Since arriving in Hastings and St Leonards, I have discovered that beneath the facade of a typical coastal town, once rather rundown as a result of the package holiday exodus in the latter part of the twentieth century, but now experiencing a renaissance, lie pockets of wonder often enclosed behind housing estates and other trappings of modern life. Examples that come to mind are Old Roar Gill, Filsham Reed Beds, Summerfields Wood behind Bohemia Road and St. Helens Woods amongst many others.
Two other wonderful examples of note are the two oldest churches of Hastings, ‘The Church in the Wood’ in Hollington and ‘Old St. Helens Church’ in Ore, both Grade II listed buildings, in idyllic settings and with atmospheric and romantic churchyards. I feel I need to honour both churches, which are very different, yet both seeming to inhabit that mysterious ‘sense of place’. Part 1 features ‘The Church in the Wood’
As you near Church in the Wood, the signs are not particularly promising, first you pass a large Tesco Hypermarket on the main road before turning off a small side road, past a local school before eventually reaching the church. However, on arrival you will not be disappointed. A small fairytale church on the edge of a wooded area, hence the name, with a vast churchyard that seems to go on forever.
Although ‘Church in the Wood’ is one of the oldest churches in Hastings, this is not instantly apparent from the facade, which is mainly a Victorian construction in traditional Sussex vernacular style. There is very little of the original fabric of the church remaining and what is left is, unfortunately, covered up.
By the 1830s the old church had fallen into a state of decay and was closed for many years, eventually being fully restored in 1866, in its present form, by a certain Matilda Dampner in memory of her parents.
However on entering the church, the internal architecture is pure English Gothic Revival, with the clear influence of Augustus Pugin 1 ( the Architect who designed the interior of the Palace of Westminster), with beautiful tiled floors and a stunning pulpit of inlaid Italian marble. The stunning stained glass window, showing Faith [woman who touched the hem of Jesus’ garment], Hope [Jesus’ resurrection victory over death and sin] and Love [the good Samaritan helping the man in need] was made by celebrated Belgium stained glass painter Jean-Baptiste Capronnier and which acts as a focal point when first entering the church.
Over the years the church has had many names, in its early days it was St. Rumbold’s and then in its later guise, it was known as St. Leonard’s Church. When James Burton founded the new seaside resort of St. Leonards on Sea, with a church to match, in the early 19th century, the church slowly changed its name to ‘Church in the Wood’, although it is also called ‘Hollington Church’ by some. I know which name I prefer, the romantic in me could only ever call it the ‘Church in the Wood’.
However, despite the beauty of the church, the jewel in the crown is the magnificent churchyard. I’ve always had a love of churchyards, places of quiet and contemplation, where you can escape the cares of day to day life. They are also places where you are forced to contemplate your own mortality, sometimes a necessary antidote to our often hectic and messy lives.
This particular one is a wonderful example, slightly overgrown, but full of atmosphere with old trees and a wide variety of gravestones, ancient and modern, many humble, some imposing and a few others, quite frankly, strange and eccentric. There are a number of impressive angels and many crosses of various shapes and sizes.
The churchyard is of, course, surrounded by the wood, giving it that additional feeling of solitude and peace. We visited once in Spring, when the surrounding woodland was covered in carpets of bluebells, adding another layer of magic to this unique place.
The oldest surviving tomb in the churchyard is that of John Turner, a yeoman farmer in Hollington, who died in 1703. It is apparently adjacent to the entrance, but I have been unable to find any trace of it.
However, there are dozens of other impressive graves, each no doubt with a fascinating tale to tell of the occupants resting below. As I wandered round the churchyard, I have discovered something about a few of the more striking memorials, which I will relate.
In a secluded section of the churchyard, surrounded by trees, is a magnificent large carved angel, with its outstretched wings protecting Maria Ripley Brazill, who died in 1924, aged 67. The monument was erected by her husband William and their family; William who died in 1934 was later laid to rest in the same plot.
What intrigued me was the name Brazill, which I had never come across before. However, on further investigation, it appears that the Brazills as well as the Ripley’s were well known Romany families, with large extended families in Hastings and throughout Kent and Sussex. There is a tantalising story here, perhaps there are descendants of Maria and William still living in the surrounding area.
In another part of the churchyard is a large rough hewn piece of granite, with an inscription “In loving memory of Alfred Borgeaud B.A. who died September ….1926, aged 24 years”. Who was Alfred Borgeaud and how did such a young man meet his end in this way?
The story turns out to be almost stranger than fiction. It was a new age and Alfred Borgeaud an idealistic young student at London University, born and raised in St. Leonards, was brimming with ideas about how he wanted to change the world. A devotee of D.H. Lawrence and all things modern, in science, literature and art, he had a bright future ahead of him. It was at University in 1922 that he met the Wells Coates, a Canadian, who would later become one of the great Modernist Architects and Designers of the 20th Century.2
Alfred and Wells Coates became devoted friends and they set out together on their mission to create a new and better society. In 1926, Wells Coates was desolate after an unhappy love affair and he suggested to Alfred that they take off and travel across Canada together on a journey of discovery, a fateful decision.
In April 1926 they set off on their journey of a lifetime and in September 1926, en route for Vancouver through the Canadian Rockies, the two men “hopped”3 a freight train and somehow Alfred fell to his death, a tragic and pointless end to such a promising life. Wells Coates was devastated by the accident and he managed to return his friend’s body to his family in St. Leonards, where he now lies under a piece of granite in this secluded churchyard, a salutary lesson to us all on the precariousness of life.
A memorial with a carved anchor must surely signify a Navy man and, sure enough, it turns out that this unusual grave is the final resting place of Rear Admiral Marcus Lowther, who died at the aged of 88 in 1906 and enjoyed a full and long life, unlike poor Alfred Borgeaud.
Rear Admiral Marcus Lowther was born in St Leonards-on-sea in 1820 and, between the years of 1842 and 1853, he served on board HMS Portland, travelling to the Far East and the Pacific Islands. He visited the Pitcairn Islands, where some of the mutineers of the Bounty had sought refuge 60 years earlier and the Easter Islands, some of the remotest areas on earth.
And all the time he was sketching and painting the landscapes, houses and the indigenous people, recording a world that has now totally vanished. His sketches are full of sympathy and affection for the people that he met.
But all of this was mainly unknown, when Marcus Lowther was laid to rest in 1906, having died in relative obscurity in Essenden Road in St. Leonards. However, in 2020, an album containing 166 of his watercolours and drawings appeared on the market, owned by the son of a west country book seller, who had bought them in the 1950s. They went up for Auction in London, with an estimate of £10,000-£15,000, but eventually the hammer went down at a massive £52,000 Forum Auctions, 9th June 2020
Over 100 years after his death, Rear Admiral Marcus Lowther has finally gained the recognition he deserves, for recording for posterity a world that has now disappeared for ever. Who knows how many other sketches of his might be out there, hidden in some dusty attic .
It was inevitable that the unusual location of the church, with its romantic and peaceful churchyard, would attract many visitors from across the British Isles. One of the most famous was the Poet and essayist Charles Lamb4 who wrote in 1823 of his visit to Hastings that:-
“The best thing I hit upon was a small country Church (by whom or when built unknown), standing bare and single in the midst of a grove, with no house or appearance of habitation within a quarter of a mile, only passages diverging from it through beautiful woods, to so many farm houses. There it stands, like the first idea of a Church, before parishioners were thought of, nothing but birds for its congregation…”
Charles Lamb’s most famous book was ‘Essays of Elia’, which I recall my Father reading when I was young. Nowadays it is almost unknown, but many people feel that these small gems of observation about everyday life are ripe for rediscovery Guardian Review April 2011 It’s time for me to dust off the old copy of my dad’s book and discover Charles Lamb for myself.
Charles Lamb’s most famous poem “The Old Familiar Faces” is rather better known and is one of the saddest poems in the English language, full of longing and nostalgia for a past that can never be relived. No wonder he found solace in deserted churchyards. This is the last verse of the poem:
"How some they have died, and some they have left me,
And some are taken from me; all are departed;
All, all are gone, the old familiar faces."
To read the poem in full, see the attached link The Old Familiar Faces
Today, the church is still going strong with a service held every Sunday morning (in non-Covid times) and the churchyard is the last remaining private burial ground in the Borough of Hastings. When we visited the church we were kindly shown around by the Verger, who obviously took great pride in maintaining the interior of the church, so that visitors and congregation alike can continue to enjoy this unique building and churchyard for many years to come.
1 Augustus Pugin – One of the most remarkable Designers and Architects of the 19th century, working in the Gothic Revival style, who died far too young at the age of 40. To admire his work, forget about the Palace of Westminster, but visit instead his own small church in his home town of Ramsgate, where he designed absolutely everything, both interior and exterior, from the humblest door handle to the altar piece Shrine of St Augustine & The National Pugin Centre
2 Wells Coates – Iconic modernist Architect and Designer, greatly influenced by Le Corbusier, and who was best known for the Isokon Building in North London. He was also a prolific designer, most famous for his EKCO radio in Bakelite.
3 Freighthopping or trainhopping is the act of surreptitiously boarding and riding a freight railroad car. In the United States, this became a common means of transportation during the early 20th century, especially among migrant workers who became known as “hobos.” Many writers and musicians, amongst others Ernest Hemingway and Woody Guthrie, hopped their way across the continent in their search for the real America.
4 Charles Lamb – a close friend of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, he spent his whole career as a clerk for the East India Company. He devoted his life to caring for his sister Mary, who had murdered their Mother when Charles was 21, during a psychotic episode. In order to save her from being permanently confined to an asylum, he agreed to care for her at home, at great personal sacrifice. His rather tragic life was spent fighting depression, which he attempted to alleviate with bouts of heavy drinking.