The church of St. Thomas Becket, Lewes
Churches can be puzzling places. Without warning itinerants like me come along and interrupt proceedings. Even on a week-day, when sensible people are experiencing the first sandy sunny joys and jogs at the coast. And people inside the church who might not be expecting visitors today, tomorrow. Or indeed at any time. I am not talking about the vicar, the cleaner, the flower arranger or even God. Men reading lessons out loud from the pulpit, men fixing doors to the church on ladders, people here, there, then gone.
For me, it was more unplanned church visiting in two country towns and not a shy person in-sight or in-sound. As you will soon see, it was quite the opposite.
This time I had chosen two towns: Arundel and Lewes. Southern England. I was really on the way to Hampshire, but Sussex offered such a dear diversion. Both towns are surrounded by the beauty and majesty of the South Downs. It was a healing sunny day and the hills, veiled by sun and mist were gloating over all as perambulations around these bustling, prosperous, appealing towns with so many choices of cups and cakes to buy and eat.
Lewes assumed the air and face of an Italian hill town on this warm, March, hopeful day. Little lanes leading off the main street, then meander round little red bricked buildings with apricot buffed tiles and then round the castle or city walls by the flat paved and inviting, until you see the hills of the downs. And all seems so well. Until you see things in the other direction, seaward, where there are steep and cobbled streets and tiny alleyways, leading not to Italian taverns, but old and forgotten book-shops and even gloomy puddles of some dank liquid.
The churches have a similarly Italian darkened air about them until your eye adjusts. Why did I feel that when entering the portal of St. Thomas a Becket at Cliffe in Lewes that it was Catholic? It is actually on the main shopping street, but the doorway does not face onto the road, so you have to approach it in rather a skewed way. I had to almost force my way in, as there was a man rather hard of hearing, up a ladder, who, having seen me, said, ‘just trying to fix the door’. Doors are the essential structures for letting the faithful in. But having passed his almost Charon like welcome, I asked him if the church was indeed Catholic. Even, very Catholic I wanted to add. After all this was Sussex’s answer to the Tuscan hill-town. He was quick to rejoinder with, ‘Well, not Roman Catholic, but yes, very Catholic’. Was it just the slight whiff of incense tempering the bland air compressed after the door had shut after the Sunday service, or was it just the palpable, but at the same time ineffable air of a Catholic church? He, like other casual custodians that I have had the pleasure of meeting on my shy church-going days, was surprised to see me. He asked me, if I had wanted to see the clock. I was not sure about any clock, as I had not planned to see this church and so refrained.
But I wandered further in, noting that the church once belonged to a fraternity, who devoted themselves to things Becket soon after his death in 1170. Lewes is still quite a long way from Canterbury today. But then… what was the fraternity’s attachment to Lewes that engendered a church for Becket here? Perhaps they liked the hills that reminded them of Italy? Perhaps like other priests and monks, they had settled in these northern shores, having left their boats moored at Pevensey, to proceed with their long journeys north. And stopped here. Well, I would not blame them.
Was it the incense? Did I pass out? I thought the man had disappeared up a little stair-case, but not before telling me to go and look at the squint by the altar at the other end of the church. But like a man who had scurried away to get a box of ancient documents, he re-appeared. And I tried to ask him something else, but he heard not.
Or was it something else in the Lewes air? I walked out into the bright light and found somewhere to buy Italian bread, a little building attached to a pizzeria, that had bleached hessian looking cloth bags of flour and a surface full of brushed and dusted flour on the table, where the bread was prodded and shaped and formed to sell. I joined a queue and copied the cyclist in front of me and asked for a loaf of Italian bread. I was aware of two others hovering there too, waiting to buy their Italian bread, or even their English bread. I then noticed another man and before he came into my complete view, he strode across the road to the bus station. He was not waiting patiently for any European bread. Somehow I had imbibed enough to see that he had passed something quick to another fellow loitering by. And it wasn’t a loaf, or even a crumb of bread. The waifs and vagrants of Lewes were hanging out by the bread shop, rather than the church portal. But then the dear man at Becket’s church was not entirely open for business just then.
Maybe that is also because the squint at the church is now closed. I read in the notes for the church that one theory for its use was that lepers from the local hospital could look through the squint to witness the celebration of Mass, without entering the church through the other door. They could still feel a part of the liturgical day if they so choose. And I was hanging outside both areas for hopefuls. Not exactly hungry and not exactly leprous. But I was curious all the same.
And perhaps the man at the church fixing the door had disappeared then to fix the clock. For also it said in the notes that every day Brother George climbs up the 48 steps up the tower to wind the clock up. He keeps busy and all. There is no time for George to loiter around bread shops.
Next time I shall go back and ask him if that really is his name.
St. Michael- in- Lewes
The tower with St. Michael
An actor preparing for his Maundy Thursday debut on the pulpit in the church. And a young man, having stepped down from the pulpit. One and the same. The actor, confident and clear, the man, a quivering, frenetic novice parishioner in the church of St. Michael. My trip to Lewes was proving to be eventful. As I crossed the high street, I saw that St. Michael, in statue form, astride on the face of the round flint tower, was not exactly welcoming me in to the church. That is not what he does. He was weighing me in, gesturing to his left and my right . Instead of a portal, the tower is the main visual focal point.
But what a wait there was to get out, once I had stepped inside. The man, or actor, I do not know which, was reading loudly and surely. I heard him pronounce the reading for Maundy Thursday, and so I was confused. The day was Thursday, but I was pretty sure it was not Maundy Thursday. As he walked towards the door, the man stopped and started to talk to me. And it was startling, not in equal assured ‘lesson’ delivery, but full of lament, breathless, quick and unstoppable. He reminded me of Golem: on the one hand, quick, nimble, energetic; on the other, quick to turn grumpy or sour and in retreat from something. He was boyish, slight, gym-shoed, with anorak and glasses that were soon taken off to rub his red face. Reddening more by the rubbing. He talked and talked and talked. But he could not look at me. While words formed and uttered at break-neck speed, he stared into a distance, telling me that he had moved here from Cornwall. I envisioned him then as a novice angel who had left his wings somewhere. Perhaps at the other church. For he had originally joined the congregation at another Lewes church, but they were not friendly. And Maundy Thursday represented his ‘deboot’ as he called it in the pulpit. I had my doubts. But the conversation was concerned whether to wear his father’s morning suit at a wedding he was due to go to with a newly acquired girl-friend (all of 29 days). He endured a miserable first marriage and I think surprised himself that he was with another woman. But hurt, that the people whose wedding it was had not let him know whether it was morning suit or not. And he talked and he talked, and I saw the door and looked into the church and wondered how quickly I could retreat, without appearing rude. So, at last, finding a second’s breath of a pause in his delivery, I politely said that I had to dash.
The statue on the round flint tower outside reminded me of Jacob Epstein’s sculpture on Coventry Cathedral (1958) his St. Michael and the devil where St. Michael is threatening to trample on the devil with an awesome spiked lance. Luckily for the devil who looks like a Michelangeloesque male beauty, the pointed part faces upwards. But this must represent Michael daringly defeating Satan, as recorded in the Book of Revelations. But the devil lies, with his head tilted upwards as if surprised by the vision of the saint. As those of you familiar with your Last Judgements, such as that by Rogier van der Weyden you will know that St. Michael likes to weigh people in his scales. They are often nude, and usually looking pretty frightened. There are the ones blessed and the ones who will not get away, who will go and join the Devil and his agents in his large, fiery, cave, epitomising Hell. But in Epstein’s version, the Devil is in submission to St. Michael, although represented as he is nude, he could be one of those mortal, frail and vulnerable nudes that normally feature in the scales that tip the balance of goodness or sin. But here, in Epstein’s version the combat seems to be of a different order: it is to do with flesh and the power of glistening, strained muscles that connect the two bodies. Who seem, if one looks carelessly, like classical gladiators. But look a little closer and you will see that St. Michael has tightly wrought curls, like a Grecian god. The Devil? Well, he is bald, except of course for those habitual horns.
So St. Michael led me in. I did not find the devil, but as ever with my church-going, I found plenty to ponder on.