Sunday, 10 January 2010

Lancing College Chapel

West Sussex does not have many good Victorian churches, but the chapel of Lancing College is one of the best as well as one of the biggest in the whole country.
The interior is astonishing -  a soaring stone vault 90ft from the floor to the ridge. For comparison, Chichester Cathedral is just 61ft high.
The original design had a spire as well, which would have been 350ft tall, against 277ft for our cathedral. Its dramatic position on a hill overlooking the River Adur would have made it look even taller.
Lancing College was founded in 1848 by Nathaniel Woodard, a local clergyman who saw a gap in the market between the great public schools and the grammar schools. He went on to found a corporation that now comprises 40 schools for which Lancing Chapel is a sort of cathedral.
Woodard clearly foresaw that the huge chapel would take almost as long to build as the Gothic cathedrals it was based on. It is said he ordered the masons to build the apse at the east end to its full height before starting on the rest, to make absolutely sure that if he died leaving it unfinished it would be impossible for his successors to reduce it in the interests of economy.
And indeed, construction was a long-drawn out process, partly because the sloping site necessitated digging foundations some 70ft deep to the chalk bedrock. Until 1911 the school worshipped in the darkly vaulted crypt.
The chapel was very much a family affair. The masons lived on site, and one family was responsible for hewing all the stone from the quarry at Scaynes Hill, near Haywards Heath.
The first architect, R.C. Carpenter, designed the school but unfortunately died before the chapel was started, leaving its design to his son, R.H. Carpenter. After Woodard himself died, his son Billy oversaw construction without professional help. At one point, the vault was taken to full height but two buttresses were missing, causing alarm in visiting surveyors.
Eventually, in 1947 the planned tower was abandoned and the architect Stephen Dykes-Bower was brought in to finish it off. He designed a new west end with a wonderful rose window that is 32ft across - the largest in England.
But even today the chapel is not quite finished - funds are being raised for a great porch that will finally complete this wonderful building.