which both Edward I and Edward III stayed - Edwards III’s Queen, Eleanor, is said to have watched the English fleet from Udimore before the Battle of Winchelsea (against a Castilian fleet) on 29 August 1350.

Historically, the church nave was originally 12th century Norman, to which a south aisle was added around 1200, with the chancel added slightly later and the tower slightly later still, around 1230. The aisle was lost at some later period and the whole church was heavily restored in 1896.

From the outside, the church looks impressively large: the tower is robust and squat, and barely higher than the tall nave and chancel roofs. The walls on both north and south sides of the nave betray a series of alterations, with blocked arches abounding. On entering the church, it is clear that it once had a south aisle of three bays, in the Early English Gothic style, on round columns with stiff-leaf capitals, dating from the very beginning of the 13th century: these are best preserved in the central bay, which now forms the south 'porch’, although there is no internal door or wall.

It is not clear when the aisle was demolished, but may have been around the time of the Black Death. The porch was added during the 19th century, using a 15th century door, and the north wall nave lancets are also 19th century. The south nave windows are 15th century, although heavily restored, and probably came from the original south aisle wall.

The chancel is entered through a beautifully proportioned (and very pointed) arch, and now we find ourselves firmly in the 13th century. The chancel is indeed textbook Early English Gothic: there are lancets in the north and south walls, and a triple lancet composition at the east end. The westernmost lancet on the south wall was originally lower, to allow people outside the church to watch the mass: the sill was raised in line with the others in Victorian times - the alteration is clearly visible on the outside.

The church has some interesting fittings: in the chancel is a small wooden font, covered in plaster to make it look like stone: an edict at the Reformation forbade the use of wooden vessels, and this is an unusually late example (early 18th century) of a stone 'forgery' designed to hide the fact!

The Jacobean period is represented by a fine bench seat in the porch, and there is a particularly grand coat of arms of George III, erected by two churchwardens in 1772. The pulpit and font are both Victorian. Back outside, the churchyard contains some interesting graves, including a number of anthropomorphic 'bodystones’.

Udimore, just off the B2089, near Rye. TN31 6BB

St Michael, Playden

Playden is today almost a suburb of Rye, and passes almost unnoticed by those driving along the A268. But it is mentioned in the Domesday book (as “Plaidenham”), and has a fine – and largely unrestored - late 12th century church, tucked just off the main road.

From the outside, the most notable feature is the slender shingled broach spire, atop a robust Norman tower. The interior betrays the change from round Norman arches in the three easternmost bays of the nave, to Early Gothic arches in the westernmost bay, and under the tower. A small Norman window in the north aisle also testifies to a possibly older past.

But its treasures are its fittings: first amongst equals is the rare but astonishing decorated gothic wooden screen between the north aisle chapel and the tower. This has complex ogee work forming medallions above turned columns, and is believed to date from around 1310. The chancel is screened by a later Perpendicular screen, simpler but still handsome. Under the tower itself is an ancient ladder – there is no staircase – which has been dated to 1686. Alas, it is no longer safe to use.

Finally, in the north aisle is an unusual memorial stone, featuring two casks and a crossed matchstick and fork. It commemorates a Flemish brewer, Cornelis Roetmans who was buried here in 1530.

Playden, on A268 1 mile north of Rye.

St Dunstan, Snargate

Romney Marsh in Kent is famous for its ancient and atmospheric churches: built to serve villages which are shadows of their former selves, their isolated towers pepper the flat, windswept landscape.

So it is with St Dunstan, at Snargate; a few cottages and a pub, but otherwise all around is fields, willows and sheep. The name derives from the snare-gates, or sluices, built to maintain the water way to Romney harbour, and recorded as long ago as 1254. The flat landscape wasn’t always regarded as romantic, though: as late as 1799, Hasted’s History and Topographical Survey of the County of Kent describes it as a “very forlorn unhealthy place, partaking of the same bad qualities of both air and water as the neighbouring parishes in the Marsh”.

The first impression of the church is one of surprising size for so remote a location, a view reinforced on entering its spacious interior. Its early history is not known, but the present nave dates from around 1200, enlarged around 1250 with aisles to the north and south. The resulting arcades are simple but handsome affairs of four pointed Early English Gothic arches on round piers. The responds at either end of the south aisle have women’s faces beneath foliage. The nave roof is magnificent – perfect tie-beams and king posts, dating from the 16th century.

The north aisle roof – unusually gabled – is older still, dating from the fourteenth century. Its trusses have decorative bosses, depicting (from west to east): foliage, a spread- eagle, a cross fleury, the initials “WN” and, against the east wall, the arms of Sir John Copuldlike, whose wife Joane inherited the Manor in 1399.

The chancel was added in the 14th century, and has two bays of arcades to what were once north and south chapels, with octagonal columns. There is – unusually – no chancel arch, although the position of the rood-screen can clearly be seen, as can the remains of the staircase which went up to it. The fifteenth century added the robust Perpendicular tower, dating from around 1400, and also the aisle windows. The tower arch is particularly impressive, framing a text-book late Gothic window. Finally, the small brick porch was added in the 18th century.

The church has some fascinating fittings and furnishings that bear greater inspection. Pride of place goes to the wall painting of a ship in the north aisle, dating from 1500 (picture below). So good is the painting, that it can be dated to a type of ‘great ship’ from the period 1480-1520, of perhaps 800 tones, with four masts, a forecastle, half deck and quarter deck. There is a local tradition that such a painting indicated that the church was a safe place in which to hide smuggled goods, and indeed in 1743 a large seizure of tobacco was made in the belfry, and a cask of hollands (Dutch gin) was found under the vestry table!

To the right of the painting, either side of the north door, two lead plates record those who repaired the church in 1780, including “T. Apps, carpenter, and all his jolly men”.

Between the chancel and north aisle is a 14th century altar tomb in the Decorated Gothic style decorated with quatrefoils, dating from around 1360, but sadly lacking its inlaid brass. The sanctuary rails of wood atop wrought iron supports are 17th century, and the pulpit 18th century. All are simple but handsome. Back in the nave, the font, from around 1220, still has its original lead lining. Next to it are some preserved encaustic tiles, from 1485. Finally, the church has a ring of three bells, one of which, inscribed “+ AVE * MARIA”, dates from around 1275.

The church has a service once a fortnight, and is part of the parish of Brenzett with Snargate and Brookland with Fairfield. The church is normally open in daylight hours. It’s well worth a detour.

Snargate, on lane opposite Red Lion pub, between Brenzett and Appledore TN29 9RX

Wednesday, 1 July 2009

St John the Evangelist, Piddinghoe

Piddinghoe is a fortunate place. Although just a mile or two from Newhaven and half an hour from Brighton, this delightful little village nestling under the South Downs has more than its fair share of picture-postcard cottages, a quay on the River Ouse with colourful boats tied alongside, and a lake in the former clay workings now used for watersports.

It also has a fascinating and atmospheric little church, set on a mound directly above the river, notable for having one of three round towers in the Ouse valley (the others being at Southease and St Michael, Lewes). Their origin reflects the plentiful supply of flints for building walls, but a shortage of other stone from which to carve out quoins for tower corners. Otherwise, from the outside, all is typical Sussex: walls of more flint, and a tiled roof which sweeps down almost to the ground. Inside, it is - even for an old church - extraordinarily dark and atmospheric.

Historically, it was built some time in the late 11th or early 12th century, as it is included in a list of churches given to the Priory of St Pancras at Lewes in 1121. It then probably consisted of just a simple nave and the tower. Expansion began early in the 12th century, when three round arches were cut into the north wall to form an aisle. Four arches were similarly inserted in the south wall to create a south aisle, but these are pointed and slightly chamfered in the Gothic style, and date to around 1200.

The Chancel was added later still, and is in the Early English style of the 13th century, with an attractive composition on the East wall of three lancets, with a round oculus window above, and a handsome (though restored) chancel arch. North and south aisles were added to the Chancel, at the same time, each with a two-bay arcade. However, at some later point the south and chancel aisles were demolished, and it was not until the restoration in 1882 that they were rebuilt, following the original floor plan, albeit with tiny quatrefoil windows in the south arcade clerestory.

The church is dark owing to the small Victorian aisle windows, heavy with stained glass by Wailes & Strang. The one exception is an attractive modern window at the west end of the north aisle, by Marguerite Douglas-Thompson, inserted in 1983. The vaguely pre-Raphaelite Chancel glass is by Powell & Sons. The only other furnishing of note is the font, dating from the 13th century. The tower has three bells, cast in the 13th or 14th century, and all recast in 1713.

Back outside, there are two points of interest: next to the tower are the village’s stocks, still in place and now listed as historic monuments in their own right. Finally, the tower’s weather vane is shaped like a large fish, although its age is not known (other than being present in the 19th century). It features in Rudyard Kipling’s poem 'Sussex’, thus: ...where windy Piddinghoe’s begilded dolphin veers… Kipling clearly used some poetic licence, as the fish resembles a salmon rather than a dolphin!

Piddinghoe, nr. Newhaven BN9 9AN

Sunday, 28 June 2009

St Peter, Henfield

Henfield is one of those Sussex villages people drive through and admire, but seldom stop to explore. That’s a pity, because - traffic aside - it’s a very attractive place, with an impressive church tucked away from the main street on a narrow lane.

History records King Osmond giving permission to the local Count Warbold for a church as far back as 770AD, but the oldest parts of the present church date from around 1250. Rebuilding in the late 13th or early 14th centuries provided the present nave and clerestory, and the 15th century left the tower and Lady Chapel. Restoration in 1871 delivered the present wide aisles and two-bay outer aisles as transepts, as well as a new chancel.

From the outside, the impression is of an entirely Victorian church, save for the tower: Pevsner’s Buildings of England describes this as: “A Perp tower like a keep, as grim as it would be in Northumberland”, though it reminds me of the tower of the church in which I was christened, at Burnham-on-Sea in Somerset. But inside, the retention of the 13th century chancel arch and handsome 14th century arcade and nave roof, as well as the Lady Chapel, give it a more historic appearance, although it's hard not to be distracted by those those wide Victorian aisles.

Fittings are mostly Victorian, too, although the screen to the chapel – now known as the Parham Chapel - is 15th century, and there are old church chests – one Jacobean – dotted around. The piscina is also 14th century and was moved to the chancel in the Victorian restoration. Two 13th century lancet windows were also retained, now in the clergy vestry. The chapel windows are original, although the glass in modern (several of the windows are by Kempe). The most striking modern addition is the new stone floor, which still looks very new and one hopes will mellow a little with age.

Before you leave, the churchyard is worth exploring: there are some fine 18th century gravestones, and several avenues of clipped yews – 104 in all!

Church Lane, Henfield, West Sussex BN5 9NY

Friday, 26 June 2009

St Mary Magdalene, Paddington

Not to be confused with the nearby church of St Mary, Paddington, St Mary Magdalene hugs the banks of the Grand Union Canal west of Little Venice. Designed by George Street, it is one of the most remarkable neo-Gothic churches in London.

The church was built from 1867 onwards for the Rev Dr Richard Temple West, then curate at All Saints, Margaret Street, to bring the ‘high’ Tractarian style of worship to what was then a poor community living in overcrowded housing. The street plan severely constrained the site, for which Street’s solution was the long, tall narrow design we see today. It’s hard to appreciate now what it must have looked like originally, since the surrounding streets have long since been replaced by a modern housing estate, and the church is now mostly surrounded by green space.

The church is built in red brick, in Street’s preferred Decorated Gothic: the most striking exterior feature is its slender octagonal belfry, surmounted by an elegant spire, which emphasises the height of the nave and polygonal apse, and forms a distinctive local landmark.

Inside, more of Street’s ingenuity is apparent: the South aisle is generous, but with insufficient room for a north aisle, there is instead an arcade with just a narrow passage behind, and the two arcades are different: the south aisle has conventional arcade on clustered piers, the north with arches on octagonal piers, with a pair of arches within each bay on a slim colonnettes. Both arcades carry large statues of saints under elaborate canopies.

However, the glory of the church is its lavish decoration and furnishings – too extensive to describe in detail, but there are paintings, mosaics, memorial brasses, abundant statuary and wall tiling, and a complete scheme of stained glass by Henry Holiday, a friend of pre-Raphaelite Burne-Jones. The north and south windows are particularly attractive and depict Saints with British connections.

Even the ceiling is painted, with a scheme by Daniel Bell (1873) showing saints and Biblical characters connected with the months of the year. Other artists and artisans included Ninian Comper, Thomas Earp, Martin Travers and Salviati. The crypt (which I have not seen, and to which access is limited) contains the Chapel of St Sepulchre, created as a memorial to Father West in 1894, again by Comper.

Aside from services, the church is usually open on Thursdays, and is well worth the short walk alongside the Grand Union Canal from Little Venice.

Rowington Close, Paddington W2 5TF Nearest Underground: Warwick Avenue

Thursday, 25 June 2009

St Mary The Boltons, Kensington

Surrounded by some of the most expensive real estate in the world, St Mary’s nevertheless looks like a country church parachuted into central London, almost disappearing behind the dense trees and hedges of the central garden of the Boltons.

The church itself is the work of the architect George Godwin, and was constructed 1849-50 on the then developing Gunter Estate. It was largely financed by the first incumbent, Rev Hogarth Swale.

The church is largely in the Decorated Gothic style, with an aisleless cruciform plan. The exterior is very attractive, of Kentish ragstone and Bath stone dressings, with a short tower, octagonal lantern and spire (added in 1854). It sits in the middle of a lozenge-shaped garden, with park benches for visitors to admire the prettily kept gardens around the church.

After such a gentle introduction, the interior comes as rather a shock: it is severely whitewashed, and rather bright, as much of the stained glass was removed after War damage. The dark, heavy roof is supported on carved corbels showing the apostles, although these are hard to see through the whitewash. The altar was moved forward to the crossing in 1952, and the chancel turned into a Lady Chapel. I’m not convinced this presentation works: it feels, to me at least, in need of some colourful banners on the nave walls to liven it up.

Still, it retains its oak pews, and has an interesting and attractive bronze Pieta by Naomi Blake in St Luke’s Chapel (installed for the 150th anniversary celebrations), as well as Godwin’s original font. A few Victorian stained glass windows also survive, although the most notable is the bold, almost primitive-style East window by Margaret Kaye, inserted in 1955.

I had a very friendly welcome on my visit, and the church itself is the centre of a busy Parish, with services in 'the best liberal Anglican tradition’, according to its website.

The Boltons, Kensington, SW10 9TB. Nearest underground station: Earl's Court

Friday, 29 May 2009

St Paul, Knightsbridge

St Paul’s, Knightsbridge, is one of those surprises that London specialises in: so close to the busy thoroughfares of Knightsbridge and Belgrave Square, so close to the touristy hot-spot of Hyde Park Corner, and yet unknown to most of those who pass by.

Perhaps that is to the benefit of those who do know about it: a church that is open on most days, its neo-Gothic splendour - and splendour is the right word here - providing an oasis of calm and tranquility in the midst of rushing madness.


The need for church here was becoming clearly evident in the early 19th century, as the development of the Belgravia and Knightsbridge areas started in earnest. The church was built mostly by private subscription: Thomas Cundy the younger was appointed architect, and the work was undertaken 1840-1843.

The church was perhaps the first in London to champion the principles of the Oxford Movement, which emphasised a return to the rituals and traditions of the Catholic church, and debates and controversy arising from this dominated the first 50 years of its life. The Chancel was lengthened in 1871-2 and again in 1892 by the well-known church architect G F Bodley, with the addition of a side chapel by the equally well-known A Blomfield in 1889.


The church itself is built in the Perpendicular Gothic style, of yellow brick with Bath stone dressings. It has a prominent (though to me, slightly incongruous) western clock tower.

The exterior is handsome enough, but rather plain. It does not prepare you at all for the interior: the first impression is one of a vast space - the nave is both wide and high - and of the unusual retention of large galleries, supported on cast-iron columns on the north, south and west sides. The Chancel is separated by a full and elaborate rood screen - the work of Bodley, as is the design of much of the rest of the lavish decorative scheme, including the East Window.

The theme of elaborate decoration continues unabated throughout the church: the walls have tiled panels depicting scenes from the life of Christ (by Daniel Bell) interspersed with painted stations of the Cross (by Gerald Moira), and statuary and paintings abound. My favourite is actually the ceiling, a wonderful structure supported by impressive wooden ceiling trusses. Unsurprisingly, it is a Grade-II* Listed Building.

The church is today centre of a very busy parish life. In its past, it has been associated with the great and the good, although these days it emphasises its inclusiveness. It has a rich tradition of music, and is also a venue for regular concerts.

Wilton Place, Knightsbridge, London SW1X 8SH Nearest tube: Hyde Park Corner

Thursday, 28 May 2009

The Church of the Good Shepherd

Pevsner states in the Sussex volume of his Buildings of England series that Lullington church '..will not easily be forgotten'. Once visited, I am sure you will agree.

The church is one of those which has lost its village: what remains of this little hamlet is now at the bottom of the hill, half a mile away. Just a single house stands next door.

The easiest approach to the church is in fact from Alfriston, via the footpath which crosses the 'white bridge’ over the Cuckmere River. You continue straight ahead, cross the South Downs Way, walk up a short flight of steps to the right of Plonker’s Barn, and rise gently up the hill until the path enters a thickly wooded copse. Just beyond the copse is the little clearing where the church sits. There is a narrow, slippery brick path ahead to the adjacent lane, but it’s hard to find from the road.

Once there, it becomes clear that it is not just its remoteness that makes it special: this is Sussex’s smallest church, and may well be the smallest in England. Once rather larger, the church is said to have burned down in Cromwellian times, and the villagers rebuilt only the Chancel (and not even all of that) as their church. It seats just 20 people; services are held in the summer only, as there is neither heating nor lighting.

The exterior is of flint, with a red tiled roof and a weather-boarded and shingled bell turret. The extent of the original church can be traced on the ground. Inside, the details inside suggest a late 13th century or 14th century date, with Early English and trefoil lancet windows, and a small piscina. But it is the atmosphere you come here for, not the architecture, and that is very special indeed.

Lullington (off the Litlington to Wilmington lane), East Sussex, BN26 5QY

Saint Andrew, Alfriston

Alfriston is the largest, best preserved and most touristy of all the villages in the Cuckmere Valley. It’s little High Street is thronged by traffic and tourists all year round. The parish church of Saint Andrew, however, seems to stand aloof from all this: standing on a bluff in a loop of the Cuckmere River, it dominates the spacious village green.

It was built in 1360, in the plan of a Greek cross, the architecture presenting perfectly the change from Decorated Gothic to Perpendicular: there are windows of both types throughout the church. The crossing piers have unusual concave sides and matching capitals. The Easter Sepulchre, Piscina and Sedilia are elaborate and full of ogee arches and gables.

What surprises most visitors first time, however, is its size: for a small village, this is one big church, which has won it the epithet 'the Cathedral of the Downs’. Although memorials are few, it has some superb stained glass: a mediaeval figure of Saint Alphege high in the north transept, and one by Kempe (1912) in the south. The bells date from 1390 onwards and, because of the central crossing tower, are rung from the floor of the church.

Once outside, admire the view: next door, in the care of the National Trust, is the Old Priest’s House and gardens, worth a visit in its own right.

The Tye, Alfrsiton, East Sussex BN26 5TL

St Michael & All Angels, Berwick

Berwick is a surprising little village: in many ways it is no prettier, charming or attractive than dozens of other villages on the edge of the Sussex Downs. But its church draws big crowds every year, with a constant stream of visitors wending their way down the single little lane to St Michael’s.

What they find is a conventional building, dating from the 12th or 13th century, set in an attractive churchyard. The exterior is standard Sussex: flint walls, tiled roof and a shingled broach spire, all nearly hidden by an ancient yew.

Inside, a south aisle arch suggests a 13th or early 14th century century date, there’s a 14th century Decorated Gothic Easter Sepulchre in the chancel, and a primitive Saxon font at the west end.

But, if I’m honest, you won’t notice any of those, because what grabs the attention are the modern wall paintings and the astonishing north aisle arcade. The latter dates from a restoration in 1856, and its strange style - a Gothic arch on twin columns - was hated by Pevsner: 'illiterate and clumsy’ he states in the Buildings of England. The church guide calls it 'innovative’. It’s certainly different. Perhaps more successful is the idea of filling the large Victorian windows with clear glass: this lets light flood in, and the Sussex countryside provides a stunning vista.

And then there are the paintings: these date from 1942-3, in the midst of war, a bold idea of the then Bishop of Chichester. The idea was to revive the mediaeval tradition of wall paintings found so often in other Sussex churches, in the hope that others might follow.

Duncan Grant, Vanessa Bell and Quentin Bell (part of the 'Bloomsbury Group’) were the artists, and the subjects were traditional biblical scenes, given modern and local twists: Christ is shown in Majesty while servicemen in World War II uniforms look on; the Nativity is acted out in a Sussex barn.

The colours are bright and fascinating, but whether you like them or not is a matter of taste. I’m not entirely convinced - the overall scheme hangs together well enough, but the plethora of colour on the architectural details is a bit too much for me. But there is only one way to decide, of course: go and have a look for yourself.

Berwick, near Polegate, East Sussex BN26 6SP

Alciston Church

Alciston is a Domesday Village whose name derives from the Anglo-Saxon “Aelfsige’s Tun” (Aelfsige’s Place). As well as several farms and a good pub, the Grade-I listed church is adjacent to a fine 14th century tithe barn and mediaeval dovecote.

The church dates back at least as far as the Norman period, but excavations have revealed remains of an Anglo-Saxon apse beneath the east end. The chancel was rebuilt in the 12th or 13th century and shortened in the 15th century - the remains of a third lancet window, chopped in half, are visible outside. The porch was added in the 15th century, though its outer doorway is a fine 13th century example of Early English Gothic. It was rebuilt in 1951.

Inside, the chancel has a single, small Norman window, but there are Early English lancets and a trefoil-headed lancet, as well as later Victorian additions. The chancel has a blocked priest’s door, visible inside and out. The exterior walls have a number of mediaeval scratch sundials - used to determine the times of the Mass. The impressive kingpost roof was rebuilt in 1898.

The fittings are spartan: there is a 15th century font, and an unusual free-standing organ (in need, apparently, of repair), an 18th century altar table and 16th century chair. But it’s still an atmospheric place in a wonderfully rural setting.

The Village, Aciston, East Sussex

St Mary, Selmeston

Selmeston is a tiny one-street village just off the A27, with a lovely little church. The village and church were mentioned in the Domesday Book, although most of what now remains of the latter dates from a Victorian restoration in 1867.

The church is built of flint in the typical Sussex style, with a red-tiled roof and a tall bell-turret with tiled walls and a shingled spire.

Inside, the nave is dominated by the unusual wooden arcade, with octagonal wooden columns with curved braces rather than arches. These are 1867 replacements for the originals. The windows are also copies of the originals, the one in the chancel with glass by Kempe. On the floor is an attractive memorial ledger stone to Ann Cox (d. 1741), and in the chancel a 16th monument, used as an Easter Sepulchre. The interior has the following inscription:

Here lyeth Dam Beatris Bray
svm tyme the wyffe of Syr
Edward Bray and dawgter of
Raffe Sherley of Wyston
and Wyfe of Edward Elderton

Another memorial in the vestry floor has very strange wording indeed, almost a riddle: It reads:

Here lyeth ye body of Henry Rochester
Dyed May 28 1646
Apostrophe AD
This life that’s packt with ielovsles and fears
I love not. That’s beyond the lists of fears.
That life for me. For here I cannot breathe
my prayers ovt. There I shall have breath
to say Ovr Father that’s in heaven wth me
where chores of sancts and innocents there be
No sooner christened bvt possession
I took of the heavenlie habitation.

Strange indeed.

The Street, Selmeston, off the A27, East Sussex, BN26 6UD

All Saints, Westdean

The modern village of Westdean (or West Dean) near Seaford is a thickly wooded and hidden place, albeit well known to those hiking the South Downs Way, which passes through it. Few will know that the village was once surrounded by open Downland – the surrounding Friston Forest is a 20th century creation, and fewer still will know it was once important enough to be visited by both Alfred the Great (in 885) and Edward I in 1305.

But perhaps more will make the short detour to visit the charming and ancient church of All Saints. The exact age of the church is not known, but dates probably from the end of the Saxon period, around the time of the Norman Conquest. Subsequent additions date from the 13th and 14th centuries, right up to sensitive Victorian and modern restorations.

On walking up the lane towards it, the most notable feature of the little flint church is the broad, heavily buttressed west tower, with a half-hipped tiled spire, likened in the church guide to a monk’s cowl, its windows resembling a face. The lower part is Norman, the upper part 14th century, although the large Perpendicular window is Victorian. The porch is also Victorian, but is happily a gentle addition to the church.

Inside, the plan is simple: the tower room opens through a 14th century arch into a nave and chancel of equal height and width, with no chancel arch. On the north wall is a small Saxon window, the others being either 14th century Decorated or later Victorian replacements. The roof is modern but in keeping, and was rebuilt in 1984.

The church is quite remarkable for its range of fittings, both ancient and modern. On the north wall in the chancel are two Decorated Gothic canopies, the first (west) dating from the late 13th century and the second early one from the 14th century. They are, alas, missing their effigies, but almost certainly belonged to Sir John Heringod and his wife Isabella: he was Lord of the Manor and a member of Parliament for Sussex, and died c. 1325. To the east is the whimsical 17th century monument to Susanna Tirrey, the memorial tablet flanked by precocious cherubs holding a spade and upside-down torch.

Opposite is the large and impressive alabaster wall monument to William Thomas (d. 1639), a wealthy citizen of Lewes who bought the Manor of West Dean in 1611, and his wife: their kneeling figures face each other under an elaborate pediment, complete with flanking angels.

More modern monuments comprise bronze busts to commemorate the painter Sir Oswald Birley (d. 1952) by Clare Sheridan, and to Lord Waverley by Jacob Epstein, unveiled in 1960 by Harold Macmillan. The octagonal font at the west end is 14th century, as is the shell-like piscina in the chancel.

As you leave, the clergy house in front of you is worth a look: dating from the late 13th century, this lovely domestic dwelling is a rare survivor.

Westdean, near Seaford, East Sussex, BN25 4AL

St Michael the Archangel, Litlington

Litlington is a delightful village in the Cuckmere Valley, between Seaford and Eastbourne. Although still a farming community, it has long made an additional living out of tourism; its famous Tea Gardens are now over 100 years old, and it is a popular stop for those hiking the South Downs Way.

Its church is typical of the modest villages around these parts: a simple building with an unaisled nave and chancel, modest porch and a small, spired belfry. The main part of the nave and the chancel date from around 1150, with the western part of the nave (under the belfry), and the porch dating from the 14th century.

Inside the details are simple but attractive: the windows are a mixture of Norman round-headed lights, Early English lancets and trefoil ogee-headed lancets, with two larger Victorian Decorated windows in the nave: the rough-hewn beams of the kingpost roof may be original. A strange niche opposite the Norman south door - delightfully filled with flowers on my visit - may have been an aumbry.

The chancel has a 13th century sedilia and a 16th century Easter Sepulchre. At the west end, the early 16th century font still retains its original lead lining. Outside, the porch and northern buttresses below the belfry have 13th century mass dials. In the belfry, one of the bells dates from 1450, and was cast in the Whitechapel Bell foundry

Overall, this is the simplest of village churches: modest but delightful. I enjoyed my visit here, and will come again.

The Street, Litlington, East Sussex BN26 5RF

Sunday, 24 May 2009

St Leonard, Seaford

Seaford is very quiet as seaside towns go - there’s not even an amusement arcade on the seafront and, on my visit, only a few souls were braving the breeze on the promenade. But this is an ancient town - one of the original Cinque Ports - developed by the Normans after the Conquest to facilitate trade with Normandy.

The church was built in 1090, and enlarged in several stages during the mediaeval period. However, it suffered badly from French raids during the Hundred Years’ War, and the port declined sharply after the river Ouse changed its course in the late 16th century, so there were few funds to maintain the church.

It was not until the Victorian period that the railway brought renewed prosperity, and a significant rebuilding in 1861-2 delivered the building we see today - now a Grade I listed building.

The church is unusually hard to 'read’ architecturally, as a complex series of rebuildings have left fragments from several periods, and some formerly internal features are now outside. But essentially, it has a Norman Nave of two bays, with aisle arcades rebuilt in the Early English style some time the early 13th century, with an Early English Gothic clerestory. The north aisle has the remains of two small Norman windows.

The robust west tower is mostly late 15th century, but at ground level there are Norman arches on the south (exposed) and north (now in the vestry) with round arches with shafts and capitals either side, both with a small Norman clerestory window above and, on the south side, an Early English clerestory window above that: a clear indication that, for much of its life, the lower part of the structure was part of the nave. The West doorway is largely a Victorian reconstruction of a Norman original.

The tower itself opens through a 14th century arch into the nave - the ground floor room houses a number of memorials. The spacious crossing arches and apsed chancel are pure Victorian, the north chapel an early 20th century addition.

The most interesting features are found in the nave: the round piers have attractive capitals with stiff-leaf carving, except - notably - one 'Historiated’ capital, carved with scenes from the Bible (below). This is a great rarity, and though it is much weathered, the crucifixion with a weeping Mary and St John the Divine is most clear, with scant remains of Daniel in the lions’ den. (A guide shows older photographs which are rather clearer). Other scenes are now too vague to make out.

Other features of interest include an excellent sculpted panel of St Michael and the Dragon, dated around 1130, on the north arcade, and an excellent stained glass window by Kempe (1903) in the south aisle. A corbel on the south arcade features two grotesque faces, one upside down. Under the tower is an ancient tombstone, an anthropomorphic tomb chest and a case containing a 17th century King James bible and a copy of the Book of Common Prayer from 1686.

The interior has recently been re-floored in pale parquet and is bright and airy, and clearly has a busy parish life: on my visit, I was welcomed warmly by three cheerful pensioners, eager to show off their historic church.

Church Street, Seaford, East Sussex BN25 1HG

Tuesday, 19 May 2009

Saint Andrew, Beddingham

Beddingham is today known best - and rather unfortunately - as being the junction (and a major source of congestion) on the A27 from Lewes to Eastbourne where it meets the A26 from Newhaven.

However, scattered about are the houses of the tiny village and, mercifully hidden from the roads by trees, is the substantial and interesting parish church, dedicated to St Andrew. The village dates to Saxon times (there are references to it in 801AD) and it is mentioned in the Domesday Book.

The church itself has a Norman nave, although only a single, blocked window above the north arcade now remains as evidence: the two aisles and arcades were added around 1200, but were substantially rebuilt when the Chapel was added, sometime later in the 13th century or early in the 14th. The tower was added in 1541-59, the gift of one Thomas Goodwyn.

The south aisle has two round piers and one octagonal pier, all with plain capitals, but two also have interesting corbels, in the form of heads and - unusually - chalices (or possibly censers). There is a fragment of 13th wall painting on the easternmost arch, showing foliage and a female figure.

The north aisle is plain, and notable for its remarkably short piers. The Decorated clerestory windows are particularly interesting, of an unusual cinquefoil ogee design. The Chancel is lit be a magnificent decorated Gothic east window, with trefoil lancets to north and south, and the large tower window is a handsome Perpendicular design.

Furnishings are a little limited. Of most interest is a memorial in the north aisle, to the family of Sir Thomas Carr. He was Sheriff of Sussex in 1801, and knighted after giving an address of congratulation to George III, on his escape from an assassination attempt at the Drury Lane Theatre in 1800. (The King insisted calmly that the play should continue - and even fell asleep later in the performance!).

The font, with its elaborately carved cover, is Victorian, as is the porch and the chancel arch: parts of the aisles were also rebuilt in the 19th century. Back outside, the churchyard has fine views down the Ouse valley and northwards to the impressive Iron-Age known as The Caburn.

Beddingham, off the A26, near Lewes in East Sussex BN8 6JY

St Peter, West Firle

Firle - or West Firle as it is also known - is a perfectly preserved manorial village just south of Glyndebourne. The descendants of the mediaeval Lords of the Manor still live in the substantial country house of Firle Place, begun in the 16th century and now open to the public.

The church of St Peter is tucked away at the back of the village, and seems to be overlooked by the many visitors flocking to the house and the local pub. This is a pity, because it packs a lot of history into its walls.

The oldest part of the building, the north door, dates from around 1200, but otherwise most of the fabric - tower, nave and chancel - date from later in the 13th century. The aisles with their fine Decorated Gothic arcades and clerestory of cinquefoil windows were inserted in the 14th century, the porch in the 15th and finally the Vestry or Gage Chapel in the 16th.

The immediate impression on entering is one of spaciousness: the aisles are generous, and lit by Decorated Gothic windows, the east window of the south aisle containing original glass depicting the Trinity and two thurifers: one with the censer swung up, the other down!

The Gage Chapel is separated from the Chancel by a very fine two-bay arcade in the Perpendicular style, although it is hard to appreciate with the organ located in the first bay. Also in the Chancel is a 13th century piscina and two Early Gothic lancet windows: the east wall and window is a modern replacement.

However, it is the monuments for which the church is best known. These mostly relate to the Gage family and their ancestors. At the east end of the north aisle are three brasses. The centre one is of Bartholomew Bolney (d. 1476) and his wife Eleanor, whose daughter married William Gage in 1472. Either side are the brothers Thomas Gage (d. 1590), with his wife and children, and George Gage (d. 1569). In front of the chancel step are two more brasses, one to Mary Howard (d. 1638) in her funeral shroud, and one to Alice Levett, wife of the vicar of Firle, (d. 1676).

If this wasn't enough, the Gage Chapel (or vestry) contains both alabaster monuments and more brasses. The monuments were by Dutch sculptor Gerard Johnson, and the drawings for them - complete with the client's comments - are preserved at the Manor.

The most impressive is against the East wall, of Sir John Gage (d. 1556), who was Constable of the Tower and Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster under Henry VIII and Lord Chamberlain of Queen Mary. He and his wife are portrayed in marvellous, realistic life-sized effigies, which have survived in perfect condition (below right). They repay a close look to admire the astonishing detail in which they are carved.

The other two tombs, on the north walls, are similar, but topped by brasses rather than by effigies: one to Sir Edward Gage (d. 1569), son of Sir John; and John Gage (d. 1595) and his two wives, son of Sir Edward, who had the tombs erected.

It's hard for any other furnishings to compete with these monuments, but the John Piper window in the Gage chapel (1985) may interest aficionados of modern stained glass, and the bell-frame under the tower, and two mass dials scratched onto the north wall outside, are worth a look.

The Street, Firle, East Sussex, BN8 6LP