20 October 2014

England: Heavenly history in Alfriston

For a non-religious person I visit a lot of churches. But how could I not visit this one? It was a lovely walk to get there. It sits on an ancient Saxon religious site and has a barrow in the churchyard. The building dates from the 12th century and is a Grade I listed building of national importance, because it’s the only church in the world to have murals by painters from the Bloomsbury set adorning its walls. St Michael and All Angels Church in Berwick is simply gorgeous!  

The barrow in the churchyard
We drove to the little town of Alfriston then walked a footpath, part of the Vanguard Way, to get there – it seemed an appropriate way to reach such an ancient place and it was easy to imagine ancient man walking that same trackway to reach their sacred site on the hilltop.

Inside, the church has some interesting features – the Saxon font may pre-date the church, there are grooves in one wall which are thought to have been made in the 14th century by men sharpening their arrow heads, and the clear glass windows in the north and south aisles are unusual and distinctive. But it’s the 20th-century murals that draw most visitors to this place and they are quite simply outstanding.

Painted during the Second World War by Bloomsbury artists Duncan Grant, Vanessa Bell and her son Quentin Bell, the murals continued, or perhaps revived a long tradition of painted interiors in Sussex churches. Inspired by the frescoes of Renaissance Italy and modelled on the painters themselves, their friends and local people, the murals are a refreshing change from the gloom of many small church interiors. Indeed, one Professor Reilly, who visited soon after the paintings were finished, said he felt like he was: ‘stepping out of a foggy England into Italy. I felt such a happy heavenly feeling as I sat there.’ 

With our spirits thus enlightened with happy and heavenly feelings, we walked back to Alfriston via a rather muddy path through the huge rolling farmlands of the South Downs, and sat down to tea and rather delicious cakes at the Badger Café. Refreshed and replete, we explored the town, coming after a short time to the green and the Church of St Andrew.

This is another ancient church, founded around 1360 and built in a massive cruciform shape on a raised mound on the village green known as the Tye. It made me think that this church also sits on an ancient Saxon site but the church’s construction is a bit of a mystery, as there are no records to explain who commissioned and financed such a grand edifice in such a small village. 

Next to the church sits the Chapel House, the first house ever to be taken under the wing of the National Trust, bought from Michelham Priory for £10 in 1896. The oldest parts were built around 1350 and are typical of a timber-framed ‘Wealden Hall’ house. But, like so many old buildings, this one has evolved over time: there’s a parlour dating from the mid-16th century; a hall, built shortly after the Black Death of 1348 by a yeoman farmer; the corridor was added in the 18th century; and the reading room is part of the original house. I was particularly impressed by the long-wheat-straw-thatched roof, as I suppose I should be given it cost £100,000 to be re-thatched back in 2005, and the gardens, laid out in the 1920s by Sir Robert Witt, were delightful.

A wander along Alfriston’s main street revealed more interesting historic buildings. Wingrove House, according to the plaque on the wall, is ‘a colonial style building from 1870, used as accommodation by trainer Harry Batho, racing manager to Horatio Bottomley’ (an interesting character indeed). The house is now a ‘restaurant and rooms’, and looks like rather a nice spot for a weekend treat.  

Left, Wingrove House; centre, right, the Old Farmhouse; right, the Star Inn

The Old Farmhouse is a 17th-century rebuild of the southern wing of a 14th century hall house, one of the oldest ranges of buildings in the village. The Steamer Inn dates from the 15th century and was an inn during the 19th century, though lost its licence in 1920.

Alfriston still has several characterful public houses to chose from, however. The Star Inn is my favourite, if only for its external decoration. It was rebuilt in the early 16th century, possibly on the site of an earlier rest house for pilgrims on their way to the shrine of St Richard in Chichester. The Red Lion figurehead comes from a warship that probably sank at the Battle of Beachy Head in 1690.

The George Inn also has a long history, having first received its liquor licence in 1397, and the Smugglers Inn was the home of Stanton Collins, leader of the Alfriston gang of smugglers in the early 19th century. It boasts 21 rooms, 48 doors and 6 staircases. Its sign tells: ‘The front bay was successfully restored, revealing its late 16th century origins, after near destruction by a car in 2005.’

Obviously, with a very small village and three pubs serving drinks, drunk-driving destruction could well be a problem. But don’t let that put you off a visit. It’s a charming wee place, with history on display, churches to be admired, Downs to be walked and beer to be drunk!