St Mary the Virgin, Ninfield

Diocese of Chichester

The Rural Deanery of Battle and Bexhill

The Parish Church of St. Mary the Virgin, Ninfield & St. Oswald's, Hooe

The Parish Church of St. Mary the Virgin, Ninfield

A quick tour round the Church

Visiting the church

If you are travelling some distance it is suggested you check the situation regarding opening with one of the churchwardens - click here

These pages are taken from the Guidebook which is available from the Church. We do hope you will find the information enlightening and helpful.

A church on the present site is likely to have been built in the eighth century, following the conversion of the South Saxons by St. Wilfrid. Details about such a church and its development prior to the Norman Conquest can only be a matter for speculation. The only material evidence of this early building consists of three large ancient stone blocks, now built into the exterior of the modern north wall. They were taken from a singular doorway in the old north wall of the nave when it was pulled down and the present north aisle was built in 1885. Mr. George Gilbert Scott, who surveyed the church in 1874, was of the opinion that the doorway 

belonged to a period certainly before the Norman Conquest, and possibly before the Danish invasion. The earliest written record of the church in Ninfield is in the Domesday survey of 1086 and, apart from the aforementioned ancient stones, the earliest structural work now remaining is the thirteenth century stonework in the south and west walls of the nave.

Unfortunately, the restoration of 1885, with its alterations and the addition of the north aisle has destroyed or overlaid some of the historically interesting features of the church, but others remain. It is the purpose of this guide to help the visitor to appreciate them

 

ENTERING THE CHURCH

THE PORCH

The present porch is dated 1735 (George II), and replaces an earlier one which, according to Mr. George Gilbert Scott, had been erected in the fifteenth century, and had been of timber on a stone base. It would appear that the present brickwork is set on the old fifteenth-century base

 

Above the porch entrance is set a sundial. It was originally placed there   when the present porch was built, but in 1924 (George V) the present wooden dial replaced the original face, which had become decayed. However, the original metal gnomon was retained. 

Inside the porch are two old wooden side seats set on reused stone corbels, one on each side.

On the left side are two wooden notices inscribed with amounts of money contributed by the Incorporated Church Building Society for the enlargement and repair of the church at different times.

 

 

INSIDE THE CHURCH

Entrance to the church itself is through the south door, the jambs of which have mouldings of the Perpendicular period (1377-1485). Behind this door, on its west side is

THE FONT

This is ancient and is plainly carved in stone. It has a late sixteenth/early seventeenth centuries cover carved in English oak.

Inside, the bowl is lead lined. Projecting through the cover are two staples by which it could be locked on to the front. This is a relic of the practice of keeping holy water in the font in pre-Reformation times.

Set in the wall on the east side of the door is a  brass memorial to Joseph Ridel who was the village schoolmaster for over twenty years.

WAR MEMORIALS

Farther down towards the chancel on the same wall is the

WAR MEMORIAL TO THE 1914 -18 WAR (George V)

Immediately opposite across the church on the north wall is the War Memorial to the 1939 - 45 War (George VI).

THE CHANCEL ARCH

The original arch was Norman and very different from the present one built in the 1885 restoration. Mr. George Gilbert Scott in 1874 wrote " that it consisted, as I am told, of a central opening no larger than a good-sized doorway, with two small recesses or openings one on each side, and in front of these smaller arches there stood in Norman times side altars". Anyone wishing to see such an ancient chancel arch today should visit Penhurst Church near Ashburnham, some three to four miles to the north of Ninfield.

On the north side of the chancel arch is memorial brass to Esme St. John, the daughter of the incumbent during the 1914-18 War.

THE CHANCEL

The choir stalls with their interesting carved oak heads are worthy of note. Until recently they were thought to be Jacobean, but expert opinion has indicated otherwise. Rear Admiral Sir James Ashby, a former churchwarden who lived at Little Park, gave the stalls in the latter part of the nineteenth century.

On the left, as one steps back into the nave, is the priests' prayer desk which is of early Jacobean workmanship (James I).

THE STAINED GLASS LANCET WINDOWS in the east end are modern, and were given to commemorate a previous rector.

THE TWO SMALL SEVENTEENTH CENTURY BRASSES, set in the south wall, are the oldest of the memorials. These commemorate the two infant daughters of John Bowyer who are buried nearby. John Bowyer was the first incumbent to be installed after the Restoration of Charles II. His body also lies nearby in the church. He it was who started a school in the church, thereby giving Ninfield its first school.

THE ORGAN, of exceptional quality for a village church, was built by Henry Jones and rebuilt in 1987 by John Males.

 

NORTH AISLE - WEST END

The Library Area was dedicated in 1987. Among the library furnishings are two striking chairs, the work of Rod Wales of the Guild of Sussex Craftsmen.       

The seventeenth century carved oak panelling against the west wall is an interesting feature. It was earlier used as the altar reredos, but later removed. Given by Sir James Ashby, referred to previously as the donor of the choir stalls, its origin is uncertain, although it is thought to have come from some stately home.

THE CLOCK.

The mechanism for the latter can be viewed through the glass-panelled doors in the front of the casing. The clock was installed in 1897, and was paid for by subscriptions from the villagers. The bell is a single survivor of a ring of three, but by 1864 the other two had been sold to raise much-needed money. The present bell has an inscription dedicating it to St. Martin of Tours. It reads "Hic Est Martinus Quem Salvet Trimus et Unus" This is Martin, may the Trinity save him). It is thought to have been cast about 1395 (Richard II). As it still rings for services and strikes the hours, it forms a continuous link with the past, and we can think that it has been continually heard by our ancestors from before the time of the Battle of Agincourt, 1415.

THE MINSTRELS GALLERY

This is high up in the west end, and was constructed in the seventeenth century. Closed and boarded-up at the 1885 restoration, it was re-opened in 1923. When it was in use, it is recorded that a flute led the music, and later a harmonium. There is now no direct access.

Mounted on the north wall of this end of the nave is one of the most interesting and remarkable features in the church. The arms are those of James I, and are a fine example of Jacobean carving. Since the Reformation, coats of arms of the monarchs are to be found in many churches, but most are of post-Commonwealth date. How such a fine example came to be in Ninfield Village Church, and how it escaped the depredations of Cromwell's followers is still an interesting subject for research.

THE BANNERS

Of these old flags, hanging either side of the Minstrels' Gallery, there is nothing in the records to reveal their origin. However, in the 1890s one of the units of Second Cinque Ports Artillery Volunteers had its headquarters at the Drill Hall (now the Memorial Hall), and they may have some connection with this unit.

THE ROOF

Before leaving the inside of the church, a look at the roof reveals features of historic interest. The moulded king-posts and the beams are of the Decorated Period, some time between 1307 and 1377 (Edwards II and III). The rafters, also probably of the same period, were covered up in the restoration of 1885.

OUTSIDE THE CHURCH

           

NORTH SIDE

The wall of the north aisle is Victorian, but set in it are the three ancient stone blocks mentioned at the beginning of this guide. These can be seen between the first and second windows looking from the west end.

 

THE  WEST SIDE

Apart from the west end of the Victorian north aisle, the walls comprise the west end of the nave surmounted by the bell turret. These walls are of the thirteenth century supported by fifteenth-century buttresses. The west doorway is Early English (1189-1307 ~ Richard I, John, Henry III and Edward I). Over it, replacing an earlier lancet window is a window commemorating Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee.

 

THE SOUTH SIDE

The wall of the nave is mainly thirteenth century with the buttresses having been added during the fifteenth century. The wall of the chancel, however, is seventeenth century. Noteworthy features on this side are:

(1) The porch, already described.

(2) The bricked-up doorway in the chancel, with its pointed arch and the inscription I.B. 1671, is the remains of the priests' doorway. I.B. refers to John Bowyer, Rector from 1663 to 1681.

(3) Two small female heads, one set above the priests' doorway and the other set above a nearby window, were found Iying in the grass at the foot of the north wall of the nave when it was demolished in 1885. The Rev. R. A. Bennett, Rector at the time, had them set in their present positions.

THE EAST SIDE

The chancel wall on this side is seventeenth century, but the windows are modern. The vestry on the north-east corner of the church is also modern.

 

THE CHURCHYARD

The old part of the churchyard lies to the south of the church, and the part still in use to the north. Parts of the old churchyard are left untended to allow birds to nest, and wild flowers to bloom and seed, undisturbed.

Apart from ancient grave-stones, the inscriptions on most of which have become illegible, the main points of interest are:

THE OLD YEW TREE. This could well have seen the coming of the Normans since it is reputed to be of great age. The bole gives the appearance of several trunks joined together, caused by the tree pushing out new shoots from the lower part of the bole. These have grown vertically and, in the course of time, have joined up with the old wood. The resulting mixture of old and new wood can produce some strange shapes,

There is a story about the Ninfield yew which states that, if the trunk is viewed from the side nearest the church, the observer could descry the form of an angel in the tree. Unfortunately, now any chance of doing so is lost as a result of the Great Storm of 1987. It is pleasing, however, that when so many other great trees were uprooted, our ancient yew has survived without being too badly damaged.

 

THE ARIMATHEA THORN. This is a young tree clearly visible among the old grave-stones on the west side of the path leading up to the south door of the church. It was given by the late Dr. Tunstall, and is a scion of the legendary Thorn of St. Joseph of Arimathea at Glastonbury. It is supposed to bloom at Christmas-time.

 

The Sea View from the West Boundary

 

Ninfield Church is situated on a high position. This commands, on a clear day, a fine view across Pevensey marshes, the sea and on to the South Downs and Beachy Head. The historically interested may like to conjure up in the mind's eye the sight that a Saxon could have seen from this spot in that fateful autumn over nine hundred years ago. The sight was that of the Norman invasion fleet approaching across Pevensey Bay and the great lagoon, which at that time covered the present Pevensey levels. So Ninfield Church witnessed a turning point in the history of our country, and has been the spiritual focus of the village throughout the succeeding ages.