Saxon Churches in Sussex
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A Countryman's Diary


FORD Church stands solitary among fields. There are two cottages a little aloof, and, beyond the highway, which is a minor way, is a small manor house, a comely erection belonging to the sixteenth century. Except for these, Ford Church is lonely and like a mother bereft of children.

It was not always so. In days which are now very distant a road passed by the edge of the churchyard and went down to the river crossing. It was a road of importance, for it came from Regnum and traversed what was then the most fertile and most populated land in this part of the south country. Here, where it dipped to the river, a church arose somewhen in the Saxon period and a settle­ment grew up, "St. Andrew-by-the-Ford." The settlement has gone and the ford has gone; only the church remains. Round and about this little building you can see fields seamed and pitted with the marks of homes that are vanished.

The roadways of very long ago were much used. They were the only means of transit. People of all sorts and classes mingled on them, a motley stream of soldiers, husbandmen, monks, friars and beggarmen. There were pedlars with packhorses, and religious tramps on their way to some shrine, lords, ladies and squires on palfreys.

Also you will always find a church or traces of one by every river crossing of any importance throughout the land, whether of ford, ferry or bridge. Simple folk in those days liked an open church where lights were kept burning and images of saints with friendly faces gazed at them, and where they could say a prayer to St. Christopher, or St. Joseph, or to the Blessed Mother. In these en­lightened years people have grown out of that sort of thing.

I met one of the enlightened at my visit to Ford Church on a hot day of last July. It was at the stone mounting steps by which visitors climb the wall into the churchyard. He was a well grown youth--one of the best of his kind in shorts, open vest with rucksack, and hatless, stout of limb and clear of eve. 1 liked him and we soon got together in conversation. He told me he had no use for a church as a place for worship, he had outgrown that sort of thing. H. G. Wells and George Bernard Shaw were his prophets, but none the less, he said, he loved old churches as memorials of the past; they were the most articulate of all our heritages of other ages and other ways of thought.

Although I am a parson, it is my rule never to argue about these matters. 1 have a notion that few people, hardly any, are influenced by argument. Our 'views, our outlook on great things, are shaped by ten­dencies more warm and subtle than reason. Beside, I regard these views as a sort of youthful ailment; I had it badly fifty years ago when I was one of an eager crowd to whom the world was surprisingly new. In those days Tyndall, Huxley, and Herbert Spencer were our prophets and kings.

We entered the little church and sat down. It looked clean, cared for and felt restful. Then the silence of a thousand years came upon us. What is it in an old church like this which so subtly possesses the spirit, at least of those who know how to keep quiet for a few minutes ? Is it only the reaction on the mind of stillness, or is it an aura, that the prayers and longings of ages of worship have entered into the stones and they exhale it again ? I like to think it is the latter, and, moreover, in those few minutes I believe we two, wittingly or unconsciously, were with angels and archangels and a glorious com­pany, joining in worship.

I found that my companion was a lover of good literature and he knew a good deal of the Bible. He presently walked up to the lectern where a Bible lay open and he read in a voice which was round­toned and clear some passages from the hook of Baruch, a hook little known even to some who think they know the Bible. Then he read part of the book of Wisdom, the chapter which likens human life to a ship that slips through the waters, to a bird winging through the air, to a post hastening through the night.

After that we made an inspection of the church. Ford Church literally spans the ages and, though so tiny, it is crammed with features of extraordinary interest. I am not going to tell my readers the full story of these many marks of the past; it is too long. You can read all about them, with picturesque detail, in an article by Philip Mainwaring Johnston within the forty-third volume of the Sussex Archaeological Collections. We made, my companion and I, a survey; first going round the outside of the building and noting Saxon-or more properly, pre-Conquest---walls on the north and west sides, the shallow plinth and the tiny. window high up. At the south and west end were signs, plainly seen when looked for, of a disastrous fire, probably of the late fourteenth century, which led to the loss of a south aisle and its small side altar. There are stones reddened with fire about the jambs of the doorway and obtruding themselves, scorched and cracked, at the west end of the nave wall. The east end window has some head tracery of charm.

It is what is called reticulated "net-like"-­and in age about 1350. At the entrance doorway on the east jamb, as well as elsewhere, were what are sometimes called "pilgrim marks," that is, dots, circles, triangles, crosses and other scratchings of which nothing definite is really known. These seemed to interest my hiker-companion.

"What was the parish priest of those days about," he said, "to allow passers-by, or any one else, to scratch such marks on the stone­work of the church ? It looks a kind of ancient hooliganism."

"So it does," I replied, "but it may have had a significance now lost. Perhaps it registered a formal vow which had to be redeemed by a tangible gift if the pilgrim or wayfarer prospered in his quest. In that case it was a sort of public promissory note."

Ford Church has, at the south side, on coigns and window sills, a group of scratch sun dials, but they lack the completeness and interest of those to be found on the tower of the neighbouring church of Clymping. On that building can be seen the largest number of "mass" or scratch dials, and the most diver­sified in form and feature of those belonging to any Sussex church.

Within the church are signs that long ago the walls were covered with paintings. It was an open Bible for the unlettered. Now-, with the decay time brings, and by the scrapings of restorers, all but a few vestiges have gone. In a splay of a south window are patches showing our Lord in the Agony of the Garden and the Bearing of the Cross. In its usual place, where every worshipper was hound to consider it-that is, over the chancel arch was the Doom, the damned being pitchforked into the jaws of hell and the blessed dead on their way to Paradise.

"I wonder they could stick it," remarked my hiker-companion, referring to the Doom picture. "It would give me the shudders. With that before me all through a service I could say what the psalmist said: "Thy terrors have I suffered with a troubled mind.' "

"It belongs to its own age," 1 said, "but in most ages there are people who love bright colours, vivid scenes, and who want to be thrilled. In these days they get their thrills in gangster films, football finals and motoring escapades; in Puritan times most sermons had an infusion of fire and brimstone. It is a complaint of some church-goers to-day that services lack liveliness, the church is grey and the preacher dull."

There are seven distinct periods of archi­tecture in this little church and the last of the sequence is the one which meets you at the entrance, the brick-face of the porch which is shown in the illustration. Its date is 1635, when the Renaissance style, for long in vogue on the Continent, was beginning to influence English buildings. There are in Sussex a few other church additions of this period when Archbishop Laud, for a few years gave to the Church of England a touch of vigour and renewed life. These are the churches of Egdean and South Mailing and the porch of Trotton.

I have not so far mentioned what is perhaps the most interesting survival the church of Ford possesses. Buried in the wall over the north door which now is a vestry door, is a fragment of what appears to be the arm of a stone cross. It has incised on it interlaced lines which are a feature of Celtic and early Saxon art. In the opinion of J. Romilly Allen, who in his day was a leading authority on Celtic and early art, it shows a common type of craftwork of the Northern tradition and may be in date anywhen between 700 A.D. and 1000. What is it doing here? Is it a link with the early mission of Wilfrid when after his return, eager apostles from Northumbria, Padda, Eddi, Eappa and others traversed the land of the South Saxons to preach the new Faith? Was the settlement by the Ford marked as a preaching station before a church was built? We can only guess, but it is significant that similar brown stone fragments with the same toolwork can be seen at Selsey and Sompting, both early sites of missionary effort.

My youthful companion was gifted with open eves and found interest in every stone of the old building. We spent more than an hour in spelling out some of the story that belonged to it. Then we walked back across the fields to the main thoroughfare. In doing so we crossed the bed of a derelict canal, one which was started in 1818, going from Portsmouth to the Arum. Its life of activity was short: after the coming of the railway it died of anaemia. This canal crosses obliquely the court house of the family of Bohuns who for long were feudal lords, and the lines of the moat can be made out.

I parted from my friend of an hour where the road makes a leap over the empty canal. I liked him. His views were free and perhaps impetuous and crude, but lie was a seeker for truth. I hope we shall meet again.


 From Sussex County Magazine Vol 11 1937

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Copyright © 2002-2010 Martin B Snow. All rights reserved.
Revised: February 20, 2010 .