St Mary Diary Notes

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Diary Notes 
from the Sussex County Magazine 1936

The Rev. A. A. Evans

In a passing journey I was able to spend an hour in the lovely fragment of the church of St. Mary of Shoreham, "nova Sorham," to distinguish it from "vetus Sorham" higher up the river. An hour is not much in which to attempt to decipher a building such as this. It requires weeks, months, years of waiting and gazing before something of a story of ages, the coming and going of men, new ways of thought, new visions of things, reveal themselves to you. Here I give only the impressions of an hour.

It is but half a church, this of New Shoreham. Its great aisled nave was abandoned more than five hundred years ago when the harbour silted and the river debouched into another parish and the population dwindled. So one sees of the nave only the foundation walls and one forlorn fragment of the western wall. What is left of the first church of Shoreham-a Norman building-are the transepts, the first bay of the nave, and the tower, all but its topmost storey. Beyond, on the eastward side, stretches the choir, built soon after the Norman period but in surprising beauty, and when the first breath of the Gothic manner was moving through the land. 

I will mention four objects which seemed to me of outstanding interest. The first is the west doorway. It raises a question. It has a moulding definitely Norman: the pellet and beak's head, but it is set in the style and method of two centuries later. It is a likely conjecture that this doorway was originally the western one of the lost nave, and when that was abandoned, it was transferred here by workmen in whom the Gothic spirit was dominant


The transepts now serve as vestibule or narthex of the church, and the second of my objects of especial interest met me here. It is a rood-loft piscina and you see it high up in the wall of the south side. It served an altar set upon the great rood beam, and when on high days and festivals the old nave - now empty and broken - was filled with worshippers, there - not in the dim recess of chancel - the recital of the great Sacrament was enacted close to the people with lights and dramatic movement. The old Church knew how to touch deeply the hearts of men. The beam of the rood loft has long ago disappeared but you can see where its ends rested, for there are still the deep gashes cut for this purpose in the cushion capitals of the pillars. A rood-loft piscina is a rare thing to meet. There are only three others in Sussex; they are at Eastbourne, Harting and Petworth.

The third feature, unusual and suggestive, is within the choir, which serves now for the needs of a parish church like that of Winchelsea and Boxgrove. It is a stone bench which runs along the full length of both aisles. This is a rare accessory of a medieval church, but where it existed it allowed the infirm, aged or very tired to rest during service. In those days, as in all churches of the eastern rite at the present time, people stood or knelt during the passing of the service. If any were ailing, or thought they were, they carried a stool to church. In later medieval years an occasional provision was made of stiff-backed, narrow-seated oaken benches on which to sit at all it must be bolt upright. A few of these benches survive at Didling, Kirdford and a few other places, but I do not think they are ever used.

How much more noble and impressive these churches must have looked in the old days when floors were unlittered by pews or chairs and the full dimensions of the church stood out! Pews came in with sermons, and these were rare or absent in the pre-Reformation church; people went there solely for prayer and worship.

The most interesting of all the special features which appealed to me in my short tarrying was the delightful freedom of tool-work in the arcades of the choir. Its date is about 1200 - a little before or a little after- - just when the Norman style was passing into Gothic and men caught sight of surprising visions of beauty. Those are great ages to be alive in, when a wind is blowing on the souls of men and creative impulses come to life. It, was so at this time. England came to birth then in great architecture, scholasticism when mind struck mind; the universities, municipalities, the embryo of Parliament. Mendicant friars went out into byways to conquer again the land for Christ. It was to the beginning of this age-the most wonderful in English history-that this choir belongs, and you see the same freshness and beauty in the choir of Boxgrove, Chichester Cathedral, Rye Parish Church and a few others. The craftsmen enjoyed their work, and this is marked by a freedom and individuality utterly unknown today.

Look at the foliage on the first capital of the north side. The wind has caught it and leaves bend over to the breeze. That is an original and pleasant fancy. No two capitals on this side are alike in leaf and arrangement. The craftsmen did not want what is sought for now-symmetry, that is sameness and repetition; but newness, contrast, and room for creative fancy. Look at the two sides of the choir. They both belong to the same time; at least the lower stages were built at the same time, and yet are widely different. On one side are pillars, round and octagonal, with stiff foliage in the capitals; on the other are massive rectangular piers with engaged shafts and, for moulding, deeply incised chisel work. Here two distinct types of architecture are blending together, and they do it happily. Overhead, the stone vaulting, which is a little later in date, is partly supported on triple clustered vaulting shafts, but you notice that those on the south side descend to the ground; on the other they terminate half way down on corbels, and die into the wall. No church of modern days is ever distantly like this; architects are wedded to the idea of sameness and symmetry, 'while the old workmen, who were allowed a free hand, aimed at contrast, newness and recording the passing fancy of the moment. These old stones still seem to breathe the thoughts and moods of workmen of more than seven hundred years ago.

In the cursory view of one hour there were other features I can but just mention. The intermittent zig-zag arcading of the aisle walls, the flying buttresses outside with cone terminals to give them grace and solidity, and the wheel window over the eastern lancets with sunken quatre-foils on either side to give relief to the blank wall spaces. Another object which I thought of real charm, though it is of much later date, is a marble memorial attached to the west wall, and concerned with some long-lost worthy of the town. It consists of shield, casque and a wealth of mantling, and is good work, one of the best examples of that kind of thing, and possibly of the seventeenth century. The old church of St Mary of the Harbour, wan, weathered, worn, looks down to-day on a world and a people fevered, hurried in the pursuit of money and pleasure. The old fabric was a home of quiet prayer, for the glory of worship and a quest of the beautiful. "Other ages, other ways."

Copyright Martin Snow 2002 All rights reserved
Revised 10 July 2002