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Hidden Charm of Warminghurst Church

Warminghurst Church

Warminghurst Church is far from being one of the wonders of the world. But sat in an 18th Century pine box pew on a cold winter’s day, any visitor to the church will be in little doubt that they have found one of the great hidden treasures of the Horsham district.

It’s been 33 years since the tiny community of Warminghurst, close to Ashington, lost a regular service at The Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

But its door is still open, and anyone visiting cannot help but be affected by the untouched beauty, the remarkable history, and an enchanting atmosphere that has a contradicting effect of being both haunting and charming.An intense search might even lead to you spotting a ‘face’ in the wood of a pew box. Perhaps one for Bishop Brennan to take a closer look at…

Today, the church is one of 340 in the country in the care of The Churches Conservation Trust – a national charity protecting historic churches at risk. However, a small group of Friends of Warminghurst Church keep a close eye on the building and report to the Trust.

Living next door, Rachel Webster is one of the key members of this group. Rachel said: “There are about 20 people involved, with a core group of five or six. Some live here, and others love the church for its special charm and character. The work of the Trust is essential to keep these historic churches open and in a fit state to visit, and even though funding is now extremely difficult for them, they provide a back-up for the volunteer and Friends groups.

“During the winter we only have a dozen or so visitors to Warminghurst Church every week but it’s far more popular in the summer. A lot of people know the church and have driven past it before but they have never taken a look inside.

“There are people who have lived in the area for years and have never walked through the door. But when people do visit they realise it’s very special. People are very moved by it. Most people like the fact that it hasn’t been touched. You walk in and see these box pews, the Royal Arms of Queen Anne and the 16th century iron chest, and you feel this sense of timelessness.

"There’s a genial, peaceful air to it. They may not be religious but the church does have a very special atmosphere, and of course some are simply fascinated by the history."

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre has a princely, elevated position, overlooking farmland that stretches undeveloped across to the South Downs and Chanctonbury Ring. Its origins go back to the 13th Century, but a church may have existed on the site in the 11th century or earlier. The beams you see today are believed to date back to 1158.

Its greatest appeal is that it was not restored during Queen Victoria’s reign, leading one book, Sussex Churches and Chapels, to call  it ‘the finest example in Sussex of how many must have looked before the Victorian restorers.’

The present church was built in about 1220 and for a time was owned by the Benedictine abbey at Fécamp in Normandy. Above the west end, the wood and shingled bell-turret is the oldest part of the building. The bell was cast in about 1200 but it is, frustratingly yet rather wonderfully, beyond reach.

It may well be some years since anyone has seen the bell, but visitors can at least ring it. The church even took part in ‘All the Bells’ when thousands of churches rang bells simultaneously to mark the start of the London Games.

The Church was later in the hands of the Earl of Arundel, then Sion College Nursery, before the Shelley Family took over. Perhaps the most important historical feature at the church is a brass monument to the Shelley family, set on the north wall of the Chancel. It commemorates Edward Shelley and depicts his wife and children kneeling. The children are identified by the first letter of their Christian names.

The boy on the far left, Edward Shelley Junior, has had his head cut off deliberately. This would have been done
after he brought shame on the Shelley family by being executed in 1588 for harbouring a Catholic priest. In the 1930s, the three Coats of Arms on the Shelley monument were stolen. One was returned, only to be stolen again, and their whereabouts remains a mystery.

In 1619, a vault and private chapel was built for the Shelley family, before the church fell into the hands of the renowned Quaker William Penn in 1676. Penn lived close by in Warminghurst House, and it was here that he drafted the first Constitution for the American state of Pennsylvania.

His house was bought by James Butler in 1707. Butler swiftly demolished the house and built a huge new building in its place. He also made many improvements to the church. On the south wall of the chancel there is a large monument to Dame Elizabeth Benet, Butler’s wife, who died in 1721.

Another large monument commemorates John Riches, a trustee of Butler, who also lived at Warminghurst Place. Near the beginning of the 18th Century, a pine screen of three arches, topped by the Royal Arms of Queen Anne, was added to divide the chancel and the nave. The Royal Arms were repainted in 1845 by E. Martin and remain in very good condition.

Then in about 1770, a set of box-pews was installed, with high backs and lockable ends. These also remain in excellent condition, as does the three decker pulpit of pine and oak. For a period between the two World Wars, vandals caused considerable damage, but repairs were carried out before the church re-opened.

Then in 1959-1960, John Leopold Denman of the firm Denman & Sons carried out a sensitive series of works during which all parts of the building were inspected and structural defects corrected. The east window was improved and the ceiling was stripped down to reveal its original timbers.

Twenty years later, however, the Diocese of Chichester decided to make the church redundant. Warminghurst has always been an isolated community – the Domesday Book recorded a population of 52 and in nearly a thousand years the population has grown by about a dozen – and there were not enough people to keep the church vibrant. Services had been held there one Sunday every month during the summer but that ended in 1979.

A report in the West Sussex Gazette quotes residents highlighting the importance of establishing a group of Friends to look after the church. The Diocese of Chichester placed the church into the care of the Redundant Churches Fund, and that later became the Churches Conservation Trust. It is one of only 38 Grade I listed buildings in the district of Horsham, and despite its isolated location attracted nearly 2,000 visitors from all over the world last year.

There are occasionally events held at the church. Rachel said: “The Friends look after activities and fundraising. We have to limit what we do here as we are relying on people’s goodwill and time to come and help, but Derek
Spencer, the Reverend at Thakeham Church, will come here for key services.

"Our next event will be the very popular Plant, Cake and Produce sale on the first Bank Holiday in May and the Harvest Festival and biennial Christmas Tree Festival are also well attended.

“A Choral Workshop is held in June. It was started by my parents, Jessica and Daniel Aggs, in 1983 and was held annually until 2003. We revived it last summer with conductor David Lawrence returning and we hope to repeat it every year. 

“We could rent the church to other groups. You could, if you wanted to, have a yoga class, not that it would
be appropriate! But the Churches Conservation Trust is not restricting what goes on here, within means. If it is handed over to another group, we would charge something like £30 and just stand back and be a presence. For musical events, the acoustics are beautiful, but of course you have to put up with the cold!

“If there is a service here, such as a wedding, we ask for a retiring collection. Weddings are difficult though as there must be a link to Warminghurst or through the Friends of the Church. I was married at Warminghurst in 1986 and I think there have only been three since then with one coming up this year.”

But this is a critical time for the church. The snow has found a way through the roof, and could be seen resting on oak beams that have been there for nearly 900 years. Rachel said: “We have snow coming in and that took us by surprise. We knew it was draughty and I’m going to go to the Churches Conservation Trust and say ‘is this the moment in which we can start a campaign?’

“The tiles have slipped to a degree, and the paper that was put down to keep the draught and the elements at bay has deteriorated and is peeling off. I’m quite worried about it deteriorating any further as we don’t want it damaging the beams.

“There are heritage funds and Lottery funds that we may be able to approach as the Churches Conservation Trust cannot do it all by themselves. They rely heavily on donations from visitors. If everyone who visited put £2 in the box then we would probably be covered.

“Some Conservation churches have needed heating and have started heating funds, but perhaps we will start a roof fund.”

If you would like to know more about Friends of Warminghurst Church, or enquire about using the Church, contact Rachel on 01903 891312/ rjw.web@gmail.com or Roger Colebrook on 01903 744849 /colebrook@btinternet.com. Anyone nterested in joining for £5 per annum will be welcomed
wholeheartedly. For more on The Churches Conservation Trust visit https://www.visitchurches.org.uk

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