27 May 2017

Lewes: the church with a squint

We were wandering along the High Street at Cliffe when we saw this old stone and flint church dedicated to St Thomas à Becket and, as I can never resist an open door, we went in for a look.




The first thing I noticed was the strong musky smell of incense, next was the way the dim light filtering in through the stained-glass windows was creating kaleidoscopic rainbows on the stone floor. Looking up I marvelled at the dark wooden ceiling of the chancel and the huge organ pipes that dominated one side wall.

It was Jill who first noticed the squint, not something I’d heard of or seen before. This architectural feature, also known as a hagioscope, was incorporated into church structures where the view to the main altar was obscured, thus allowing an assistant priest to raise the Host at the same time as the priest at the main altar.

Jill had just finished explaining this to me when an elderly gentleman, with a shock of white hair and looking slightly dishevelled in his dark green robe, came shuffling in through a side door. He explained that this double squint had probably been used to allow lepers to observe the mass. It seems that what is now the chancel of the present church was originally the full extent of the building, a late-12th-century chapel of ease, and it may be that the squint allowed lepers, from a leper hospital built just outside the town walls, to witness the celebration of mass without actually entering the church.

However, the structure of the church has been much altered over the centuries: their website suggests that the church had at least one aisle by the 13th century, that there was major reconstruction work done in the 14th century, that the flint tower is of late-15th-centuy construction and that the whole building was restored in the 19th century, so it’s difficult to be sure how the squint was originally designed to work and it does look to have been cut into the 12th-century wall rather than being an integral part of it.

Unsure of the man's identity I asked our elderly guide if he was the priest and he said ‘Yes’, though he did seem a little uncertain about it. It was only later that I checked the church’s website and discovered we had indeed been chatting to the Reverend George Linnegar who, though now officially retired, continues his 54-year service as a priest. As well as celebrating Holy Communion every day at St Thomas's, it seems Brother George is also Chief Clock Winder and Door fixer ... but that’s another story by another blogger.

26 May 2017

Lewes: some street signs

I found much to love about Lewes during the day I spent there on my recent visit to East Sussex, as you will see in this and the blogs that follow.


Church Twitten
Move over road, street and boulevard, in Lewes we have the twitten. As the Oxford Dictionary defines it, a twitten is ‘a narrow path or passage between two walls or hedges’, and the word’s origin may be Low German, from the word tweite meaning lane or alley. If wiktionary and William Douglas Parish (from his 1875 book A dictionary of the Sussex dialect and collection of provincialisms in use in the county of Sussex) are to be believed, this is an exclusively Sussex word that is a corruption of betwixt and between. The word is obviously rather old as Church Twitten, and the many other twittens in Lewes, are the subject of a book by Kim Clark, The Twittens: The Saxon and Norman Lanes of Lewes (Pomegranate Press, 2012).

Pipe Passage
As well as the twitten, Lewes also has the passage, several of them in fact, leading hither and yon. 

This one had its own plaque explaining that Pipe Passage is ‘named after [a] 19th century clay pipe kiln’ and that the route ‘follows Saxon and Medieval access to [the] town wall defences’. 

I found out a little more:

... formerly Westgate Passage. It follows the line of the old town wall which still remains in this quarter of the town. A little way up Pipe Passage on the left is a small piece of ground between it and the town wall. It was formerly roofed over and was used as a workshop for making clay pipes, and the kiln for firing them still partially remains built into the north wall which owes its survival to the fact that it is a retaining wall for higher ground behind. [From N.E.S. Norris, ‘A Victorian Pipe Kiln in Lewes’, Journal of Post-Medieval Archaeology, Vol.4, Issue 1, 1970]


English’s Passage
What can I say? The story behind English’s Passage has eluded me. 

The alleyway itself is certainly very old as one of the buildings at the High Street end is heritage-listed and dates from the 16th century, and these old lanes and passages are all thought to date from Saxon or Norman times. 

The very picturesque row of cottages shown in my photo at right is not so old – the houses date from the early 19th century. They may perhaps have been built for the managers and overseers who worked at nearby Harvey’s Brewery. 

But the reason why this passage is named English’s will have to remain a mystery for now.


Cockshut Road
England would not be England without its weird, wonderful and sometimes downright rude place names. Just as Stonesfield in Oxfordshire has its Cockshoot Close and West End in Surrey has its Cocknmouth Close, so Lewes has Cockshut Road and, indeed, a Cockshut stream. The word Cockshut is actually pronounced Cock-chute by the locals and is apparently derived from a 13th-century Sussex word to describe a place where woodcocks or geese could be ensnared. The waterway, The Cockshut, is a tributary of the River Ouse and its course has been much altered over the years: back in the 12th century one of its branches flowed through the grounds of Lewes Priory and was used to cleanse the reredorter.

I do enjoy flushing out these fascinating dollops of local history.

21 May 2017

Sussex: The Long Man and the White Horse

No visit to my friend Jill in Sussex is complete without a drive past at least one of the enigmatic and incredibly large figures, inscribed on the local hills.


The origins of the Long Man of Wilmington have even the experts baffled. At around 230 feet tall, it was once thought to be the largest representation of the human form in the world. Some people speculate that it was carved out of the hillside by prehistoric man to scare away wolves, others that it was created by the monks of nearby Wilmington Priory. Perhaps he’s a figure from some ancient and primitive fertility cult, though the fact that he lacks any reproductive organs would seem to rule out that theory.


The sign on the hill overlooking the figure says that, during the Victorian period, ‘the shape was marked out with yellow bricks’, though those have since been replaced with concrete blocks. The intriguing thing to me is that whoever first marked out the shape was aware of the distortion created by the sloping angle of the hillside and compensated for it: the true shape of the Long Man is elongated so as to appear more normal from a distance.


The White Horse at Litlington is a true chalk figure, cut into the steep side of a hill in the Cuckmere Valley, and one of several large horse figures that adorn the hills of England, some ancient, some very modern. The origins of this particular figure are better documented: according to the National Trust, it was first cut into the downs by four men in 1836 and then re-carved in 1924 by a grandson of one of those men.


The horse is regularly restored by the National Trust, most recently in April this year, when volunteers first weeded the figure, then spread six tonnes of chalk over it to spruce it up. You can see the difference in its appearance in the two photographs below, one taken on a rather grey day in August 2014 and the other just last week.