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