The South Downs is England’s newest National Park, created in 2011 and encompassing an 87-mile long ridge of low chalk hills, running from Winchester to the sea at Eastbourne. Yet, the majority of its land is still privately owned, often by large estates, and many of its paths are out of bounds for the walker, guarded by fences or ubiquitous signs proclaiming ‘private: keep out’ or ‘no right of way’. A far cry indeed from the unbounded freedom of the Peak District, where the ‘open country’ signs open up a different kind of meaning of the word ‘National’. For the Peak District, this was a hard-won and long-in-coming freedom, but one that is nevertheless a testament to the efficacy of popular (and disruptive) protest.
Yet, dismissive as it may be to the right to roam, the South Downs National Park contains its own unique common spaces, namely the ancient, and often tiny, churches that are hidden in the soft, undulating chalk and flint-scapes of these hills. The cluster of churches around the hamlets known as the Mardens on the Hampshire/West Sussex border are particularly striking examples. Always open to visitors (and nesting birds), the little churches at North Marden, East Marden and Up Marden are entwined as a thread of common spaces in this otherwise private landscape. They are also some of the most beautiful of England’s small churches – moving witnesses to early Christianity and its stubborn longevity.
All the churches are small and undistinguished early medieval buildings: low, squat spaces rendered in the abundant local flint and covered in simple, terracotta-tiled roofs. No towers or spires proclaim the church’s dominance over the landscape and its people; no bells call the reluctant to worship; no transepts, aisles or elaborate tracery in the windows; just single, undivided spaces, bare walls and uneven floors of brick or weathered stone. Perhaps most evocative of all is St Michael’s church at Up Marden. Sitting as it does a hundred yards away from a tiny single-track road behind a barn and shrouded in trees, the 12th-century church seems to emerge out of the landscape in humility, the flint-strewn field adjacent to it mirroring the rough patterns of the flint in the church’s walls.
Like other visitors to this church – like the architectural historians Simon Jenkins and Ian Nairn – I have never met another soul in or near this church. Yet its door is always unlocked and fresh flowers always adorn the tombstones and the altar. Clearly, someone cares deeply for this church, but in a way that remains mysterious: a presence in absence. Inside, the church is a space of extraordinary peace and simplicity: a single arch, crudely buttressed, marks a divide between the darker space of the nave and the light-flooded chancel, with its undecipherable fragments of medieval wall paintings emerging from the white-washed walls. Simple blue-painted candle holders give the interior an almost Byzantine feel, while the altar is as simple as possible – a rough-hewn cross sitting on an equally rustic table.
What is the undeniable presence in this church, one that led the staunch atheist Nairn to visit it repeatedly when depressed and nearing his premature death in 1983? Nairn declared that the church moved him beyond religion: it had an atmosphere developed by ‘slow, loving, gentle accretion, century by century’. There is no didactic object that can explain this atmosphere – no carving, no buttress, pinnacle or stained glass. Instead, every human action, over hundreds of years, has made this church what it is today. Not the grand gesture of the esteemed patron, or the flourish of the craftsmen’s hand, but small and gentle actions; humble, yet determined; unseen yet powerfully evident. As it was for Nairn, for me this church is not a work of architecture but of humanity.