Churches in Sussex
A Countryman's Diary
BUNCTON Chapel must he reckoned among the little seen, and little known, fanes of Sussex. It has never been more than a chapel-of-ease, humbly serving a few scattered folk who dwell in an insulated portion of the parish of Ashington. Some churches assert their presence to the passersby. The sight of tower or spire rising above trees and cottages is a feature which adds loveliness to the English landscape. Buncton has no more than a bell-cot, and at its beginning more than eight hundred years ago, probably did not possess that, for the early rule was that a chapel-of-ease should have neither bell nor font.
I have a friend who, I may say, is known to a multitude of my readers, for he has written a useful and informing book on monumental effigies and brasses in Sussex churches, and also therein deciphered, to relieve weak and groping eyes, inscriptions faint with age in old English or Latin, or Norman-French. So he has put most of us who love poking about ancient churches into his debt. My friend wrote to me upbraidingly: "What! never yet visited Buncton Chapel? It is time you did." So it came to pass on a day of last April we sallied out in search of Buncton. The sky was grey, the wind was nippy, yet the day was pleasing
We travelled in a motor car, for Buncton is many miles from where I dwell, and passed by what are called minor roads through villages and by hedgerows, mournfully noting that even here the cheap builder was at it. Surely the people of another generation will rise in judgement against the people of to-day for allowing so fair a land to be despoiled by random, tasteless building.
Our motor-car stayed by the side of a copse which fell away into a dingle. We passed through a wicket gate and on a downward path till we reached a rustic bridge under which there is a streamlet, which my friend informed me is an affluent of the Adur. Both sides of the stream were thick with trees and bushes. A willow wren who had just arrived from overseas to his beloved bush, gave us greeting with a ripple of happy notes. So we dallied for a while in a sanctuary of great peace.
In the dingle were all manner of fair things of springtime: celandines-a flower which calls up Wordsworth-were in abundance, so also were primroses, lady's smock, stitchwort, and windflowers. We stayed to dispose of the contents of a thermos flask and some cake. A robin came and at once made friendly overtures; cupboard love encircles the world.
We climbed the other side of the wooded dell and reached a grassy track, and soon there rose before us the building of which we had come in search. Buncton Chapel is on rising ground ; a few fir trees relieve its stark lines. It looks out on empty fields and distant homesteads. From a far distance Chanctonbury looks down.
In the eighth volume of the Sussex Archeological Collections there is some account of a deed of gift made to the Bishop of Selsey by Eadwulf, king, or dux, of the South Saxons. It is of the year 791 and made, so it says,
"on the hill called Biohchandowne," and the writer of the article, who was in his time a distinguished antiquary, identifies the place name with Buncton. I am not learned enough in the laws of phonetic change to express an opinion, but I know place-names can have some curious coalescings in the course of ages. If there is identity in the two spellings it does not follow that a church stood here at that time, or a princely residence, for it was a custom of the early Saxons to meet and carry through important and grave matters in the open air.
The church bears the marks of two building periods: Norman of quite early date, and some work at the east end of 1300; also there are touches of other times. On the outside chancel wall is a puzzle, but nearly always ancient churches ask you questions and set conundrums. On the north side are some acutely pointed arches with strap ornament of a date about 1160; on the south side other arches, but of a plainer character. There is at Horsted Parva Church something of the same kind. What are they there for? What purpose did they serve?
The walling is composed of a mixture of large flints, much sandstone, and here and there Roman tile. I believe Roman brick and tile are to be seen in several old houses in the district. It is likely that at a distant time the debris of some villas existed, and on Chanctonbury remains have been uncovered of a Romano-British temple.
You enter Buncton Chapel on its north side under a plain heavy-lintelled doorway. There is no porch. Perhaps that is because it has never been aught but a chapel. There were certain offices which were not allowed, or only gradually allowed, to a chapel. At first, baptism, churching, marriage, and burial were the prerogatives of the mother church. These commenced beyond the threshold so that a porch was a necessity for the ancient ritual. The Espousals, the preliminary of marriage, was a service at the church door; baptism commenced there, and later on "the minister took the infant by the hand and introduced him into the church." As time went on, however, chapels, most of them, acquired more privileges, and so to-day Buncton Chapel has a bell, a font, and an acre for buryings, yet never a porch.
We entered the grey little interior by the north door. There is a south door, but, as so often is the case, it is built up. The nave is the oldest part of the church. Its date may he about 1070. It is aisleless, lofty and the walls are of great thickness. There are three tiny windows, very small and placed high up. There was no window glazing in the days to which they belong-not, at least, for a humble church like this-and so these were placed so that when winter winds were blowing, the worshipper's head would not feel the full buffet.
There are two objects of special interest within the church. One is the chancel arch. The jamb or support on the north side has carving on the abacus, face and chamfer, which is curious. There is some square billet moulding, a double cabling, a flower head which may he intended for a rose, and the rude outline of a man lying prone. The abacus of the opposite side has been renewed by a restorer; what the old one was like we shall never know. At each side of the chancel arch are Norman shafts inset with cone capitals. On the south, and against the nave wall, is a shallow buttress which probably assisted to sustain a rood beam.
The other objects of special interest are at the east end of the chancel. They belong to a rebuilding of the east wall and other parts about 1300. Now, is it not that the charm of old stones in ancient buildings is not because they are old stones, but that they possess a human touch in their tool-marks and are wedded to the long story of human life ? I would beg my readers who may go a-journeying to this little fane to look intently at the tracery of the east window, at the jamb shafts each with its slender fillet, at the two image brackets on either side of the altar, and, not of least charm, the piscina. This has a trefoil opening, a stone shelf and projecting dish of scallop pattern. The destroying hand which in Edward VI's time cut away almost every projecting piscina dish in the county, did not reach Buncton. Here is one of the fairest in the county, and intact. All these examples of stonework which I have enumerated possess something that is living. There is a sense in which one can say they are spiritual things.
One other feature deserves to be mentioned. You can see in some of the side windows, of five in all, some open lights which are early efforts, probably of Tudor time, to ventilate the church. The leaden lattices are worth looking at; although small and highly placed, they possess artistry of detail.
One of the fair flowers of July is the common centaury. It is a gentian and grows abundantly almost everywhere in Sussex in thousands, in tens of thousands. The flowers are a rose pink and in clusters, the leaves oblong in shape and of delicate green. It is a plant not only pleasing to the eye, but famous as a gipsy remedy for indigestion, debility and a few other ills.
Some time ago I entered a shop in London famous as a herbal centre. I wanted to gather some information, but instead I had to impart it to a counter assistant, who although it is likely possessed some knowledge of the healing virtues of herbs, evidently did not walk by country paths.
I looked at the row of neatly labelled bottles, I read the inscription promising relief from a dozen or more ailments and I reflected that possibly an infusion of one spray of the plant went to one bottle. The cost of the plant would he a fraction of a farthing, the cost of the bottle's contents eighteenpence, and the value, reckoned apart from vulgar commercial considerations, one guinea.
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