Friday, 11 May 2007

Selsey's movable churches

At the edge of Pagham Harbour stands little St Wilfrid’s, Selsey’s incredible shrinking church.
In Saxon times, it was the cathedral church of St Peter. Not much seems to be known about it, because the Normans knocked it down when they transferred the see to Chichester in 1070 and built a new, smaller, parish church on the site.
A small castle was built next door, and when it became obsolete for military purposes they hung the church bells in the keep.
From then on, it was all downhill. The chantries and side chapels were removed at the Reformation and the castle keep collapsed in about 1720 leaving the bells useless on the ground.
There was one high point, however. In 1537, John Lewis and his wife Agatha commissioned a lovely monument to themselves. Originally, it would have had a big centrepiece, probably a Trinity, but that has been lost. The panel on the left shows St George and that on the right is a graphic portrayal of the agonising martyrdom of St Agatha, whose breasts were cut off because of her unswerving refusal to marry a pagan. Unfortunately, it looks a bit as though she is being adjusted with a pair of spanners but that may be looking back through modern binoculars....
But the most remarkable change came in Victorian times. Selsey’s beach front was becoming a popular resort and the old church was inconveniently far away at Church Norton, so the rector decided to move it into the expanding new town.
In 1864 the nave was demolished and as much of the materials as could be reused taken on farm carts to Selsey, including the stone columns and arches, the wooden roof and the marble font.
Only the chancel of the old church remained, the chancel arch being walled up to create a new west end. In 1917, it was rededicated to St Wilfrid, its founder.
Today it stands rather lonely in the middle of its cathedral-size graveyard. It is mainly 13th century work, shown by its Early English lancet windows.
The new church in Selsey looks totally Victorian (by Piers StAubyn) from the outside, so it is a bit of a shock to find the ancient stones within.The columns are plain cylinders with simple moulded capitals supporting the plain round arches so characteristic of the Normans. It’s very plain, even a bit grim, except for one arch which is carved with the heads of a Norman knight and his wife. The knight is straight out of the Bayeux tapestry, with a nose guard on his helmet, chain mail round his neck and a bristling moustache.
His wife, on the other hand, is a little pudding with a nose like a plum tomato. I do hope she never saw the way the rustic sculptor preserved her image for posterity.