I like old churches, I like them very much indeed. Which is something of a paradox for someone who is very strongly atheist. I think it’s because I find a familiarity in them which, despite my views on organized religion, I do not find threatening. They also have, for me, an aura of nostalgia. This is not the all-too-frequent nationalist yearning for some imagined Miss Marple England; it is a genuine series of memories from my childhood during the late 1960s.
When our family moved from terraced urban Croydon to a bright detached house at the foot of the South Downs in Newhaven in May 1965, my father’s natural history wanderlust took the family hiking across the hills, squelching across the flood plains of the nearby Ouse, and padding deep into the woods of the Weald. This was a time before we owned a car, so all these weekend rambles were by bus and train. Heading off was a quick march down to the Number 12 bus-stop at Denton Corner, or along the Drove Road to Newhaven Town Station to catch our scheduled train to Lewes and beyond.
We’d head to Friston Forest, Abbot’s Woods, Vert Wood, Birling Gap and the Seven Sisters, the South Downs escarpment from Itford to Willingdon, and the meandering valley of the River Cuckmere from Alfriston to the sea. At the end of the day we’d amble back to the bus stop to head home. This would inevitably be in one of the endless tiny villages and hamlets that dotted the area, and in the half hour or so that we waited for the small green and white charabanc to appear, we’d inevitably take a turn round the local churchyard to eye up lichens on the pollution-free gravestones and filmy ferns betopping the ancient flint-and-mortar walls. We might even pop inside to admire the stained-glass windows or browse the local history exhibited on the memorials lining the nave.
Lullington was one of many claiming to be the smallest church in England, at only a few metres square it could hold (barely) a congregation of a couple of dozen people. Beddington had sheep grazing around the stones to save the warden the time and effort of scything. The tower at Jevington had a feral honeybee colony, with an endless flight of workers coming and going from an air vent or hole in the brickwork high up one face. It’s probably still there.
Most of these churches were all or part Norman, flint walls with pointed arches on doors and windows, although most had been added to, repaired, restructured, or rebuilt in the subsequent 9 centuries. Some retained Saxon features, or floorplan, or some notion of pre-conquest religiosity. I always thought there was a pagan power in the glistening silica of the napped flint, a stone from an antediluvian world, formed from sponge spicules or some other vaguely imagined animal origin as the shells of countless marine organisms formed the chalk that enveloped it at the bottom of some ocean long ago. The crumbly cream lime mortar contrasted with the obsidian black of the flint and always looked organic, rather than made by human hands, as if it had been extruded from the very earth. If we were lucky, we’d also get a treat from the village shop, a 6d orange lolly for us kids, and a 1/- orange maid for Mum and Dad; later, if it were just me and my father, he might splash out on a choc-ice — ooh, luxury beyond belief, it was.
Some years later, when a family car meant we could venture further afield, even into the wild unknown of West Sussex, I remember catching a glimpse of a strange church tower as we whisked along the A27 past Worthing. It had oddly chamfered corners and four diamond-shaped roof slopes meeting at a short but delicate point. Of course there was need to go loitering there waiting for a bus any more, so this distant fleeting minaret was all I knew.
This year I visited a survey site in Worthing, just on the north-east edge of the town, and as I sat having my packed lunch on a fallen tree trunk I could see that distinctive tower sticking up above the trees away across the meadows. I had to visit.