Thursday, 28 May 2009

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

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