By Jenny Ashby, gesið
This article first appeared in Wiðowinde #183 (Autumn 2017)
I HAVE KNOWN THE CHURCH OF ST NICHOLAS AT Worth all my life; a painting of its chancel arch by my Dad has always hung in their lounge and I can remember looking at it from babyhood, wondering why he’d painted it. Years later he told me he painted it because it was Saxon and it had inspired him. But I’d never actually visited it. So this January I at last decided to go, a personal odyssey, having discovered that not only was it part of my family’s story but it is also one of England’s finest Saxon churches.
When Dad visited Worth years ago, it was a little Sussex village. Nowadays it is part of Crawley New Town, squashed between housing estates to the west, the M23 to the east and Gatwick Airport to the north. Yet it is well-signposted and I found the church first time. Parking Oswald in the little approach lane, I walked through the lych gate and wow! The church is stunningly and unmistakably Saxon, with its pilaster strips all round the outside, its double-headed windows and its apse. I was expecting a flint church, like many churches in Surrey and Sussex, but no, this one is golden. It was a gloriously sunny day and the Wealden sandstone from which the church is constructed just glowed, it looked ethereal. Busily taking loads of photos, whilst trying not to tread on the carpets of snowdrops in the churchyard, I disturbed a fox, who regarded me for a while then trotted off. I reflected that Worth Church is an oasis of Saxon peace in a mad world.
Worth is a common Old English place name, usually meaning “enclosure”, but in this case, and in that of Worthing, it comes from the personal name “Wurth”. Worth lay within the Forest of Andredsweald and the church is believed to have been founded by King Edward the Confessor himself, who dedicated it to St Nicholas, Bishop of Myra (died 6th December, 343 AD). Built to a very high standard, Worth Church may have been a minster or perhaps an outpost of Chertsey Abbey, as it was then in Surrey. Held of King Edward by Oswol, after the Conquest it was given by William l to William de Warenne, whose family held it until the middle of the 14th century. It passed to the Fitzalan family (Earls of Arundel) then, in 1415, to the Nevilles.
The church is cruciform in shape, with an apse at the east end; it has been dated to between 950 and 1050, but possibly earlier which of course would preclude Edward the Confessor being its founder. As it stands today, 99% of the nave walls, the three great internal arches and the two transepts are original Saxon work. It is constructed of coursed rubble (irregular shaped stones laid in lines) which is the commonest fabric used in Anglo-Saxon walling. The nave walls are 2 ft 9 ins or 0.84 m thick; Anglo-Saxon walls are seldom as thick as 3 ft (0.91m) and the average is 2 ft 7 ins (0.76 m).
Outside, it is almost completely encircled half way up the walls by a stone string course, although this is absent from the tower, which is Victorian, and the ends of the transepts, which were altered in the 13th century. String courses may have just been decorative, but they could have enhanced the lateral bonding of the walls or been designed to throw rainwater clear of the building (Taylor, 1978). The Saxon
windows sit directly above the string course and pilaster strips descend at intervals from it. The pilaster strips are of dressed stone and would have helped ensure the walls were straight and upright. The vulnerable angles of the building were protected by dressed quoin stones laid alternately upright and flat with great care and accuracy. They were cut back from the wall to allow for plastering (Taylor, 1978).
The apse is the chancel. Apsidal east ends are a feature of churches south of the Wash, apart from Hexham. The lower walls of the semi-circular apse at Worth are Saxon, but the upper walls, windows and pilaster strips are nineteenth century restorations.
You can see the ghost of the Saxon north door in the brickwork; opposite is the Saxon south doorway, now hidden on the outside by the pretty porch, which was built in 1886. You usually enter the church by its west door, which is also 13th century. Having extensively photographed the exterior, it was time to go inside.
As I entered the church, through the west door, a choir started to sing. I looked around nervously, afraid I was intruding but there was nobody there! It took a while for it to dawn on me that it was a recording, triggered by my entry! My tour was accompanied by a variety of hymns and classical music, a nice touch.
From the door I could see almost all of the interior, apart from the furthest parts of the transepts; this would always have been the case, there were never any internal doorways as there were at Deerhurst. Dominating the view were three massive Saxon arches, one to each transept and one to the chancel, the latter being much the tallest. That chancel arch was entirely familiar to me, I had known it all my life. And yet the church seemed lighter than in Dad’s painting. The walls are white now.
Following a disastrous fire in 1986 which destroyed the roof, the roof was restored in 1988 and the church refurbished and presumably repainted.
Taking it logically, I looked at the nave first. At its west end is a gallery, dated 1610,
which once extended the full length of the north wall of the nave. The font is 13th
century, the stoups 14th century and the pulpit 16th century. The iconic double-headed windows are pure Saxon. There are two pairs in the north wall and one in the south wall (its twin having been later replaced by a 15th century window). They have great through-stones to support their round heads and each has a baluster (a vertical pillar, which in this case bulges slightly in the middle) between the heads. You can see the outline of the Saxon north door in the north wall. The Saxon south
doorway is opposite and dwarfs the later door that is set into it. The nave measures 60 ft x 27 ft (18.29 m x 8.33 m), which gives a ratio of 2:4 breadth to length. The chancel is narrower, being 33 ft x 21.5 ft (10.06 m x 6.55 m).
Now for the chancel arch: it is one of the largest Anglo-Saxon arches in existence, after Stow, Great Paxton, Dover and Wing (Taylor, 1978). It is 22 ft (6.71 m) high and 14 ft (4.27 m) wide. Its jambs (vertical bits) are cylindrical, whilst the arch itself is
square in cross section. High up on its south side are the friction marks of a rope, and on its south jamb there are more signs of wear; these point to the likely existence of a sanctus bell in earlier times. A sanctus bell was rung at the most
important stages in the Mass, such as the consecration of the bread and wine.
The south transept, now the Lady chapel, contains an altar recess consisting of an infilled early (Saxon?) semi-circular arch. The north transept is now the chapel of the
Blessed Sacrament. It contains a small window illustrating the arms of the de Warenne family; this is the oldest glass 12th century in the church.
I was loath to leave the church, having a 270 mile journey back to Yorkshire ahead of me, but I took the joy of having been there with me. Open every day, Worth is worth a visit!
Edmondson, D. Anglo-Saxon England in 100 Places. Amberley. Stroud. 2014.
Harrison, F. Notes on Sussex Churches. Hove. 1908.
Taylor, H.M. Anglo-Saxon Architecture, Vol lll. Cambridge University Press. Cambridge. 1978.
St Nicholas Church, Worth. Church Guide. 2007.
‘Parishes: Worth’, in A History of the County of Sussex: Volume 7, the Rape of Lewes, ed. L F Salzman (London, 1940), pp. 192-200. British History Online http://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/sussex/vol7/pp192-200
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