04 June 2017

Lullington: the smallest church in Britain

When I visited my friend Jill back in October 2014, she took me to see one of the loveliest churches I had ever seen, St Michaels and All Angels in Berwick. During my visit a few weeks ago, Jill took me to see another, just as lovely, and this one has the distinction of being the littlest church in the nation.

To reach it we walked from the picturesque town of Alfriston, along a public footpath, across the River Cuckmere, alongside fields of crops, and up a hill, with glorious views back towards Alfriston and across the Cuckmere Valley.

Veering off the fields, we passed through a small wooded area and then up a short path to a clearing and there it stood, the Church of the Good Shepherd ... or, at least, what’s left of it. The reason it’s the smallest church in Britain is because the church is really just the chancel of a much larger building that was destroyed by fire many centuries ago. You can see some of the stonework that marks the extent of the original church in my photo.

Measuring just 16 feet (5 metres) square, the church now seats around 20 people. Though it has no electricity for light or heating, regular services are still held there during the summer months. And, when extra people turn up, as frequently happens for the Harvest Festival, the congregation sits in the churchyard.

According to the British Listed buildings website, the church was probably built in the late 12th or early 13th century, of flint with a tiled roof. 

Initially, its isolated location made the church the perfect retreat for the monks of Alciston, but control was later handed over to the monastery at Battle Abbey. 

Later still, in 1251, the church was transferred to the Bishop of Chichester.

Nowadays, there are only a couple of houses near the church; they are all that remains of the village of Lullington, whose population was apparently much affected by the Black Death in the early 1330s.

Legend has it that the church, apart from the chancel, was destroyed by Oliver Cromwell’s troops in the 1650s but there are no historical records to confirm that tale.

The Church of the Good Shepherd sits in a wonderfully tranquil setting and it’s a lovely walk to and from Alfriston, so I’d definitely recommend the stroll if you’re in the area. 

30 May 2017

It’s a sign: Lewes, 1

Judging by the number of signs on its buildings, I think it’s fair to say that the small East Sussex town of Lewes must have had more famous people per capita living within its boundaries over the centuries than any other town in Britain. And what an interesting assortment of people they have been.

First off, Albion Russell (1821-1888), who opened a boot and shoe shop in Lewes in 1861. He was joined by George Bromley in 1873 after Bromley married Russell’s daughter Elizabeth, and, if you know your shoe brands, then you’ll know the rest. Together they formed the now-famous and still highly successful high-end footwear-manufacturing partnership of Russell and Bromley.

Portrait of Richard Russell by Benjamin Wilson, in public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Next, there’s Dr Richard Russell F.R.S. (1687-1759) (I wonder if he was related to the bootmaker). In 1750, he was the author of a dissertation that prescribed the drinking of sea water as a cure for diseases of the lymphatic glands, and he further recommended that people should try the waters near Brighton, both for drinking and for bathing. The popularity of his ideas contributed to Brighton becoming a fashionable bathing resort, and there is also a plaque for him in Brighton.

Here’s another famous Lewes-born doctor, Gideon A. Mantell F.R.S. (1790-1852). 

The son of a shoemaker, Mantell was apprenticed to a local doctor in 1805 and was later awarded his diploma as a Member of the Royal College of Surgeons. 

In his spare time, Mantell was a keen amateur geologist and he and his wife Mary would take long walks collecting fossils. 

It was on one of these walks that Mantell discovered the fossilised bones of a prehistoric reptile he later named the Iguanodon (though rumour has it that Mary made the actual discovery!).

[Image of Mantell's Maidstone fossil Iguanodon, 1840, via Wikimedia Commons]

Thomas Matthew was a generous man. A Presbyterian and a woollen draper, in his will of 21 December 1688 he bequeathed his house, St Michael’s Court on Keere Hill, for the use and benefit of the poor (chiefly poor widows) of the parish of St Michael-in-Lewes. The local County Court later ordered that the building ‘should be used as a residence for six deserving poor widows or poor single women not less than fifty years of age’, and it continued to function as an almshouse until 1960. Nowadays, this early 18th-century flint building contains two substantial and rather expensive private houses.

At 12 Keere Street, there once lived an author called Eve Garnett (1900-1991). She wrote The Family from One End Street, thought to be based in Lewes, which won the Carnegie Medal for Best Children’s Book in 1938 (beating Tolkein’s The Hobbit) and is still considered a classic. Garnett was also an accomplished artist, illustrating many children’s books, including Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses, and exhibiting at The Tate and the Lefevre Gallery. One of her paintings, ‘Lewes Gasworks from South Street’, is in the collections at the Barbican.

And last but most certainly not least – in fact, this last was a man of international fame, the man who wrote Common Sense and The Rights of Man and The Age of Reason, the man who has been hailed as the intellectual inspiration behind the American war of independence, the great Thomas Paine (1737-1809). Just to be clear, Paine wasn’t born in Lewes but he did live in a house here, now called Bull House, from 1768 to 1774, at which time he was a plain old tobacconist and exciseman. Paine married Elizabeth Olive, the daughter of the owners of Bull House, in 1771 but then he left her in 1774, moved initially to London and subsequently to America to stir up revolution.

27 May 2017

Lewes: the church with a squint

We were wandering along the High Street at Cliffe when we saw this old stone and flint church dedicated to St Thomas à Becket and, as I can never resist an open door, we went in for a look.

The first thing I noticed was the strong musky smell of incense, next was the way the dim light filtering in through the stained-glass windows was creating kaleidoscopic rainbows on the stone floor. Looking up I marvelled at the dark wooden ceiling of the chancel and the huge organ pipes that dominated one side wall.

It was Jill who first noticed the squint, not something I’d heard of or seen before. This architectural feature, also known as a hagioscope, was incorporated into church structures where the view to the main altar was obscured, thus allowing an assistant priest to raise the Host at the same time as the priest at the main altar.

Jill had just finished explaining this to me when an elderly gentleman, with a shock of white hair and looking slightly dishevelled in his dark green robe, came shuffling in through a side door. He explained that this double squint had probably been used to allow lepers to observe the mass. It seems that what is now the chancel of the present church was originally the full extent of the building, a late-12th-century chapel of ease, and it may be that the squint allowed lepers, from a leper hospital built just outside the town walls, to witness the celebration of mass without actually entering the church.

However, the structure of the church has been much altered over the centuries: their website suggests that the church had at least one aisle by the 13th century, that there was major reconstruction work done in the 14th century, that the flint tower is of late-15th-centuy construction and that the whole building was restored in the 19th century, so it’s difficult to be sure how the squint was originally designed to work and it does look to have been cut into the 12th-century wall rather than being an integral part of it.

Unsure of the man's identity I asked our elderly guide if he was the priest and he said ‘Yes’, though he did seem a little uncertain about it. It was only later that I checked the church’s website and discovered we had indeed been chatting to the Reverend George Linnegar who, though now officially retired, continues his 54-year service as a priest. As well as celebrating Holy Communion every day at St Thomas's, it seems Brother George is also Chief Clock Winder and Door fixer ... but that’s another story by another blogger.