Tuesday, 8 June 2010

St James, Selham

Selham is almost perfect Sussex, nestling in the lush valley of the River Rother, midway between Petworth and Midhurst.

Its church is equally delightful. Set in an attractive churchyard, it consists of a small nave and chancel, with a south chapel.

Its history is a little obscure: it is not mentioned in Domesday, but the nave and chancel were clearly built very early in the Norman period, at the end of the 11th century. A south chapel was added in the 14th century, but largely rebuilt in the 19th. It once has a west tower, demolished in the 18th century and replaced with the current (and slightly twee) bell-cote during the Victorian restoration.

The actual age of the church has always been a puzzle: the proportions of the doorways, walls and nave suggest a Saxon origin, but the chancel in particular has lovely herringbone masonry, characteristic of Norman work, as well as a Norman tub-style font. But the greatest mystery of all is Selham’s real treasure, its chancel arch.

Narrow in the Saxon tradition, the arch itself has plain roll mouldings in the Norman style. The arch is supported by attached columns, above which are capitals, than abaci and then imposts. Each element is carved in different designs, incorporating both Saxon and Norman styles. The north capital has a crude Composite design, with coiled stems and semi palmettes. Above this, the abacus has Saxon-style interlace, and the impost on top has roll moulding facing and interlinked palmettes in the Norman tradition.

The south capital is the most fascinating, with marvellous reptilian figures in the Viking style: one fish-like animal spews foliage, whereas a second snake-like has a knotted body and devours its own tail while also spewing forth more foliage. Above this, the abacus has stylised foliage, and the impost has Saxon roll decoration emerging from a strange, looped snake-like beast.

Architectural historians have argued how all this came about, and whether it dates before or after 1066. Could different pieces, possibly of different dates and intended originally for other work, have been put together to make the arch? Or does it simply represent Saxon masons working in the Norman period and incorporating new designs? The truth is that we will never know, but can only marvel at the unique and fascinating result.

The church still has regular services, twice a month.

Selham, Petworth, GU28 0PW south of the A272

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