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If we joined our early Victorian villagers in 1840 we would find them trying to worship in the remains of the church their ancestors had lovingly built. The North transept was in ruins and a rough brick wall had been erected to keep the weather out of the rest of the church, half covering the beautiful arch leading to it. Still the wind managed to get in, chilling the ankles as it swirled through an unglazed, square hole cut for extra light in a windowless wall. In wet weather the curate plugged the hole with a piece of wood. The original window in the north side still existed but was blocked by a monument which no one had thought to move.
The villagers now sat on pews of all sorts and sizes in a nave whose walls were reeking with moisture and whose mouldings were clogged with plaster and whitewash. They could not enter through the Norman doorway in the south transept as it was blocked and half buried by the earth piled against it
Referring to the state of the church in the late 1830s, John Mason Neale wrote:
“The two chapels had been destroyed long before the memory of man; that on the south, I am inclined to believe, perished when the present chancel was built. Nothing remains to mark the site of that of the north but a trefoiled piscina on the outer wall of the chancel. The east window was destroyed, and two nondescript lights with circular heads were inserted in its place; a window on the north was blocked by a modern monument, but to supply sufficient light a square hole was cut in the wall, which, being unglazed, was in wet weather plugged up with a corresponding piece of wood….. The north transept was in ruins, and separated from the church by an erection of brick so contrived as to conceal half the beautiful arch leading to it….. The nave was filled with pews of all sorts and sizes; the walls were reeking with moisture; every moulding had been clogged with plaster or whitewash…..: the Norman door in the transept had been blocked and was now half concealed by the earth piled against it: and a door opened opposite to it, faced with brick. The damp earthy smell which pervaded the building, the green mould which hung on the walls….. would have led the visitor to imagine he was descending into the dungeon… rather than going up to the house of the Lord.”
The repair and restoration of the church were begun in 1840 by the Cambridge Camden Society and the church patrons – Magdalen College, Oxford - to designs by J M Neale and J C Buckler. Shortage of funds and bad weather delayed work, which was still in progress in 1844. The transepts were restored and reopened to the crossing, and two north vestries were built on the site of the north chapel. The east window was restored and, in 1851, stained glass exhibited in the Great Exhibition was installed. The window has figures of St Wilfrid, the Apostle of Sussex, St Mary, the mother of Jesus, St Nicolas, Patron Saint of this church and St Richard, a 13th century Bishop of Chichester.
E Window by Hardman 1851/2 Source: Hardman 1852/56 Order Book p.128 http://www.stainedglassrecords.org/Ch.asp?ChId=22109
A small altar-bell was found when the earth was removed from the outside. The removal of the flooring under the minstrels’ gallery at the west end of the church revealed the three memorial slabs to the Blaker family, now against the west wall of the nave.
Mozely memorial 1878
Unlike some Victorian church restorations which amounted to almost a total rebuilding, those who laboured at Old Shoreham retained the best of the surviving original features resulting in the church we see today. With a Saxon nave, a Norman crossing tower and transepts with rich carving, a chancel dating from 1300, and Victorian vestries and stained glass, the building preserves a memory of those who lived around it for a thousand years.
The 20th century has been called the “fastest moving century of all”. On New Year’s Day 1900, the British were still Victorians. New Year’s Eve 1999 saw a very different world while the country celebrated the Millennium with Queen Elizabeth II and Prime Minister Tony Blair at the Dome.
It had been a century in which unprecedented advances in medicine, travel, mass communication and increasing social equality transformed the lives of ordinary people. It also saw the terror of two World Wars, the development of the nuclear bomb, the discovery of penicillin and the exploration of space.
Yet earlier generations would still recognise St Nicolas’ Church. It has remained little changed by these world events. The war graves outside and the war memorial tablet inside the church bear silent witness to the devastating impact of war on the lives of ordinary Shoreham folk.
For over a thousand years, through the ages, battles and outside events have had their impact on St Nicolas’ Church. But the most fundamental change to this church in the 20th century was that it changed from being a country church with a farm next door, sheep and horses in the lanes outside, and surrounding fields – part of the changing seasons – to being a town church, surrounded by housing and ‘urban sprawl’, with cars parked along the lanes. Fortunately for us, campaigners in the 1960s prevented a proposed plan to put a new four-lane (A27) highway along the line of St Nicolas’ Lane. But, sadly, the great barn and many farm buildings were demolished and lost forever.
Throughout the century the parishioners of St Nicolas’ continued to care for the fabric of the church. In 1928 a new roof was built. Many years later the Millennium was commemorated with a new stained-glass window in the nave. In 2003 a new vestry extension was built with a kitchen, lavatory, disabled access and vicar’s vestry, made possible by a generous bequest by the late Betty Geeves who sang in the church choir for many years.
We hope that we will be able to continue to care for and maintain this beautiful church so that future generations will be able to enjoy its beauty and tranquillity. St Nicolas’ Church stands as a witness to the faith in God of generations of Shoreham people through the ages.
“Persisted, linked, through lengths and breadths
Of time. Snow fell, undated. Light
Each summer thronged the glass. A bright
Litter of birdcalls strewed the same
Bone-riddled ground. And up the paths
The endless altered people came...”
From ‘An Arundel Tomb’ by PHILIP LARKIN