Sunday, 6 January 2008

St Mary, Felpham

Sussex is rich in the Norman and Early English styles, but when the Decorated style arrived in the late thirteenth century it failed to take off here.
As its name implies, the Decorated style is all about carving. Masons went mad, covering every surface with statuary, foliage, gargoyles and grotesque faces. Builders took full advantage of cheaper glass to make windows much bigger. Glass still came in very small pieces, however, so it had to be held together by strips of lead, in turn supported by stone tracery.
Tracery started off as simple bars of stone, but soon developed into riots of fanciful floral and teardrop shapes filling the space under the pointed arch. Ogee curves, bending first one way and then the other, were developed at this time.
The Decorated style is rare in Sussex, partly because the splurge of church construction in the early medieval period had provided most parishes with an adequate building. The wool boom passed the south coast by, so Sussex has few equivalents of the vast and heavily carved churches the newly-rich wool merchants built all over East Anglia and the Cotswolds. And it may be something to do with a Sussex preference for the plain and honest over bling.
One of the few examples of the Decorated style in this area is the chancel of St Mary’s church in Felpham, built sometime after 1345. It was rather brutally restored by the Victorians but the design is original.
The east window has three lights, divided by slender mullions, instead of the individual lancet windows that had been the norm until then. The tracery is curvilinear, bending to and fro to form strange leaf-like shapes under the pointed arch. The tall, lovely side windows are simpler, two lights with a circle enclosing a quatrefoil. The effect is somewhat marred inside because a huge organ case blocks one window.
Felpham is famous for William Blake, who stayed in a cottage belonging to local landowner William Hayley, but has not been kind to their memory. Hayley's home, The Turret, was pulled down and replaced by cheap flats in the 1970s, and the owner of Blake's cottage feels compelled to raise the fence ever higher to keep out the gaze of Blake fans. No longer can you imagine the poet experiencing visions in the street that now bears his name:
"Away to sweet Felpham for heaven is there;
The Ladder of Angels descends through the air
On the turrett its spiral does softly descend
Through the village it winds, at my cot it does end."