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

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