Wednesday, 25 July 2007

St Paul, Elsted

The survival of Elsted’s pretty church is a fable of the triumph of humility over pride.
In the 19th century, the living of the combined parishes of Didling, Elsted and Treyford was in the gift of an aristocratic lady, who installed her clerical husband as rector. She regarded the three ancient but tiny churches as unsuitable, and built instead an imposing ‘Cathedral of the Downs’ with a tall spire on a prominent hill at the centre of the parish. It was completed in 1849.
The old churches were left to rot. Elsted lost its north aisle, and in a storm in1893 a tree fell through the nave roof. By the middle of the twentieth century little remained but the north wall and the chancel.
But the monster Victorian church had not reached its centenary before it was found to be structurally unsound and, with its builder long dead, no money was available for repairs. In 1947 it was torn down and no trace of it remains, though the graveyard is still in use and immaculately maintained.
So worship returned to Elsted church, which was sensitively restored by architect J.E.M. Macgregor. He pulled off a difficult trick: building the new parts in an unashamedly modern style but in harmony with the old. It is fascinating to see how the building has evolved through the ups and downs of its long history.
The original Saxon church was a simple rectangular box of spectacular herringbone masonry, best seen from the outside of the north wall.
Here you can see exactly how the Norman masons set about extending the church in the 12th century, when a north aisle and the chancel were added.
Holes would have been punched through the walls and the stone arches inserted one by one, so as not to weaken the wall and risk collapse. When the north aisle was removed the arches were filled in again, the aisle windows being reused in the new wall.