Sussex has many fine historic medieval churches and they make a good point of interest on a walk. Many churches in small villages in and around the South Downs changed very little after they were built thanks to minimal population growth and the simple fact that the parishes often tended to be poor, with little to spend on rebuilding or new architectural designs. It is these slightly out of time and often tiny churches that I have mainly focused on here.
Medieval Wall Paintings in Sussex
The churches at Coombes, Hardham and Clayton listed below have wonderful examples of medieval wall paintings or frescoes, and make up part of the ‘Lewes Group of Churches’, which also includes St Botolph’s at Botolphs (see also below) and All Angels Church at Plumpton. It is likely that they were painted by a school of monastic artists from the powerful Cluniac Priory of St Pancras at Lewes and were probably covered up during the Reformation.
Beyond the Lewes group, there are further examples of wall paintings at St Peter ad Vincula, Wisborough Green, St George’s inTrotton, St Michael in Amberley and St Mary’s in West Chiltington.
Berwick Church, Berwick near Alfriston – this church is most well known for the extensive 20th Century murals which cover the nave walls, chancel arch, screen and pulpit, painted during the Second World War by the Bloomsbury artists, Duncan Grant, Vanessa Bell and Quentin Bell.
St Botolph’s, Botolphs, near Bramber/Steyning – this church serves the mostly depopulated hamlet of Botolphs situated in the valley of the River Adur. The church has fragments of medieval wall paintings and is Grade I listed by English Heritage for its architecture and history. See Walks Around Steyning: 3 Ancient Village Churches
St John the Baptist’s, Clayton, near Hassocks – nestled under the Jack and Jill windmills, this Grade 1 kisted church is distinguished by its rare and extensive set of wall paintings or frescoes, dating from the early 12th century and rediscovered more than 700 years later. Much of the structural work of the church is 11th-century and has had little alteration. See Jack and Jill walk.
Coombes Church, north of Shoreham/Lancing – a small 11th century Grade 1 listed downland church. with another important series of wall paintings or frescoes, dating from the 12th to the 18th centuries. These were uncovered in 1949.
St Botolphs, Hardham, near Pulborough – dating from the 12th century, and a Grade I listed building, this church contains the earliest nearly complete series of wall paintings in England. In this instance, they were hidden from view until uncovered in 1866 and provide a rare and memorable impression of a medieval painted interior. The simple two-cell stone building, with its original medieval whitewashed exterior, has seen little alteration and also has an ancient bell. See Pulborough: the History Walk.
Lullington Church, near Alfriston – also known as the Church of the Good Shepherd, and a short walk up the Downs from Alfriston. It is claimed to be the smallest church in England, and is built from the remains of the chancel of an earlier church that was destroyed by fire. It measures a mere 16 feet (5 metres) square and seats 20 people.
Sompting Church – 11th and 12th-century church with a Saxon tower topped by a Rhenish helm, a four-sided pyramid-style gabled cap of which this is the only example in England. Grade I listed for its architecture and history.
Southease Church – this small isolated church is on the South Downs Way and has one of only three round towers in Sussex, all of which are located in the Ouse Valley and built in the first half of the 12th century, the others being St Micheal in Lewes and St John in Piddinghoe. Fragments of wall paintings. See Southease walk.
St Mary and St Peter’s Church, Wilmington – founded in the late 11th century to serve villagers in a rural area at the foot of the South Downs, the church also functioned as a priory church for the monks from the adjacent Wilmington Priory. However, its most striking feature is the magnificent and ancient Yew Tree in the church yard, supported by props and chains. See Long Man of Wilmington Walks – the church is near the car park in Wilmington.