27 May 2017

Lewes: the church with a squint

We were wandering along the High Street at Cliffe when we saw this old stone and flint church dedicated to St Thomas à Becket and, as I can never resist an open door, we went in for a look.

The first thing I noticed was the strong musky smell of incense, next was the way the dim light filtering in through the stained-glass windows was creating kaleidoscopic rainbows on the stone floor. Looking up I marvelled at the dark wooden ceiling of the chancel and the huge organ pipes that dominated one side wall.

It was Jill who first noticed the squint, not something I’d heard of or seen before. This architectural feature, also known as a hagioscope, was incorporated into church structures where the view to the main altar was obscured, thus allowing an assistant priest to raise the Host at the same time as the priest at the main altar.

Jill had just finished explaining this to me when an elderly gentleman, with a shock of white hair and looking slightly dishevelled in his dark green robe, came shuffling in through a side door. He explained that this double squint had probably been used to allow lepers to observe the mass. It seems that what is now the chancel of the present church was originally the full extent of the building, a late-12th-century chapel of ease, and it may be that the squint allowed lepers, from a leper hospital built just outside the town walls, to witness the celebration of mass without actually entering the church.

However, the structure of the church has been much altered over the centuries: their website suggests that the church had at least one aisle by the 13th century, that there was major reconstruction work done in the 14th century, that the flint tower is of late-15th-centuy construction and that the whole building was restored in the 19th century, so it’s difficult to be sure how the squint was originally designed to work and it does look to have been cut into the 12th-century wall rather than being an integral part of it.

Unsure of the man's identity I asked our elderly guide if he was the priest and he said ‘Yes’, though he did seem a little uncertain about it. It was only later that I checked the church’s website and discovered we had indeed been chatting to the Reverend George Linnegar who, though now officially retired, continues his 54-year service as a priest. As well as celebrating Holy Communion every day at St Thomas's, it seems Brother George is also Chief Clock Winder and Door fixer ... but that’s another story by another blogger.

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