Stories in Stone
On a crisp sunny morning fourteen Society members gathered at St Peter’s Church in Westhampnett to learn from David Bone, an eminent geologist, about the history of churches by examining the stones used in their construction.
In the 13th century this church was enlarged with the addition of a nave and tower and the majority of the material used was flint with surrounding galleting. Four different kinds of flint were pointed out. Window frames were made from harder Bath oolitic limestone. Part of the chancel wall dating from around 710 AD contained material such as tiles, bricks and even pieces of hypocaust taken from the ruins of the Roman city of Regnum, much of it laid in typical Saxon herringbone fashion. Other stones present were grey Malm stones – found on outcrops of the north face of the South Downs, strong Quarr stone – from the north coast of the Isle of Wight, hard Mixon rock from an off-shore reef off Selsey Bill, spongy Travertine limestone found at spring heads at Duncton and Steyning, as well as an “exotic” stone, Granite – probably ballast from the Channel Isles or Brittany.
The group then set off the short distance to Boxgrove Priory where Tim Pullen, a local historian, outlined the history of the site. The present Priory Church of St Mary and St Blaise dates from 1105 AD and was constructed by monks from the Abbey of Lessay in Normandy. This remained an influential community until the Reformation dissolution in 1536.
Walking round the mainly flint exterior walls, David Bone pointed out putlogs (holes used for the wooden scaffolding), the strong Caen limestone imported from Normandy contrasting with the soft crumbling Hythe sandstone, and some Chilmark greensand limestone used for recent repairs. Evidence of mediaeval sundials was also found on one of the buttresses.
Next looking at the remaining wall and pillars of the ruined Parish Church, it was shown that they were all constructed of a local hard gritty chalk, now called Lavant Stone, containing many fossils such as sharks teeth, sea urchins and their spines, starfish, belemnite tubes and sponges.
The morning ended inside the impressive Monastic Church with its recently installed new floor, the fossils of ferns, shells and shark’s fin visible in the pale Purbeck stone. The high ceiling roof, with painted decoration by Lambert Bernard (1530) and the ornate limestone chantry chapel built by Lord de la Warr were much admired.
It was agreed that what was learned on this visit will always make visiting churches so much more interesting.
The event took place on 19th November and was part of a series organised by HNHS to raise awareness and appreciation of the natural world.