Tuesday, 27 March 2007

St Mary, North Marden

The tiny church of St Mary is very unusual not just because of its great age or its remarkable position almost alone on top of the South Downs but because it is a single room with a round east end. There are only three others in England, though the layout is relatively common on the Continent.
It is called a single cell apsida, an arrangement that came in with the Normans. Apses became unpopular here in the later middle ages, many being rebuilt with square east ends when churches were expanded to serve a growing population. St Mary, however, has been altered hardly at all since it was built by the conquerors in the early 12th century – the date is given away by the round heads of the windows, even though all but one were replaced by over-zealous Victorian restorers. Another date clue is the round arch over the south door, which is carved with the heavy zigzags that Norman masons loved. Like Chichester Cathedral, the arch is made of stone from Caen in Normandy.
Inside, the small windows and the lack of electricity give an atmosphere of primeval gloom at this time of year. When wooden shutters were the only protection against the winter wind, services must have been chilly indeed.