Chris­tian Eng­land

Roger Paine shares the his­tory of this fas­ci­nat­ing East Sus­sex church.

This England - - Christian England -

T E church of St Mary the Vir­gin, Sale­hurst, also the par­ish church of Roberts­bridge, is sep­a­rated from Roberts­bridge by the busy A21 by­pass where the road crosses the River Rother.

The two vil­lages would, at one time, have seemed closer to­gether, but dual car­riage­ways and round­abouts have now forced them apart and, whilst there are a few farms, a do en or so houses and the Sale­hurst Halt pub­lic house nearby, St Mary’s, the largest par­ish church in East Sus­sex, can ap­pear al­most iso­lated in the coun­try­side.

The rea­son this mag­nif­i­cent church is some dis­tance from the lo­cal cen­tre of pop­u­la­tion is be­cause, when it was built some eight hun­dred years ago, the main road from Lon­don, now Beech House Lane, went through Sale­hurst, past the church, and across the river to Roberts­bridge Abbey, which was founded as a Cis­ter­cian monastery in 1176.

For cen­turies Sale­hurst held an im­por­tant po­si­tion in the Wealden iron in­dus­try and was the cen­tre of the agri­cul­tural com­mu­nity on the Sus­sex ent bor­der un­til, in the nine­teenth cen­tury, the rail­way from Lon­don ar­rived in Roberts­bridge.

In the Domes­day Book the en­try for Sal­hert (Sale­hurst) records there is a church and six­teen acres of meadow.

While no ev­i­dence of this Saxon church still ex­ists, it is likely the present church oc­cu­pies the same site. The church is built of Hast­ings sand­stone and the ma­sonry is mainly in ir­reg­u­lar-shaped blocks.

The chan­cel, the nave and the lower stages of the tower were built be­tween 1220 and 1250 AD.

Much of the build­ing’s fab­ric owes its ex­is­tence to the in­flu­ence of Roberts­bridge Abbey and it is prob­a­ble the monks were in­volved in its con­struc­tion. Be­tween 1176 and 153 , when the abbey was dis­solved, it re­ceived several royal visi­tors, in­clud­ing ing Henry III in 1225 and 1264, and his son, Ed­ward I, in 1295.

Af­ter the first stage of build­ing had been com­pleted, in Early English style, the north and south aisles were added, to­gether with the up­per por­tion of the tower in Dec­o­rated style to­wards the end of the 14th cen­tury.

The mas­sive tower is one of the most re­mark­able fea­tures. Struc­turally it is built in­side the church, but has no solid sup­port walls. The whole weight is car­ried by four huge pil­lars en­clos­ing three lofty arches which ex­tend up to the level of the floor of the ring­ing cham­ber.

Af­ter seven cen­turies, this re­mark­able feat of en­gi­neer­ing shows no sign of set­tle­ment or stress. The walls of the bat­tle­mented tower are several feet thick and com­prise vary­ing si es of sand­stone blocks.

Although the bell­ringers have re­ported the tower some­times “rocks” when they are ring­ing there is a peal of eight bells mostly dat­ing from the late 1 th cen­tury the stonework ap­pears as ro­bust as ever.

Like the tower, the nave is an enor­mous struc­ture. It is 5 feet long with strik­ingly im­pos­ing ar­cades sep­a­rat­ing it from the side aisles.

For a par­ish church serv­ing two ru­ral vil­lages it has al­most cathe­dral-like pro­por­tions, and the large clerestory win­dows pro­vide much nat­u­ral light. The chan­cel is at a slightly higher level than the nave, hav­ing been raised at some stage, which ac­counts for the low po­si­tion of the piscina in the south wall.

The stone which forms the pedestal of the al­tar is thought to be one of the al­tar stones of Roberts­bridge Abbey, now in ru­ins, which was re­cov­ered from a nearby farm at the be­gin­ning of the last cen­tury.

One of the trea­sures of the church is the me­dieval stone font in the tower atrium. nown as the sala­man­der font, it de­picts

carved sala­man­ders, a crea­ture which mythol­ogy claims is the sym­bol of the vir­tu­ous man who can pass through the fires of temp­ta­tion.

It was also the em­blem adopted by the Cru­saders, and leg­end re­lates it was given by ing Richard I, “Richard the Lion­heart”, in grat­i­tude to Ab­bot Wil­liam of Roberts­bridge Abbey. It was he who led the ex­pe­di­tion to res­cue the ran­somed ing af­ter he had been im­pris­oned in Bavaria when re­turn­ing to Eng­land af­ter the third Cru­sade.

On the wall next to the font hang the words of a song writ­ten in 1193 by the ing to his sis­ter, Mary of Cham­pagne, dur­ing his im­pris­on­ment.

At the east end of the south aisle is the Lady Chapel. Above the al­tar is a beau­ti­ful stained-glass win­dow made by the renowned Pre-raphaelite de­signer Charles empe, whose work can be seen in several English cathe­drals. It in­cludes his sig­na­ture mo­tif of a golden wheat­sheaf.

On the north side is the Wigsell Chapel, built around 1350 by Sir ohn Culpeper, owner of the nearby Wigsell es­tate. On a cor­bel is an un­usual carv­ing of a cowled monk hold­ing a hare or rab­bit.

The only grotes ue in the church, it may have con­nec­tions with the pa­gan fer­til­ity god­dess, Eostre. Her name pro­vides the word for Easter and she was tra­di­tion­ally shown with a rab­bit, said to be the source of the Easter bunny so fa­mil­iar to­day.

Four well-pre­served fu­neral hatch­ments are sited on the west wall of the nave. These em­blem­atic rep­re­sen­ta­tions of the coats of arms of lo­cal landown­ers or no­bil­ity were dis­played out­side the de­ceased’s house from the time of death un­til they ac­com­pa­nied the fu­neral cortege to the church.

The Sale­hurst hatch­ments date from 1779 to 1 24. The one for ane Mick­leth­wait of Iridge, who died in 1 19, in­cludes a skull which indi­cates she died with­out is­sue.

Por­tions of ex uisite smokey-green “Griselle” glass, de­pict­ing fo­liage and var­i­ous birds, are in the up­per lights in the north and south aisles and date from the 14th cen­tury.

There is a 17th-cen­tury oak poor box with iron strap­work, and a par­ish chest dated 167 with carved ini­tials Cw(church­war­dens) C ( ohn Cham­bers) and S ( ohn Sivier), the names of the hold­ers of the post at that time. Both the box and chest re­main in use to­day.

In the chan­cel is an oil paint­ing dated 1649 of the Rev. ohn Lord, Vicar of Sale­hurst from 1640 un­til his death in 16 1. Lord was recog­nised as a Roy­al­ist sym­pa­thiser, which may ac­count for his ab­sence from the par­ish for three-and-ahalf years dur­ing the Civil War when the area was known to sup­port Par­lia­ment.

On the wall of the south aisle is a me­mo­rial to Pri­vate Henry Os­borne, aged thirty-nine, killed at the Bat­tle of Loos in Flan­ders in 1915. The in­scrip­tion reads, rected as a mark o res ect by the Di­rec­tors Sta o the ent Sus­sex ail­way u on which un­der­tak­ing he was em loyed in the ngi­neers De t. At the time this rail­way ran from Roberts­bridge past the church.

In­side the west en­trance, be­neath the bell-ring­ing cham­ber, is a painted sign in the shape of a bell.

On ues­day, Oc­to­ber 29, 1919, in three hours and ten min­utes A Peal o Grand­sire ri les was rung on the Bells o this Church. The names of the eight lo­cal bell-ringers who per­formed this feat are recorded for pos­ter­ity.

Like many me­dieval par­ish churches, St Mary’s un­der­went ex­ten­sive restora­tion in the 19th cen­tury, which trans­formed the in­te­rior.

Com­pleted in 1 61, this in­cluded re­moval of the western gallery, repaving the floors with tiles, re­tim­ber­ing the chan­cel roof and that of the nave with new rafters and iron ties, and re­place­ment of the old fam­ily pews in the nave and aisles to al­low a large con­gre­ga­tion to be seated at ground level.

The ex­ten­sive and ram­bling church­yard con­tains a va­ri­ety of in­ter­est­ing head­stones and ta­ble tombs in­clud­ing several with fine Harmer ter­ra­cotta dec­o­ra­tions.

Of more re­cent vin­tage is the stained glass in two lights of a me­mo­rial win­dow in the wall of the south aisle. In­stalled in 2001, it de­picts in rain­bow colours the Cross in Light and was in­spired by the words shown at the foot of the win­dows.

Li e Is ter­nal and Love Is Im­mor­tal, Death Is But A Hori­zon And he Hori­zon Is But he Limit O Our Sight.

These words, at­trib­uted to Abra­ham Lin­coln, are de­rived from a prayer by Wil­liam Penn.

Apart from this strik­ing nod to mod­ern de­sign, and to­day’s en­thu­si­as­tic con­gre­ga­tion, St Mary’s me­dieval vast­ness re­mains a last­ing tes­ta­ment to changed times.

The stun­ning façade of St Mary’s Church.

From top left: The me­dieval south porch at St Mary’s.

Look­ing east to the chan­cel.

This font was pos­si­bly in­spired by one that orig­i­nally stood in Bat­tle Abbey nearby.

Bot­tom: The bell ringers of St Mary’s Church.

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