Tuesday, 14 April 2009

St Botolph's Church, Botolphs

Sussex is well endowed with Saxon churches, and St Botolphs is one of the finest.

Situated in the hamlet to which it gave its name, the church also serves the adjacent hamlet of Annington. Together, their population is today less than 50, but this large church gives away the fact that in earlier times this was a thriving port on the nearby River Adur.

The church dates from 950 AD, and the nave is typical of the Saxon style: narrow, tall and long. Around 1250, a north aisle was erected, and three generous and elegant Early English Gothic arcades were inserted in the north wall. At the same time, the chancel was rebuilt, possibly replacing a Saxon apse, and the west tower added. However, as the river silted up and changed its course, the little town declined, and around 1450 the north aisle was demolished and the north wall closed up, although the three arcade arches are still clearly visible, both inside and out.

Thereafter, little has altered: the south wall is the Saxon original, and includes a small Saxon window alongside newer (mostly mediaeval) insertions. The chancel arch includes a Saxon roll on its interior, unusual in that it does not follow the arch to the floor, but rests on two corbels, which have early Saxon decoration, made using a trowel. The chancel has some fine very early Gothic lancet windows, including two ‘squints’, to allow people outside the church (such as those excommunicated or with a disease) to watch the service within. The one on the north side is probably a ‘Leper’s Squint’; we know there was a leper’s hospital in nearby Bramber in mediaeval times. The one on the south wall has a scratch sun-dial outside, possibly to denote the times of confession.

There are also faint wall paintings above the chancel arch, the oldest of which may date from the Saxon period. Three bells dating from 1536 still ring out from the tower, hanging in their original wooden frame. There is a fine Jacobean pulpit, and a royal coat of arms from the time of Charles II. The heavy wooden door bears the date 1630 and the initials of the churchwardens.

The church is well worth a visit - why not combine it with a walk along the adjacent Downs Link long distance footpath?

Annington Road, Steyning, West Sussex BN44 3WA

St Mary, Balcombe

The bustling village of Balcombe is situated half way between Haywards Heath and Crawley, in the heavily wooded hills that define this northern part of West Sussex. Its church is usually open for visitors, and is well worth a look.

There has been a church here since 1090, although the earliest part of the present building dates back to the late 13th or early 14th century, and consisted of a small nave and chancel. In the 15th century a fine square tower was erected, topped by a wooden shingled spire, in the Sussex style. A painting dated 1805 shows the small church with a large, two-storey porch.

However, during the 19th century the village grew significantly in size, aided by the coming of the London to Brighton railway, which passes just to the west of the village. This led to two thoroughly Victorian rebuildings: one in 1847 which added a new nave to the north of the existing one, and another in 1872 in which a new chancel and north aisle were erected beyond. The extensions more than trebled the size of the church, relegating the former nave and chancel to the South Aisle and Lady Chapel.

Unfortunately, as was often the case, the Victorians did away with the mediaeval porch, font and pulpit at the same time, resulting in great damage to the historic integrity of the church. However, the 15th century tower has survived intact, and its peal of eight bells includes three dating back to 1614. The church interior is still quite attractive, and features some unusual gated pews, as well as modern embroidery and a handsome brass eagle lectern.

The stained glass is all Victorian, the most impressive of which is the great west window, which commemorates George Meek, the High Sheriff of Sussex, and his wife, Fanny Amilia. He caught a fever at the Lewes Assizes and died in May 1874 and, sadly, Fanny died of the same fever a week later. Another point of interest is the four heads (two Kings and Queens) beneath the chancel arch. It is not clear if these are Victorian or were rescued from the mediaeval fabric.

The churchyard contains more of interest: it contains 28 chest tombs, dating from the 17th century onwards, as well as a number of ‘headboard’ memorials, stone versions of the Sussex tradition of erecting headstones in the shape of (or sometimes taken from) the headboards of the deceased person’s bed. On my visit, there were drifts of bluebells in the far corners of the graveyard – also a feature of the woods around the area.

On the way out can be seen the new lych gate. As part of the Millennium celebrations, English Heritage sponsored a competition to donate a new lych-gate to the most deserving church. Balcombe won the competition and, using oak donated by the adjacent Balcombe Estate, the present gate was completed in 2002. It makes for an imposing entrance.

London Road, Haywards Heath, West Sussex RH17 6PX

St Peter, Twineham

Twineham occupies an lovely spot in the Sussex Weald. Although just a few miles west of the A23 dual-carriageway from London to Brighton, this is typical rural England, with lush pasture, hedges thick with mature trees, scattered villages and winding lanes. It is believed that the name ‘Twineham’ is early English in origin, meaning ‘the homestead between the streams’.

The church sits at the end of a small lane off the minor road which forms of village of Twineham, in a pretty, wooded churchyard, next to the village primary school. On my visit, the churchyard was idyllic - full of bluebells and other spring flowers, and warmed by the early evening sun.

But St Peter’s Twineham’s is more than just your average village church. It unusually survived mediaeval rebuilding in stone, but when it was rebuilt in the 1516, early in Henry VIII’s reign, the new church was built in the very latest building material – brick.

It is thus one of the oldest brick churches in the country, as well as being one of the last parish churches to be completely rebuilt prior to the reformation. Part of its churchyard was also used by Quakers for their burials, between 1694 and 1732 – an unusual compromise, as dissenters often faced opposition and persecution.

The church is conventional in plan, with a west tower, nave, chancel and porch, and small, narrow window openings. The old brickwork and mortar of the walls has weathered into a beautiful patina over the years, and the roofs are covered with heavy brown ‘Horsham slate’ stone tiles. The tower has a spire with wooden shingles – a Sussex specialty. A sturdy half-timbered porch completes the picture, which contains the remains of some old wooden memorials.

Inside, the interior is clean and whitewashed. The walls are nearly two feet thick, and the windows have wide, splayed openings. A shallow Tudor pointed arch separates nave and chancel, but what catches the eye is the picture above the chancel arch of the Holy Family. Once thought to have been by the Italian master Camillo Procaccini, its provenance is now less clear. Below it, there is beautiful Elizabethan woodwork of the Squire’s Pew at the front, delicately moulded with classical arched and lozenge motifs, and an impressive Jacobean pulpit. The east window is said to be by Kempe, but is unsigned. The chancel roof may contain timbers from the original church, but this cannot be proven.

The hexagonal font is older than the present building, and may date back to the earliest recorded church in 1226. Marks show where there were once staples to lock the Holy Water in the font to stop it being used for superstitious purposes. Under the tower, the ringing gallery can be seen from the nave – the church has a peal of 5 bells. There is also a list of Parish priests and Vicars from 1287 until the present day.

The church is the centre of an active parish life – details on the parish website.

Church Lane (off Twineham Lane), Twineham near, Burgess Hill, West Sussex RH17 5NR

St Mary the Virgin, Ringmer

Ringmer is a lovely, thriving village in East Sussex a few miles north of Lewes, (and just a mile from the opera house at Glyndebourne), with a large traditional village green right at its centre. The ancient church is a lovely building of flint and stone walls, set in a churchyard so thick with trees that in summer it is effectively hidden from view.

Although there has probably been a church of some sort here since Saxon times, the present building dates from the early 13th century. The hexagonal nave pillars with their pointed arches are classic Early English Gothic in style, and may well date from the 1230s - a list of vicars begins in 1233.

The church was considerably enlarged in the early 1500s, with the addition of a north Lady Chapel and a south Chapel, now referred to as the Springett Chapel because of the memorials there. Both are in the Perpendicular Gothic style. The lovely wooden porch is a little earlier, built sometime in the 1400s.

The church was also significantly restored in the Victorian period, when the present fine bell tower was erected in 1884, and the lych gate in 1918. Worth noting is the roof, the lower portion of which is covered with Horsham stone slabs, with the rest roofed in local red clay tiles. Why this was done is not known: it may be that the tiles were cheaper, or lightened the load on the roof structure. Inside, the font is also Victorian. A large hall was added a few years ago on the north side, which happily fits in well with the jumble of other additions.

The main points of interest in the church are its memorials. These start - most notably - in the south ‘Springett’ chapel. In the south east corner is a splendid memorial to Harbet Springett (d 1620), a successful Lewes lawyer. In the south west corner is a memorial to his grandson, Sir William Springett. A Colonel in Cromwell’s army in the Civil War, he died of typhus during the siege of Arundel (1643) at the age of 22. Being both a knight and Colonel at such a young age was an achievement - even in those days - and was probably connected to the fact that he was a fanatically ardent Puritan and renowned iconoclast. His daughter Gulielma married William Penn, the founder of Pennsylvania. Next to the memorial is a bassoon, a remnant of the orchestra used before the organ was installed.

In the Lady Chapel are two memorials of note: another early 17th century memorial commemorates Elizabeth Jefferay, daughter of one Walter Mayney (complete with bad puns). Opposite - and with another connection to the USA - is the rather humbler memorial plaque of John Sadler, who died in 1640, and whose daughter Anne married John Harvard, founder of the American University.

Further along the north wall is an unusual monument to Peter Meshullam (d. 1862), ‘cruelly murdered …on the plains of Bethlehem’. A deputy consul at Jerusalem, it is possible that he used his position unwisely, and antagonised the local population.

Finally, the organ, at the west end of the church, is of note, not for its age - it was installed in 1922 - but because air was originally pumped by means of a rather noisy motorcycle engine, which had to be housed in the small building next to the tower as it was so noisy!

Church Hill, Lewes, East Sussex BN8 5JX

Monday, 13 April 2009

Wiggonholt Parish Church, near Pulborough

Sometimes on my travels around churches I come across a quintessential slice of England, and so it was at Wiggonholt - a tranquil hamlet, with trees, meadows and carpets of primroses.

This tiny hamlet lies just off the busy A283 between Storrington and Pulborough, north of the woods at Wiggonholt Common, and adjacent to the Pulborough Brooks Nature Reserve, in the care of the RSPB. Along the short lane leading to the church are former farms and the site of the old manor house.

The name Wiggonholt probably derives from the Saxon “Wicga’s holt” or wood, subsequently misspelled as Wikeholt (1212), Wygeholt (1230), Bykeholte (1296) and again as Wygeholt (1330). It is close to the route of a Roman road, and the remains of a Roman bath house has been found nearby. It has always been a rural place, however, and today has a population of just 30.

The church has a delightful wooded churchyard, entered through a charming lytch-gate. On my visit, it was carpeted with yellow primroses, and after an afternoon April shower everything smelt heavily of fresh, new, spring growth.

The church itself is a simple single cell structure dating from the late 12th or early 13th centuries with a porch and bell tower. Inside, its most prized possession is the late Norman font of polished Sussex marble, with a simple design of five rounded-headed arcades on each face. It is astonishingly well preserved. Most of the windows were replaced with ‘new’ Perpendicular designs in 1360-1485. The East Window is Victorian, and was made by Powell & Sons in 1859.

Other items of interest include its fine wooden roof, 17th century Jacobean alter rails and two mediaeval ‘Mass dials’ on the south west corner outside - sun-dials used to time Sunday services in the days before clocks.

There are services on the first and third Sundays of the month. There is no electricity here, and in winter it is lit by candles and oil lamps.

Church Lane, Wiggonholt, Pulborough, West Sussex RH20 2EL

Greatham Parish Church

Set in the lush middle reaches of the Arun Valley, Greathan is one of those places where you can step back in time. The tiny village is strung out along a small lane, reached from the A29 over a perilously narrow bridge and lying so close to the water meadows it often floods in winter. On my visit, approaching from Storrington through Northpark Wood, a deer and two fawns ran across the road in front of me and across a woodland floor carpeted thickly with bluebells.

The church itself is found through a gate and up a long gravel drive, off Brooke Lane. The Drive leads to Greatham Manor, a fine 11th century manor house, rebuilt over the ages (the present house dates from the 16th century). Although the house is in private ownership, the adjacent church - reached along a grassy lane - is open to the public.

The church is an astonishing survivor. A single small cell built in the late 1000s or early 1100s, it must have been the place of worship for the local herdsmen, as well as the owners of the manor next door. A charter of 1121 lists the chapel among the possessions of Lewes Priory, and other evidence implies that it may have been given by the Dunstanvilles family, the putative owners of the manor at Greatham during the 12th century.

The church itself is a single cell, lit throughout by Early English Gothic single lancet windows, dated from the 1200s to the early 1500s. The eastern wall has evidence of a blocked-up earlier window, and now has just two simple lancets. The church has an unusual ‘double decker’ pulpit dating back to 1820 and 17th century communion rails.

On the wall is the single memorial, to the Chatfields, one of whom was a churchwarden in the early 19th century. According to the church guide, in the 1950s, the uncoffined burials of ‘five short men’ were discovered close to the north wall. These are thought to have been of five soldiers who died in a skirmish at nearby Greatham Bridge during the English Civil War in the 1640s.

The exterior is charming, built mainly in the local ironstone, with the odd Roman brick (the area was extensively settled in Roman times). The small spire was added between 1800 and 1865 to replace the original belfry, and the porch replaced the wooden original around the same period.

Even in mediaeval times, Greatham had to share its priests with nearby Wigginholt, but between 1364 and 1398 it seems large enough to have had its own priest, and in 1851 some 50-60 people are recorded as attending a service every other Sunday. To-day, the church still sustains regular services on the second and fourth Sundays of the month, under the care of the Vicar of Amberley.

In winter, it is lit by candles and oil lamps: there is no electricity. A rural idyll, indeed.

Brook Lane, Pulborough, West Sussex

St Curig, Porthkerry

This delightful small church stands in the small hamlet of Porthkerry, (Porthceri in Welsh) just south of Cardiff International Airport and west of Porthkerry Park on the outskirts of Barry. In front of the church is a small green, surrounded by cottages and a farm, parts of which are itself mediaeval.

The church is dedicated to St Curig, a 6th Century Welsh saint who became Bishop of Llanbadarn (near Aberystwyth) and subsequently Bishop of Brittany, and died around AD 550. The settlement means the port or harbour of Ceri in Welsh, although which Ceri it refers to is rather obscure.

Built in the 13th century on a site which may be older, the church has a simple plan of nave, chancel and porch, with a robust west tower. The interior contains a water stoup and rood screen, both of Tudor sate, but pre-dating the Reformation. The interior is brilliantly whitewashed, a relic of substantial Victorian restoration in 1867, which saw the building re-roofed and the chancel arch rebuilt. The architecture is simple gothic, although much of the detailing we see to-day dates from the Victorian restoration. The remains of an ancient doorway can be seen in the south wall of the chancel. The church is listed at Grade II*.

The cross in the churchyard is also of interest as it dates from around the 15th century. Although rebuilt at a later date, it seems they used the original stone as it all appears to be mediaeval. The cross is a Grade II listed monument in its own right.

Despite its proximity to the airport and the growing village of Rhoose, the church and its little settlement feels relatively isolated and a little haven of peace - until disturbed from time to time by aircraft! The church can be reached by road from nearby Rhoose, or by footpaths from Porthkerry Park. (NB the paths are steep, and can be muddy in winter.)

Porthkerry, Barry CF62 3BZ

St John, Hampstead

Hampstead still retains the feel of the village, despite being absorbed by the sprawl of modern, urban London: a settlement since mediaeval times, the pattern of narrow streets and Georgian houses gives it a distinctive and almost rural feel – more provincial town than the wealthy and trendy suburb it now is.

Nowhere is this more apparent than the attractive terrace of houses in Church Row that leads to its Parish church, itself surrounded by mature trees and ancient tombs. There has been a church here since the 14th century, although there may have been one here before then, when it was part of the lands of the Benedictine foundation of Westminster – having been granted to them as early as 986AD.

As Hampstead grew, the early church – part wood, part stone – was in a parlous condition, and too small for the expanding congregation, and in 1744 a new church was planned on a larger scale. This was consecrated in 1747, with its tower completed over a decade later. Hampstead’s continuous growth led to further building, in 1844 and 1878, which resulted in the church being expanded to the east, and turned around, so that the present chancel is at the west end, with the entrance being at the east, under the tower.

The result is a classic Georgian church, with generous galleries on both sides, the nave being part of the original church of 1747, with the chancel dating from the 1878 rebuilding. The nave is classical, with Ionic columns, but the chancel is more Baroque, but it all blends harmoniously together. The church retains substantial pews – box-like in style, but without gates – and painted in the same scheme as the rest of the church. The nave and gallery windows are competent examples of the workshops of Clayton and Bell, with enough clear glass to ensure the interior is flooded with light. The font, at the entrance to the nave, incorporates the bowl from the 1745 original.

In the north transept is a grave-stone from the earlier church, dated 1658, of one John Rixton: he left a bequest to provide bread for the poor, and contains the classic epithet: ‘As thou art, so was I; as I am, so shalt thou be’.

The wooded churchyard is a lovely spot for quiet contemplation, thoughtfully provided with benches. In the south west corner is the grave of the artist John Constable (1776-1837) and his wife, who settled here and lived for many years in the parish. His paintings of Hampstead Heath recall a quieter and more tranquil period.

Church Row, Hampstead, London NW3 6UU

St Nicholas, Old Shoreham

Now on the edge of modern Shoreham, St Nicholas is the church of 'Old Shoreham', as distinct for the 12th century port settlement of 'New Shoreham' a mile or so down the road. Just as Old Shoreham is now a quiet suburb on the old road to London, (albeit with some attractive pubs), St Nicholas is the smaller but older equivalent to the large and impressive church of St Mary de Haura (see separate Qype review).

St Nicholas is recorded in the Domesday Book, and a Saxon church is thought to have existed here since 800AD. The present nave certainly dates from the Saxon period, possibly around 850AD. The church was enlarged in the early Norman period, between 1070 and 1100, and in 1130-50 the fine Norman tower was erected.

It is this which gives it the main reason for a visit, in the form of a fine set of romanesque arches beneath the tower crossing. The chancel was rebuilt in the gothic period, around the 14th century and the church was restored and a vestry added in the Victorian period. It is grade-I listed.

From the outside, the church sits in an attractive churchyard, complete with Sussex flint walls. The tower dominates, with two window openings on each side, framed with attractive romanesque blind arcading. Inside, the tower crossing is a classic of Norman architecture: heavy, rounded arches are sumptuously decorated with zig-zag and dog-tooth carving, lozenges, arrow-heads, limpet-shells and roses, as well as several human heads (two of which are said to the those of King Stephen and his Queen, Adelicia of Louvaine), a strange cat, and an elf-like creature. From whatever angle you choose, the arches make a beautiful composition.

There are more Norman arches, in the east wall of the north transept and above a now-closed doorway through the original Saxon nave wall. The chancel is noted for its fine roof, painted in the Victorian period, and for a poignant memorial plaque to Christopher Head, who died aged 42 in the wreck of the 'Titanic'.

After your visit, why not try some more earthly refreshment in the historic Red Lion pub, a CAMRA-listed venue serving food and fine real ales?

St Nicolas Lane, Shoreham-by-Sea, West Sussex

Malmesbury Abbey

Founded as a small monastic community in 672AD by the Irish monk Maidulph, Malmesbury is England’s oldest borough (880), one of England’s oldest Christian sites, and one of its greatest mediaeval monasteries. To-day it survives as a parish church, and contains one of the masterpieces of European Romanesque art.

After Maidulph’s death in 675, the leadership of the community was given to St Aldhelm, nephew of the Saxon King Ine, who is generally regarded as the founder of the Abbey proper, in 676. The present church was consecrated in 1180, and expanded as the monastery grew in prestige and wealth, especially in the period from 1260 under William of Colerne. Royal visits by Henry III and Edward I demonstrate the importance of the Abbey by the 13th century, and at its zenith in the 14th century, it featured a spire over 431ft (131m) high, greater even than that of Salisbury.

Alas, this achievement was also its undoing, as at the turn of the 15th and 16th centuries, the tower collapsed, taking the crossing, transepts and chancel with it. All that remains of this area are two great crossing arches, and a wall of the south transept. Further disaster came with the Dissolution in 1539, when the Abbey was sold to a local clothier, and given to the townspeople as their parish church, and the other monastery buildings demolished.

The Abbey continued to decay further, not helped by another disaster – the collapse of the Western tower in the 16th century, demolishing the first two bays of the nave. In the Civil War, Malmesbury is said to have changed hands between the Royalists and Roundheads seven times, and the church walls are riddled with pock-marks from the bullets and shot. By the 18th century, it was being used for storing hay, and housing pigs and donkeys.

The church was saved by thorough restoration in the 20th century, and it is once again a busy and well-loved parish church, albeit just one third of the size of the original building. The church is now best approached from the car park by the river at the foot of the hill to the north of the town. The silhouette of the Abbey – complete with ruined arches – dominates the hillside. Once at the top, it continues to dominate the little town, which otherwise has a slightly sad air of neglect about it.

The structure is, as you might expect, hard to decipher from the outside, thanks to the variety of ruined walls and empty arches. Approached from the south side, you first come to the original Norman south porch, built around 1130. Unremarkable from a distance, close up you can begin to see the delicate carvings that make this one of the masterpieces of European Romanesque: the main entrance has eight arches of carving, depicting biblical scenes, enclosed in roundels formed by twisted branches.

And there is more inside the porch: two huge panels depict the apostles at Pentecost. There are six on each side, seated with flowing robes in stylised poses, angels overhead, sitting above blind arcading with dog-tooth decoration. Finally, the inner doorway has a tympanum with Christ seated and supported by two flying angels, with three arches of curving motifs around the door.

After all this drama, the nave can still hold its own: the nave has robust Norman arcades and a triforium, both with dogtooth decorative carving, with a Decorated Gothic clerestory and a spectacular vaulted roof, replete with huge carved bosses. The south arcade has an abbot’s oratory set in the triforium, and the other feature of interest is in the north aisle, the tomb of King Athelstan, (895-937) who united England, Wales and Scotland for the first time between 927 and 937. The tomb is late Gothic Perpendicular in style, though badly damaged.

The south aisle contains the chapel of its founder, St Aldhelm, as well as a bright Burne-Jones window depicting Faith, Courage and Devotion. Another window depicts England’s first aviator, an intrepid monk named Eilmer, who flew in a primitive sort of hang glider from one of the abbey towers in 1010. he glided an impressive 200m before landing, breaking both legs (but he lived to tell the tale).

Before you leave, be sure not to miss the small museum housed above the porch. Accessed by a steep and narrow spiral staircase, this contains illuminated manuscripts, prints and other items from the abbey’s historic past.

Abbey Row, Malmesbury, Wiltshire SN16 0AA

St Thomas, Salisbury

Most visitors to Salisbury never get further than the famous and spectacular Cathedral, which is, admittedly, the principal draw. But a few minutes’ walk away is the town church of St Thomas’s, which is well worth keeping half an hour free to see.

Located right in the centre of mediaeval Salisbury, the church was built to serve the workers building the new cathedral, and was dedicated to St Thomas a Becket in 1220. However, most of the building we see today results from the rebuilding in the mid 1400s in the Perpendicular Gothic style. The nave in particular benefits from a huge clerestory of perpendicular panels windows, flooding the church with light. The nave has a fine ‘Somerset’ roof, complete with dozens of carved angels.

The main event, however, is the spectacular ‘Doom’ wall-painting above the chancel arch, painted around 1475, depicting the Last Judgement. Hidden under whitewash during the Reformation, it was uncovered in the 19th century and vividly restored. It now ranks as the best preserved Doom Painting, to say nothing of being one of the most complete mediaeval wall paintings of any kind, in the UK.

The painting shows Christ sitting in judgement, with the Apostles at his feet, and the New Jerusalem behind. To the left, angels raise the good from their graves to heaven, while on the right devils herd the bad into the mouth of a wonderful blood-red monster. (The ‘bad’ includes several Bishops – I wonder what the contemporary Cathedral authorities made of this?) At the bottom sides of the painting, below the arch are images thought to be of St James (left) and St Osmund, the first Bishop of Salisbury, on the right.

Other items of interest include the Lady Chapel, built in 1470 by William Swayne, and containing a rich array of 15th and 16th century memorials, as well as some small fragments of wall painting depicting the Annunciation, Visitation and Nativity. The chancel also dates from around this period, but is rather plainer in style. The south wall has a fine carved wooden memorial in memory of Henry Beckham, who died, aged 83, in 1671. He apparently carved it himself – the panel below describes it as ‘His own Worke’.

The church is rich in other memorials, including diamond-shaped funeral hatchments and the Coat of Arms of Queen Elizabeth I. The tower is adorned by an attractive Tudor Quarter Clock which can be seen through an alley around the corner. There are daily services during the week and of course on Sundays, with an inclusive but traditional liturgy, which visitors are very welcome to join.

St Thomas's Square, Salisbury, Wiltshire SP1 1BA

Saturday, 11 April 2009

St James, Taunton

St James is the younger brother of Taunton's other mediaeval church, of St Mary Magdalene. St Mary's is older, larger, and has a bigger tower. Nevertheless, the two conspire in harmony to define the view of Taunton, for those entering from the east and north. Although most visitors are (rightly) drawn to St Mary’s, St James is worth a look for its tower, fan vault and some interesting furnishings.

Taunton is a Saxon town, founded by King Ine in 705 to defend his western boundary from the Celts of Devon and Cornwall, and it was in the nearby marshes of Athelney that King Alfred hid from the Danes, and famously burnt the cakes.

Although there may well have been a church here in the Saxon period, St James is known to have existed since 1169, and this church was roughly the size of the present nave. Around 1308, the original building was pulled down and the present nave and north aisle erected. Not much changed until the 19th century, but the Victorians were very active here: in 1832 a south aisle was added, and the upper parts of the splendid tower was rebuilt in 1867 to replace the original, to a slightly different design, which was in danger of collapse. Finally, the chancel was enlarged in 1888, and the south aisle extended into a chapel, and an 18th century gallery removed from the north aisle.

From the outside, the tower dominates everything. Although largely Victorian, its design - executed in a fine, red sandstone - is firmly in the tradition of fine Somerset towers, and a good example of the 'Taunton' group which have horizontal emphasis, rather than the vertical emphasis of the 'Wells' group. The red sandstone is enlivened by fine stone dressings in the famous golden Ham limestone.

After this fine beginning, the interior of the church comes as something of a shock: although clearly old, it has been modernised with the removal of its pews to allow a contemporary style of worship, with an unfortunate choice of a pale green carpet and modern seating.

Look hard, however, and the older architecture becomes clear: the north arcade of the nave, and the north wall, date from the 14th century rebuilding, and the original fan vaulting in the vault beneath the tower - now the entrance porch - has survived the Victorian rebuilding, and dates from around 1440. At the east end of the north aisle, a mediaeval squint has survived – a feature constructed to enable those in the aisle to watch the elevation of the host during the mediaeval Mass.

There are some interesting furnishings: pride of place goes to the lovely 15th Century font, each of its eight sides decorated with figures of saints; and the pulpit is a fine example of local carving, and dates from 1633. Next to the font is the memorial to Colonel Lacy Walters Giles Yea, (d. 1845) killed in the Crimean War, complete with two statuettes of Fusiliers. The south aisle chapel boasts a fine wooden screen - exhibited in the Wembley exhibition of 1825 and made of Burmese Coco wood. It provides a perfect place for quiet contemplation.

The church to-day has a vibrant parish life, with worship in a contemporary style (complete with band). Although not to my taste, there's no denying its popularity, and the church undertakes considerable charitable and missionary work in the area.

St James Street, Taunton, Somerset TA1 1JS

St Peter, Belgravia, London

Eaton Square is not one my favourite squares in London. Grand in scale, bisected by the busy and windswept King’s Road, with its gardens denied to the public by railings, it does not feel like a welcoming, public space.

Fortunately, the Victoria station end is enlivened by the handsome proportions of St Peter’s Church, with its fine Ionic portico and tower. Built between 1824 and 1827 during the first phase of development, it was designed by the architect Henry Hakewill. The interior was, as was common at the time, a severe preaching box, with the organ and choir at the West end. In 1875, it was enlarged by Sir Arthur Blomfield, and reordered to provide a chancel at the East End, in the Romanesque style, although externally the changes remained faithful to the original classical style.

However, in 1987 an arsonist set fire to the East End, and within hours the entire church was engulfed. The following day, although the fire was out, the church was roofless, with most of its furnishings destroyed. An extensive programme of rebuilding was set in hand, with a new and simpler interior design, also incorporating offices and flats within the space. The interior therefore comes as something of a shock after passing under the grand portico, as it is clean, bright and modern. The choir and organ are located at the West End again, as in the 1827 plan, although the fittings are thoroughly modern. The church is accessible, with disabled toilets available.

Whether this works for you is a matter of taste, although I find it a little too bright and clinical. That said, behind the altar is an attractive apse, decorated entirely with gold mosaic. Walk around the side of the apse, and you find part of the 1873 sanctuary which survived the fire, and a side chapel now used as the Vestry office, complete with stained glass.

But whatever the merits of the internal architecture, there’s no doubt that the church is the centre of a lively and active parish life, with worship in an inclusive, modern catholic style, an excellent professional mixed choir (best experienced at the 11.15 Sung Eucharist on Sundays), regular concerts and talks.

119 Eaton Square, Belgravia, London SW1W 0HQ

St Mary, Woolnoth, City of London

This is one of City churches rebuilt by Hawksmoor, rather than Sir Christopher Wren, and provides an interesting contrast in styles.

The first church here was established on the site of a Roman temple to Concord by a Saxon noble called Woolnoth, which has since given the site its name. The mediaeval church was rebuilt and consecrated in 1438, only to succumb in the Great Fire of London in 1666. However, it was not completely destroyed, and was patched up and reopened by Wren in 1674, having also absorbed the neighbouring parish of St Margaret Haw in 1670. By 1711 however, the building was felt to be unsafe, and Hawksmoor, a pupil of Wren's, was commissioned to rebuild it, in 1617-1627. It is his only church in the City.

Although the site is very restricted, Hawksmoor delivered classical grandeur by building upwards. The tower over the west front is broad and square, rising in stages from a grand, rusticated entrance portal through a Corinthian pediment to two smaller towers. Many architectural commentators regard this Hawksmoor original in high esteem, but I must confess that I personally find the composition of the tower rather unsatisfying, though there's no denying that it is unique and dominates the streetscape.

Inside, however, is another story: here, an inner square is surmounted by a clerestory of great arched windows, itself surrounded by aisles on all sides, with groups of three Corinthian columns at each corner. The effect is dramatic and floods the interior with light, although the chancel is correspondingly reduced in depth to that of the aisles. Overall, however, the effect is for the church to feel larger inside than out. The interior has its original furnishings, including a fine baroque reredos, and a rather fancy, partly-gilded pulpit, and a fine 17th-century Schmidt organ, as well as some fine ceiling plasterwork.

The walls are relatively bereft of monuments, but one Edward Lloyd, whose coffee shop gave rise to the insurance company Lloyds of London, was buried here in 1713.

Lombard Street, London EC3V 9AN

St Margaret, Lothbury, City of London

Tucked away behind the Bank of England, this is one of Sir Christopher Wren's many City churches, rebuilt after the Great Fire of London destroyed the earlier mediaeval church in 1666. Completed in 1692, the tower was added by Robert Hooke in 1698-1700.

Wren chose to respect the original (and rather skewed) ground plan of the mediaeval church, which retains a traditional appearance from the exterior, with a traditionally-shaped tower and spire, but with classical detailing, including a fine entrance portico with Corinthian columns.

Inside, the interior is pure classical: the south aisle is separated by two tall Corinthian columns with gilded capitals. The main interest of St Margaret's is its rich and varied 17th and 18th century furnishings, many of which have come from other churches. Indeed, the parish has absorbed a number of them (seven, in fact) over the years, reflecting the incredible density of churches in mediaeval London. They have wonderful names: St. Christopher, Le Stocks, St Olave Old Jewry, St Mildred Poultry. Sadly, all are now long demolished.

Back to the furnishings: pride of place goes to the two screens: the first separates the nave and sanctuary, and came from All Hallows the Great, demolished in 1894. It is a spectacular piece of carving, with a grand entrance arch, featuring a winged eagle under a broken pediment, and columns of intertwined barley twist lathe work.

The other screen separates the nave from the aisle, now a chapel. The lower part came from St Olave Jewry (as did the Chapel's reredos) and the upper part is by G F Bodley. The paintings of Moses and Aaron either side of the reredos, dated to 1700, came from St Christopher-le-Stocks, demolished in 1781. The reredos behind the main altar does belong to the church, and is a handsome 17th century classical piece, in the Corinthian style. The other original element is the font, thought to be from the workshop of Grinling Gibbons.

The organ is considered by some as one of the finest examples of English organ building, was built by George England in the 18th-century style and completed in 1801. Finally, the church walls and floors are filled with memorials, both from St Margaret's and the other churches incorporated into the parish over the years.

The church still has an active mission to City workers, as evidenced in its unusual service times - before work at 8h, a few lunch-time services, but nothing on Sundays. It is also home to a number of City of London Livery Companies.

Lothbury, London EC2R 7HH

Friday, 10 April 2009

St Luke's, Chelsea

St Luke's, with its striking golden stone tower soaring to 142ft (43m), dominates the area around Sydney Street, just off the upper end of the King’s Road close to Chelsea Town Hall. It is set in a spacious square, opposite the anonymous brown mass of the modern Royal Brompton Hospital.

The need for a new church was identified in the early 19th century as the original Parish Church (now known as Chelsea Old Church) was becoming too small for the area’s rapidly increasing population. The new church was designed by James Savage in a grand Perpendicular Gothic – it was, in fact, one of the earliest Gothic revival churches. Consecrated in 1824, it is built in a lovely golden Bath stone and the exterior resembles King's College Chapel, Cambridge. The grand scale and the quality of materials reflected the wealth of Chelsea even then – the first rector was the brother of the Duke of Wellington, the wonderfully-named Reverend Gerald Valerian Wellesley, and the Earls of Cadogan, who remain patrons of the parish.

From Sydney Street, the church is dominated by its tower, which sits above a generous five-arched entrance portico. Behind it, resembling some grand ocean liner, is a high, square nave, flanked by tall aisles and supported by prominent flying buttresses. After the exterior, the interior is something of an anti-climax. Originally built as a ‘preaching-box’, with a small sanctuary space, it was re-ordered in a more traditional style in the late 19th century. With the galleries, the church can seat over 850 people.

The most striking features, apart form its incredible height (at 60ft, it has the tallest nave of any parish church in London), are the huge window in the east wall, and the wonderful organ in the west, rebuilt in 1932, but incorporating parts of the original. The window is over 500 square feet in area, and was reglazed in 1959 to replace the original destroyed in the Second World War. The colourful design features emblems of the Trinity and Saints. The reredos behind the altar is also attractive, and contains a painting of Christ being taken down from the Cross, by the portrait painter James Northcote (1746-1831). Other fittings of interest include a wonderful eagle lectern, and various flags and memorials to the Punjab Frontier Force, which was based in India from1847 to 1947.

The church has a colourful history: Charles Dickens was married here in 1836, two days after the first publication of the Pickwick Papers; the Rector from 1836-1860 was the father of Charles Kingsley, author of The Water Babies, and John Goss, who wrote the well-known hymn ‘Praise my soul the King of Heaven’, worshipped here. But the most bizarre incident was that of the ‘Flying Man’, Vincent de Groof, in 1874. He had constructed a primitive flying-machine from which he planned to descend – to awaiting crowds - from a hot-air balloon. Setting off from nearby Cremorne Gardens, the balloon drifted dangerously towards the tower of St Luke’s. The balloonist cut de Groof free, hoping he would land gently in the churchyard, but instead he crashed into Robert Street, and died shortly after. More happily, the church was used to film some of the scenes in the 1995 Disney remake of the film ‘101 Dalmatians’.

Nowadays, the church has a loyal congregation, attracted by the traditional but inclusive Anglican services. The church is also famous for its choir – the largest voluntary choir of any London church – which sings regularly at services, as well as performing in Cathedrals in the UK and France. More details can be found at: www.vinumbonum.org.uk. The church has a ramped access at the front for pushchairs and wheelchairs.

Sydney Street, Chelsea, London SW3 6NH

Thursday, 9 April 2009

Hereford Cathedral

Although the Cathedral at Hereford sits on an ancient Christian site, it has been rebuilt many times during its 1,300-odd year history, most recently in the early 20th century. But this small, attractive Cathedral has had a more colourful history than most, and contains some priceless historical artifacts, notably its mediaeval chained library and the famous Mappi Mundi.

Hereford is thought to have been the centre of a diocese as early as the 6th century, but it is clear that it was refounded in 676AD by the Saxon Bishop Putta, erstwhile Bishop of Rochester. In 792, the cathedral also became home to the remains of King Ethelbert (Æthelberht) of East Anglia, beheaded by Offa, King of Mercia. The reasons behind the beheading are unknown – the unfortunate Ethelbert was to have married Offa’s daughter. Whatever the cause, miracles were said to have occurred at his tomb, and Ethelbert was canonised: the cathedral still retains its double dedication, to St Mary the Virgin and St Ethelbert the King.

Around 830AD, the church was rebuilt in stone, and stood until ransacked by the Welsh in 1056. The arrival of the Normans signalled a major rebuilding programme, begun under Robert of Lorraine in 1076 and completed in 1145. Much of this work remains, particularly in the Choir and the Transepts, and the finely decorated nave arcade. The retention of the 11th-century ground plan is the reason for Hereford’s relatively small size.

A retro-choir and Lady Chapel were added around 1220, and the same century also saw the rebuilding of the north transept, and the clerestory and vault of the Choir. The 14th century saw the essential completion of the church, with the additional of its fine decorated gothic central tower, a western tower, a number of chantries, a fine cloister and the north porch.

In 1786 the western tower collapsed, taking the West front and part of the nave with it. Rebuilt – not entirely successfully - by James Wyatt, the 1800s saw further restoration, much of it under George Gilbert Scott, and in 1908 a new West front was completed to replace Wyatt’s work.

The cathedral we see now is therefore essentially a Norman building with later additions. Its interior has some remarkable furnishings and fittings, including mediaeval glass, the fine 14th-century tomb of Sir Richard Pembridge (in full armour), the tomb of St Thomas of Hereford (Bishop Thomas de Cantilupe, 1218-1282), the small but beautiful 15th-century Audley Chantry, and the priceless mediaeval chained library, which contains books and manuscripts from the 13th century onwards. Chief among its glories is the Mappa Mundi, a map of the world showing Jerusalem at its centre, and dating from the 13th century.

The cathedral has the inevitable shop, and a modern café, situated in the cloister. The cathedral is famed for its music, a choir having been established here in the 13th century. Along with Gloucester and Worcester, it also hosts the famous Three Choirs Festival, every three years (the next occasion being 2009). Dating back to 1727, this is the oldest music festival in Europe, and possibly the world. Details can be found at: www.3choirs.org.

The Cloisters Cathedral Close, Hereford, Herefordshire HR1 2NG

St Alban's Abbey

St Alban’s is one of England’s oldest towns. There has been a settlement here since the 1st Century BC, and in AD 43 the Romans chose the site for their city of Verulamium, which became the Capital of the Roman province of Britannia.

The city owes its modern name to a Roman soldier, Alban. He became the first Christian to be martyred on English soil, around 303 AD, for hiding and aiding the escape of a Christian priest named Amphibalus. A shrine is recorded here in early times, and St Germanus visited the site in 429 AD. Later, an abbey was established in his honour by King Offa in 739 AD, and in 1154 its abbot became Archabbot of England, making it the premier abbey in the land. After the Reformation, the church became the Parish church of St Alban’s, and was elevated to cathedral status in 1877.

Little remains of Offa’s abbey, which was largely made of wood. The Normans began to rebuild it in 1077 and, given the lack of building stone in the area, instead used Roman bricks recycled from the earlier town: the church therefore contains substantial amounts of fabric, if not architecture, dating from the 3rd and 4th Centuries. The south transept also contains stone columns from the earlier Saxon church.

The early Norman work is unusual in that the Roman bricks were too hard to carve, and the walls were therefore plastered and painted with geometrical designs. Much of this decoration survives, together with delicate frescoes dated from around 1220. The Nave is unusual in being over 300ft (100m) long, and but also shows a distinct change of style from the Romanesque style of the Normans to the later Gothic work: most of this is in a beautiful Decorated Gothic style, especially that in the Lady Chapel. The church was essentially finished in its present form in 1323.

As well as the frescoes, there is much of interest elsewhere in the church. Throughout the church are examples of impressive carving from the Decorated Gothic period, as well as fragments of mediaeval stained glass. The altar screen and painted ceiling in the sanctuary are both impressive works from the 15th century, and the floor contains a beautiful pavement of Victorian glazed encaustic tiles by Minton & Company.

Behind the Sanctuary lies St Alban’s chapel. At its heart lies the 13th century marble shrine to St Alban, rebuilt from the original fragments after it was destroyed in the Reformation. It continues to be a major site of pilgrimage. To the north is a carved oak Watching Loft dating from 1400, and to the south the impressive Perpendicular monument of Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester and brother of Henry V, completed in 1447. Beyond the shrine is the beautiful Lady Chapel, completed around 1315.

The church has an excellent modern refectory, bookshop and a small gift shop. There are regular guided tours and wheel-chair access is available on request.

Abbey Mill Lane, St. Albans, Hertfordshire AL1 1BY

St Bride's Fleet Street, London

Rebuilt by Sir Christopher Wren in 1670-84 after the great fire of London, St Bride’s magnificent steeple is a familiar landmark across the City of London. It’s wedding-cake of octagonal and arcaded tiers rises 226ft (70m), making it Wren’s tallest.

The present building is actually the eighth church on the site, and the crypt contains the remains of Saxon foundations, now part of a museum describing the early history of this part of London. The church itself was heavily rebuilt after being gutted in 1940, but the neo-classical interior is a sympathetic rendering, rather than a copy, of Wren’s original.

St Bride’s is known as the church of the Press, until recently located in nearby Fleet Street. Those associations go back to the 1500s, when Wynkyn de Worde, William Caxton's apprentice, brought his press here. Wynkyn was buried in St Bride's in 1535. Other printers also set up shop nearby, and the link with the press has been maintained to this day.

Bride Lane, off Fleet Street, London EC4Y 8AU

St Margaret's Church, Westminster

St Margaret's church lies in the shadow - both literally and figuratively - of Westminster Abbey next door. Only a fraction of the visitors to the Abbey ever stop to look into St Margaret's, which is a pity, since it is an interesting and historic church in its own right. (And unlike the Abbey, entry to visitors is free).

The original church was built in the 11th century for the local Parish, so that the monks in the adjacent Abbey could hear Mass undisturbed. This building was partly rebuilt in the 14th century, but by the 15th century it was in very poor condition. An entirely new church was therefore begun on the same site in 1482, and completed in 1523.

The result is an astonishingly uniform church, built in the Perpendicular Gothic style throughout, although the white stone on the outside and the whitewash inside does render it somewhat dull. However, it contains many interesting tombs and memorials from the 1520s onwards, especially since this became the church of Parliament in 1614. The most notable memorial is that to Sir Walter Raleigh, who is buried in front of the altar, and windows commemorate Caxton and Milton.

The most spectacular feature, however, is the East Window: part of wedding dowry of Catherine of Aragon, this was probably designed in Holland around 1526. Henry VIII and Catherine kneel in opposite corners, under a detailed depiction of the Crucifixion. The colours are astonishing - indeed, many mistake it for a modern piece - with large expanses of vivid blues and reds.

Finally, the tower is interesting for its sundials, in place of clocks

St Margaret's Street, City of Westminster, London SW1P 3JX

Westminster Abbey

Westminster Abbey really needs no introduction. Intimately entwined with the history of England, the coronation church since 1066 and the resting place of 17 monarchs, it is probably the closest we have to a national church. Steeped in more than a thousand years of history, the Abbey – an integral part of the Westminster UNESCO World Heritage Site - is the UK’s most visited religious building, with over a million visitors a year.

It is also one of the most important Gothic buildings in the UK in its own right, as the quality of architecture and rich decoration reflects its Royal patronage down the years. This treasure house of paintings, stained glass, pavements, textiles and other artefacts, is also the final resting place of some of the most significant people in the nation’s history. The tombs and memorials comprise the single most significant collection of monumental sculpture anywhere in Britain.

The building’s history begins with the Benedictine monks, who chose the site for a community in the middle of the tenth century. Edward the Confessor founded the present Abbey in the eleventh century, dedicated in 1065. He was later sanctified, and his shrine remains at the heart of the Abbey. Much of this building was pulled down in 1245 on the orders of Henry III, who wanted a larger and more spectacular building, in the latest Gothic style. His church closely resembles the cathedrals at Amiens, Rheims and Chartres in France, with the familiar Gothic windows and flying buttresses, but with the more English design of a long nave with wide transepts. The vault (102 feet, 30m) is the highest Gothic vault in England. By 1269 the apse, radiating chapels, transepts and choir were complete and the new shrine received the bones of St Edward.

Henry III died in 1272 before the work was completed, and most of the 11th-century nave remained in place until the end of the fourteenth century, when funds became available to continue the work. Despite the lapse of time, the Nave was constructed in the same style, giving the Abbey great architectural unity. The Nave work was finally completed in 1532, although the West Towers remained unfinished.

The other major addition was Henry VII’s spectacular Lady Chapel at the eastern end, in a riotously decorated Perpendicular Gothic, encrusted with the Tudor motifs of the rose and portcullis. Begun in 1509, it has been called "one of the most perfect buildings ever erected in England" and "the wonder of the world". In 1745 the West Towers were finally completed, to a design by Nicholas Hawksmoor.

Since then, of course, the Abbey has been the scene, not only of coronations and funerals (most recently of Diana, Princess of Wales), but also thanksgivings, Royal weddings and celebrations.

They have recently begun charging visitors a hefty £10 (€15) for entry, although St George’s chapel is open for private prayer. Photography is not permitted inside. Perhaps the best way to appreciate the building is to attend a daily service or one of the many concerts held here throughout the year.

20 Deans Yard, Westminster, London SW1P 3PA

St John the Evangelist, Chichester

Visiting St John’s church for the first time, you could be forgiven for thinking you were entering a Nonconformist Chapel. But this Anglican church, tucked away in a quiet corner of Chichester, is a rare and perfectly preserved example of an early 19th century evangelical ‘preaching house’. Dating from 1812, it is built in a severe but elegant Classical style.

Unusually, it was privately funded and run by trustees from the evangelical movement of the Church of England - such schisms are not a new phenomenon! The Ministers were largely paid for by the rent from the pews in the galleries, and the rich not only had their own pews but their own entrances too - clearly, not all here were equal in the sight of God...

As well as the severe decor - which offers little to distract the congregation from the proceedings - the dominance of the central pulpit reflects the emphasis on sermons and scripture readings in evangelical worship. The impressive triple-decker pulpit is itself a rare survivor, and completely dominates the altar (or rather the Communion Table) behind. The four painted tablets are also interesting survivors.

Although rather plain, the building is a fascinating example of a religious phenomenon, and a remarkably peaceful place in which to sit for a while. The Church is also used regularly for concerts, especially during the Chichester Festival.

It is now in the care of the Churches Conservation Trust.

St John's Street
, Chichester, West Sussex PO19 1UR

Holy Trinity, Sloane Square

Located just off busy Sloane Square, Holy Trinity is one of the Churches most closely associated with the Arts & Crafts movement in the UK, and is a stunning monument to late 19th century decorative art.

Inspired by people like John Ruskin and William Morris, the movement triumphed hand-made craftsmanship in an age of emerging mass-production. Alongside aesthetic considerations was the belief that such skills were the hallmark of human creativity and endeavour, and the desire to provide work for artisans displaced by industrialisation. Their message was to make everyday objects beautiful, and to revere nature through crafts, painting and architecture.

The church was built for the 5th Earl Cadogan by the architect John Sedding, and decorated and furnished by the likes of William Morris, Edward Brunes-Jones and Henry Wilson. The handsome west frontage is in orange-red brick with banded stone decoration, with a huge perpendicular window. The interior plan is straightforward: a wide nave (wider than St Paul's Cathedral) and spacious north aisle, and a smaller south aisle. These lead to a short chancel and sanctuary, which sits beneath an enormous East Window.

But it is the rich fittings and furnishings which catch the eye. No expense was spared: there is an abundance of marble, porphyry, alabaster, bronze and gilt. As well as astonishing stained glass - the East Window is William Morris's largest - every item, from the light fittings to the screens and railings - is elaborately conceived and executed. A visit is a must if you are in the area - and a welcome distraction from the retail temptations close by.

The church also has a very active worship and music programme - see website for details. At Christmas, it is also renowned for selling one of the best selections of charity Christmas Cards in London.

Sloane Street, Chelsea, London, SW1X 9BZ

St Michael, Amberley

Amberley is picture-postcard Sussex. Situated on a wooded slope above the river Arun, it is all pretty cottages, gardens and thatch.

It was also the location of a castle, owned by the Bishops from nearby Chichester as a hunting lodge and retreat. Although there are references to the lands at Amberley being granted to the Bishop in 670AD, there is no mention of a church here in the Domesday book in 1086. The Bishops' Castle still stands next to the church, and is now an award-winning - and appropriately expensive - luxury Country House hotel.

The church was also built by the Bishops, and this patronage is reflected in the size and slendour of the building. It is thought that the Nave was built by Bishop Luffa around 1140, and the chancel and South Aisle were added around 1230 by Bishop Ralph Neville.

The interior is completely dominated by the chancel arch. This is a stunning exposition of the Norman style: row upon row of zig-zag carving covers the sides and underneath of the arch, supported by robust smooth-leaf capitals. Decorated capitals also adorn the large Norman windows in the north and west walls.

In contrast, the chancel is a more sophisticated space, the East end adorned with three Early-English lancet windows. In the 14th Century, a south porch was added, with oak-leaf capitals, and the Norman north door partially filled in. Both the nave and chancel have impressive exposed beam ceilings with king-post trusses.

Some other elements are also of interest: to the south of the chancel arch are 12-13th century wall-paintings, depicting scenes from the life of Christ. The font dates from around 1140, and in the south aisle is a brass to John Wantele, the local MP, who died in 1424. He is shown in splendid 15th century plate armour, with a decorated surcoat. A replica is located next to the font for those interested in brass rubbing.

Outside, the churchyard is dominated by the walls of the castle. The wall is pierced with a door, through which the Bishops presumably walked to the church: it is named in honour of the most illustrious of their number, St Richard of Chichester.

Church Street, Amberley, near Arundel, West Sussex BN18 9NF

St Mary, Glynde

Not far from the well-known Opera venue at Glyndebourne is the impressive Country House of Glynde Place and the elegant parish church of St Mary.

Although there has been a church here since at least the 12th century, the present church was built in 1763-65 by Richard Trevor, Bishop of Durham and the then owner of Glynde Place. The style chosen for the new building was Palladian, an unusual one for a parish church - the more so because this style was out of date, even then. But it seems a wise choice today - the approach to the west door presents a picture of restrained elegance.

The church itself is wonderfully preserved, and an oasis of calm. It is a simple, one-room building with original box pews and, unusually, a heavily decorated hessian fabric covering the walls. There are tombstones in the floor from the original church, and a west gallery, added in 1841, to provide additional seating alongside the organist. The gallery seating is rather spartan - these were 'free' seats, as opposed to the more comfortable pews, which were rented. It must have been a torment to sit in them during a long sermon.

The stained glass windows, originally clear, are Victorian additions by Kempe. Their design is unusual for Kempe: the 3 chancel windows incorporate 33 medallions and panels of Flemish glass dated 1533 from the original mediaeval church, and an elborate Renaissance style was chosen to set them off, in keeping. The overall effect is rather gaudy, but the original panels, depicting Biblical scenes, are delightful.

The adjacent churchyard is dominated by Glynde Place next door, but has wonderful views towards the South Downs.

Lacy's Hill, Glynde, near
Lewes, East Sussex BN8 6SX

St Mary the Virgin, Kemptown, Brighton

Rarely does such an unprepossessing exterior hide such a stunning space. From the outside, St Mary's looks like you average, run-of-the-mill Neo-Gothic Victorian church. It doesn't even look that large, and has the added humiliation of having had a public lavatory attached to one side. But once inside, you turn and find yourself in a cathedral-like space: a huge nave, an even larger crossing and a spectacular chancel and sanctuary. This is architecture as drama, writ large.

The church has had an interesting history: opened in 1827 to cater for the burgeoning suburbs of East Brighton, the original church was a rather handsome Neo-classical building, modelled on the temple of Nemesis in Athens. Alas, like many Regency buildings, it was badly built, and partially collapsed during building work in 1876.

The architect commissioned to design its replacement was William Emerson, known mostly for his work in India. St Mary's is his only church in the UK, and he chose the Decorated Gothic style for his new creation, albeit one with other stylistic elements: the aisle arches are round-headed and groups of Early-English lancets proliferate - all in red brick, with Bath stone detailing.

The arcades rise to Corinthian capitals, both in the nave and in the apse of the sanctuary. Cleverly, Emerson made full use of the changes in levels, first down from the entrance and baptistery into the nave, and then back up again into the sanctuary, to emphasise the height. (The nave is 40ft across and 60ft high.) The only element not completed was the tower, which was abandoned for lack of funds, although early drawings show what was intended.

The church has a wide array of Victorian stained glass, including an example by Kempe, although other workshops predominate. (The web-site has excellent pictures of all the glass). The furnishings are also of high quality, including a carved pulpit of Caen stone, and a marble font, which stands on a plinth of granite from the Schreckhorn mountain in the Bernese Oberland in Switzerland. This commemorates the second Vicar, Julius Elliott: an accomplished rock climber, he was the second to ascend the North Face of the Matterhorn, but died in 1869 after an apparently successful ascent of the Schreckhorn, at the age of 28.

The other notable feature is its organ, which is known for its tonal quality, enhanced by the excellent acoustics of the church.

The only downside to all this grandeur is that to-day's rather smaller congregation struggles to resource the scale of maintenance required of such a huge building. It needs generous visitors.

Rock Gardens, Brighton BN2 1PR

St Andrew-by-the-Ford, Ford

Ford has a tiny church of Saxon origin, at the end of a small gravel path, close to the bank of the River Arun and surrounded by a copse of trees. It must have been a lovely spot before the coming of the railway, the main road and Ford Open Prison. But walking up the gravel path, looking across the open fields towards the river, it is still possible to imagine yourself in a different era.

The church is a simple, two-cell structure, with a nave and chancel, and a porch added in 1637 in the Dutch style. The interior is dark - especially so since there is no electricity here (they is a small generator to provide limited lighting for the choir). It is dominated by the Norman chancel arch, which has mouldings with a simple X-shape decoration. The walls are pierced by small Norman windows, although the Chancel has a fine Decorated window of about 1320. In the vestry are the remains of a Saxon arch, dated from around the turn of the 10th-11th centuries.

The walls show traces - although very indistinct - of extensive wall paintings. Those above the chancel arch show the last judgement, with the remains of devils (their feet, actually) forcing the damned into the mouth of a great red beast. A picture by the doorway helps interpret the remains.

On the west wall is a depiction - again, fragmentary - of the Garden of Agony, with two dragons. The paintings are thought to date from around 1320. It is a great pity they cannot be restored further.

Ford Road, Ford, near Littlehampton, West Sussex

St Mary, Barnham

Away from the sprawl of modern village of Barnham, St Mary's church sits in a quiet wooded spot next to the old Manor House (Barnham Place) and the remains of the old Chichester Canal.

The church is mentioned in 1086 in the Domesday Book, although the oldest part of the present church dates from around 1100. A remodelling in the early 13th century saw it enlarged with a new chancel, porch and a north aisle, although this was susequently demolished. (The Victorians opened one of the aisle arches to insert the organ).

The exterior is rather homespun, the main feature being an attractive wooden bell-tower, painted white traditionally as a landmark to aid shipping. It contains one of Sussex's oldest bells, dated 1348. Inside, the walls are painted an odd hue of pink but, apart from the sequence of windows, from Norman through Early English lancets to early examples of Decorated Gothic, the main interest is in the details: there is a much-battered Norman font, crusader crosses and unusual 'Agincourt' graffiti carved into the stonework, and a 15th century statue of St Elizabeth of Hungary.

The Agincourt graffiti is exceedingly rare. Above and beneath a cross on the north aisle arch, are inscribed crudely the words (in Latin) 'Pray for the Soul of my father who died at Agincourt'. The rarity comes from the fact that so few could write at this time (1415), and yet its author could not afford a proper memorial. Below it are more crusader crosses, which must date from the time of rebuilding (the last crusade ended in 1291).

Outside, the church has an attractively wooded graveyard, and a Lych Gate with a heavy Horsham stone roof.

Church Lane, Barnham, near Bognor Regis, West Sussex PO22 0BP

Saturday, 4 April 2009

St Nicholas, Bramber

Bramber is a picture-postcard village of the sort that wins 'Britain in Bloom' prizes. Sandwiched between the equally pretty vllages of Steyning and Upper Beeding, it sits between the River Adur and the steep castle mound of Bramber Castle.

The castle is now an attractive ruin, but its church - the oldest Norman church in Sussex - is intact, and still in regular use. Situated on a hill above the village, the church was built at the same time as the castle in 1073, by William de Braose. Originally a chapel for the castle, it became the parish church in 1250, but declined along with the village as the River Adur silted up and trade declined. The church was used as a gun emplacement for attacking the castle during the Civil War in 1642, and was ruinous by the mid-18th Century. It was restored in the 19th century.

It's exterior is typically Norman - a strong, squat tower, which could also serve as a refuge, a short nave and thick walls. On the South Wall are the remains of an original Norman doorway, with a simply decorated arch. The original transepts and chancel have long since been demolished, and the church now consists only of a small west porch/vestry, nave and the tower, which functions as the chancel.

Inside, the church is dark and atmospheric. The eye is drawn to the chancel arch, a perfect example of rustic Norman romanesque, and is one of only three examples to feature the original Norman figure carvings on the capitals. On the left, these feature two simple human heads, but on the right the human heads are accompanied by animal carvings in relief, showing birds and what appear to be dogs or foxes - some of them with more birds in their mouths (possibly an early 'fox and goose'). There are more Norman carvings on the capitals of the infilled north cancel arch.

After a visit to the church, it's a only short climb to the lovely grounds of Bramber Castle - a perfect spot for a summer picnic.

The Street , Bramber , West Sussex , BN44 3WE

St Peter ad Vincula, South Newington

South Newington is to-day a small village, just off the A361, the few houses unfortunate enough to be on the main road giving no hint of the more substantial (and rather attractive) Cotswold village behind.

The village has been existence since at least Saxon times. There was a probably a church here then, but the present building dates from the late Norman period, around 1150. It was extensively remodelled in Early Decorated style around 1290-1300, with an enlarged nave, tower, south and north aisles. The Perpendicular period (1450) added a clerestory to the nave and a fine pinnacled porch. The whole composition is delightful, and executed in the rich golden hues of the local ironstone.

Little of this prepares the casual visitor for the interior, however, which contains a superb collection of late mediaeval wall paintings. On the north wall of the nave, homely but crude frescoes show various scenes from the passion of Christ, and are unusual in their state of preservation and clarity: they depict the Entry into Jerusalem, the Garden at Gethsemane, a gruesome flagellation, Christ carrying the Cross, the Crucifixion and the Resurrection.

Yet even these pale (almost literally) in comparison with those on the north aisle wall. These were executed, unusually, in oil on plaster, giving them both a range of colours and vividness unusual in wall paintings, and their quality both of preservation and of execution is outstanding. The first shows the martyrdom of St Thomas a Becket. It is gruesome in its reality, a sword splitting his head as he prays before the altar, although the details of the soldiers are less distinct. Rarely, the face of Becket has survived, as the painting appears to have been covered over in the mediaeval period (Henry VIII ordered images of Becket to be defaced, as he considered it a portrayal of resistance against the Crown).

Next to this scene is another unique survivor, a portrayal of the murder of Thomas of Lancaster. He led the resistance to Edward II and was accused of murdering Piers Gaveston. For a period, his followers venerated him as a Saint and miracles were attributed to him. Further along the wall, the windows contain fine examples of mediaeval stained glass, depicting armorial devices and mythical beasts.

The next wall painting is regarded by some as the finest in Britain of its type. First, on the side of the window is a panel recording the Annunciation, above another panel showing St James with a donor, identified by his heraldry as Thomas Gifford. The next panel is the climax: an exquisite rendering of the Virgin Mary with the infant Jesus, framed in a Decorated Gothic canopy, with the two donors (Gifford and his wife Margaret) praying alongside. Mary’s robes are a beautiful green and red, and she holds a fleur-de-lys, while Jesus holds an apple – an ancient symbol of his acceptance of the sins of the world. Below is a pedestal with the Gifford coat of arms and a richly decorated lozenge-pattern border. Further along, another well preserved painting shows St Margaret killing a beast – the choice of subject possibly referring to the donor’s name.

Other wall paintings over the chancel arch and on the east end of the nave are less well preserved, although there are plans to restore them. I hope they succeed.

South Newington, Oxfordshire, OX15 4JF

St Mary, Bloxham

St Mary’s is a distinctive landmark on the A361 from Chipping Norton to Banbury, its 198ft spire dominating the landscape for miles around.

It has always been an important church, benefitting from Royal patronage from its earliest days. There was probably a church here in Saxon times, but the first written record is when William I granted it to Westminster Abbey in 1067. King Stephen endowed a chantry here, and Henry II made a gift of its endowments to Godstow Abbey, an act clearly important enough for Westminster Abbey to appeal – unsuccessfully, as it turned out – to the Pope.

So much for its history. The building we see to-day is a text-book of mediaeval church architecture: it has some remnants from the Norman period, a 12-13th Century Early English nave and porch, a 14th Century Decorated Gothic tower and chancel, with some spectacular Perpendicular Gothic additions from the 15th century.

The first thing that strikes you on entering the church is the size of the building: in the 14th century, the aisles were doubled in size to the width of the nave, giving the church a spacious square floor-plan. The first furnishing of note is the font, a fine and rare example in the perpendicular style of the 15th century. Above, the roof is supported on corbels in the shape of human heads, in the shape of Kings, Queens, Bishops and a lady with a fine 15th century horned head-dress. Across in the north aisle is a remnant of a wall painting of St Christopher, separating the aisle from the north transept, an elegant pillar with an incredible capital carved with the heads of knights and ladies with linked arms.

The other feature of the nave is the rood screen, a gift from Cardinal Wolsey in the 15th century. Despite subsequent defacing by iconoclasts, it still retains its painted panels, although some of the remains are very faint. The pictures represent saints and the doctors of the early church. The chancel has a fine Norman door-head from the period of King Stephen, with fish-scale, foliage and lozenge patterns. Opposite, the decorated windows have re-used some of the earlier Norman arches, with more zig-zag patterns.

But the most dramatic addition is the large Milcombe Chapel, a bold exercise in 15th-century perpendicular. Huge panel windows fill every side. On one wall is a vivid and colourful 15th Century wall-painting depicting the life of a martyr, with different episodes all shown in the one picture. The chapel’s west wall is dominated by the confident memorial to Sir John Thorneycroft (d. 1725). When built, this was sited against the Chapel’s East window, effectively blocking it, much to the ire of the congregation. It was moved to its present, more appropriate, location during the 19th century restoration by G E Street.

The exterior of the church is easily a match for the interior. The Milcombe Chapel sports huge and well-preserved gargoyles, but it is the spire, west door and north wall for which the church is renowned: here, in 1340, a series of elaborate decorative carvings was added, around the door and the base of the spire, and along the cornice of the north wall. The West Door scheme depicts the Last Judgement, but the those on the tower and wall carry more whimsical themes, and include two monkeys riding a cat, a main whistling, two men sword fighting and dogs looking at a rabbit in a thicket. Piety can indeed have a sense of humour.

The graveyard is pleasantly wooded, with some attractive 18th-century tombstones. The effect is spoiled only by the roar of traffic from the adjacent road. How many passing motorists realise the glory that they are passing at speed?

Church Street, Bloxham, Oxfordshire, OX15 4PY