Wednesday, 10 September 2008
The church of St Anthony of Padua has smuggled its Spanish-Romanesque campanile and dome into the Tudor and Jacobean roofscape of Rye, adding a flavour of Tuscan hill town to several centuries of clay-tile, timber-frame Sussex vernacular.
It fits in remarkably well.
Ship-shape Rye sails across the East Sussex marshes, land-locked on a cliff top from which the sea long-ago retreated. I’ve gained my vantage point by climbing the tower of another church, Anglican St Mary’s, which commands the summit.
From here I can observe a good deal of this seaside parish, which stretches to the village of Pett in the east, beyond Camber Sands to the Kent border in the west, and inland to Iden.
It’s a commanding vantage point – even on a day like today, when a brisk easterly is powering horizontal gusts of rain across the marshes and blurring my view of Winchelsea, the village on the next hilltop west.
Rye still has its connection to the sea. At the foot of the cliff is the River Rother, where a line of fishing boats is moored. The Rother snakes out through an industrial belt to the mainly Victorian hamlet of Rye Harbour, where the sea has retreated.
At my feet is Lamb House, once home of Henry James and later E F Benson, author of the Mapp and Lucia novels that fictionalised Rye – but only just – as jolly, camp, Edwardian Tilling. From Lamb House I can trace the route along the narrow, pebble-cobbled roads to Watchbell Street and St Anthony’s.
The church is small; slipped into a terrace of old red brick houses on the lip of the cliffs. This is a Franciscan house and beside the church is a little Friary, home to Father Philip Doherty of the Order of Friars Minor Conventual.
The Greyfriars returned to this stretch of coast a century ago, reviving a tradition that was uprooted at the Reformation, and fanning the flames of Catholic revival in an area that still celebrates the Protestant martyrs in bonfire parades each November.
But while the Catholic tradition here might have been forced underground, it had not died. As the church guidebook tells: “Some of St Anthony’s congregation are direct descendents of a handful of people who kept the Old Faith alive here in the early 1800s. During penal times, Rye's fishermen smuggled priests to and from France.”
Fr Philip introduces me to two senior members of his congregation. Miss Audrey Hatter and Mrs Sheila Miller are sisters who have lived in Rye all their lives. Their father was a fisherman and their mother Irish, and a nurse.
“Physically, the town has changed hardly at all,” says Sheila, “but in terms of the people it has changed a great deal. There are so many visitors now – they are here all the year. And the shops; now there are lots of tea shops and gift shops, hardly any ordinary stores.
Audrey recalls Catholic life. “Social life tended to revolve around the big houses of the rich Catholic families,” she says. “They would have fetes and garden parties that all the Catholics would go to.”
In their grandfather’s time, Rye’s now highly prized Norman and Jacobean houses were fisherman’s cottages, and a row of four or five could be bought for a few score pounds.
It was the arrival of artists and writers that made Rye fashionable, and increasingly expensive.
Radclyffe Hall, the lesbian Catholic author of The Well of Loneliness, scandalised Rye when she set up home here in the Thirties with her lover Mabel Batten, a former mistress of Edward VII.
Audrey remembers her: “We thought ‘what an odd couple’. They had to make quite an entrance when they came into Mass. I was only eight or nine and I thought them very odd. She wore a trilby – a man’s hat. She gave a rood cross to the church.”
The Byzantine Rood Cross is magnificent; a blaze of gold and Roman red that strikes a powerful contrast with the cool cream of the church’s simple interior.
The sisters also remember E F Benson. Benson became mayor, and was a great benefactor. His father, Edward White Benson, was archbishop of Canterbury. One brother, Arthur, wrote the words of Land of Hope and Glory and another was a Catholic priest, Monsignor Robert Hugh Benson.
Benson gave the beautiful stained glass west window to St Mary's in honour of his parents, and a north window for Arthur. He also paid for the renovation of St Mary’s organ, a gift replicated by his heroine Lucia in one of his novels.
The comedian Spike Milligan, who was periodically troubled by depression, settled in the town in the late Eighties and joined the congregation at St Anthony’s. He was often unable to attend through illness, and Father Philip recalls his predecessor telling him “I’ve taken the sacrament of the sick to that man more than to any other living soul.” He died in 2002, aged 83.
On Spike’s grave stone is a Gaelic inscription that translates as: “I told you I was ill.” Although his funeral was at St Anthony’s, Spike is buried not in the Catholic plot of Rye’s town cemetery but across the marsh at St Thomas’s in Winchelsea.
John Kilroy, another of Fr Philip’s parishioners, tells me Spike wanted to be buried there because he could see the church from Carpenters, his house on the outskirts of Rye.
The Prince of Wales sent a wreath of white roses with a hand-written card that read: "For Dear Spike, in grateful and affectionate memory."
Fr Philip celebrates the Greyfriars’ ancient connection with Winchelsea annually, with a mass in their ruined friary, which now stands in the grounds of a private house in Friars Road.
St Anthony’s was only the second Franciscan house to open in England during the refoundation. Key in this was the wealthy Sedley family, who came to Rye from Malta in 1906, bringing with them a Franciscan, Father Bonaventure Scebberas, as their chaplain. In 1910 Fr Bonaventure accepted the church of St Walburga, Rye. St Anthony’s replaced its Gothic forerunner in 1929, when the first church became too small.
After the Catholic Emancipation Act, the first parish stretched from Margate to Hastings, says Fr Philip, and the priest toured it on horseback. Early Masses were said in the house of a fisherman called James Head in 1847, on a bureau that now stands in the hallway of his Friary, and bears a commemorative plaque.
Father Philip is new to the parish – he has been here a matter of months - but he has known Rye for many years. Before becoming a parish priest in 1976 he taught at the Greyfriars’ school – later a seminary - in Canterbury.
In the early 70s he would co-celebrate mass at the Pontin’s holiday camp at Camber Sands and get a congregation of 300 in high summer. They were allowed to keep the collection, which was considerable. The Franciscans had a house at Winchelsea Beach, another big holiday area, and mass would be celebrated here too. “The place would be packed,” Fr Philip recalls. “People in the kitchen, in the garden, vaguely hearing Mass.”
His earlier parishes were in the industrial north of England – he is from Bradford – and he finds his Rye parishioners friendly, but more reserved. “You can’t cold call people in the south,” he says. “In the north you can just knock on the door and be welcomed in. You can’t do that here.” But, he stresses, Rye parishioners are close-knit, active and supportive.
Not that there aren’t challenges. “There are two problems in Rye – we have no Catholic school and the valuable housing stock means families can’t afford to live in the town.
“We don’t have a meeting hall – just this room. You can’t run a modern parish from a house like this.”
I say farewell to Fr Philip and his parishioners, and head down to Rye Harbour in search of the sea that has left the focal point of this seaside parish high and dry.
If you can see everything from the crows nest, then it follows that Rye itself can be seen from everywhere. And, sure enough, from the trim little docks where the Rother joins the English Channel, you can easily make out St Anthony of Padua, an unshakeable Catholic presence successfully replanted in the town’s silhouette.
The north sea has been nibbling at it for 500 years, gradually claiming almost all of what some see as a 14th century city to rival London. Today, a town that had eight churches, five houses of religious orders and three chapels, is 50 feet beneath the waves and up to a mile off the Suffolk coast.
All that is left – on dry land – of the town where St Felix is believed to have reintroduced Christianity to East Anglia in the 630s, is one street with a pub and a museum, the cliff-top ruins of the Greyfriars friary, and the church of St James; a Victorian reclamation of stone from subsumed churches that stands alongside the 800-year-old ruins of a leper chapel.
Dunwich is nothing less than England’s Atlantis and, despite the fact that there is almost nothing left to see, attracts thousands of visitors.
The village is one of eight Church of England parishes that come under the sway of Revd Canon Richard Ginn, and he is very conscious of its appeal: “Dunwich draws people. It is a place of boundaries, not just that between land and sea but between past and present. There is a sense here in which time erodes the human story, and people find it an interesting place to be and to contemplate in.”
Despite its diminished state, Dunwich is still a community. When I visit, the church has just held a flower festival with the apposite theme of Living Water.
I find Dunwich a powerfully evocative place. I accept an invitation in a leaflet I pick up in the church to stand facing the ruined chapel of the leper colony and imagine I am standing at the west end of a long, now removed hall. On either side of the hall are rough open cubicles, housing a dozen men on one side, 12 women on the other. Their cubicles are open so that they can see into the sanctuary of the chapel, and participate in worship.
Dunwich has had its distinguished visitors down the ages. Henry James declared: “I defy anyone, at desolate, exquisite Dunwich, to be disappointed in any way.” Turner painted it and Daniel Defoe saw it as “a testimony of the decay of publick things.”
Mr Ginn gives me an example of others who have been drawn here.
“A lady said to me ‘Oh I don’t go to church, my church is Dunwich beach, there is a certain spot there where I find I like to contemplate.’ So I asked her to describe the exact spot and was able to say “That’s where All Saints church once stood.
“There is a story of bells being heard ringing from the churches on the sea bed. Now I haven’t heard this from a living soul and I certainly haven’t heard them myself. As far as I’m aware the bells were removed before the churches toppled, but I have read two accounts of travels in desert regions, one of the singing sands in which the shape of the dunes causes the wind to make a sound like singing, and the other in Thesiger where he talks of sand that makes a sound like church bells. I wonder whether at a certain point in the erosion the cliff was shaped in such a way that the wind made that bell sound.”
All Saints has been key to another of those for whom Dunwich has great resonance. Stuart Bacon is a marine archaeologist and director of Suffolk Underwater Studies. As a seven-year old in the 1940s, he was picnicking with his family on some rocks that where about to crumble into the sea, and he asked what they were.
“My family just had very little idea,” Stuart recalls. But, living just down the coast at Benjamin Britten’s Aldeburgh, his boy’s imagination and curiosity was whetted.
“I never forgot and when I was in my teens I found out that this was the remains of one of the churches of Dunwich, a city to rival London, the fifth largest port in the country, which traded as far afield as Iceland and exported wool and grain and imported fish, furs, timber and wine.”
As an adult, Stuart qualified as a diver in order to explore Dunwich. “I first dived on it in 1971 and have been doing so ever since. There isn’t a day when I don’t talk to someone or do something connected with Dunwich.
“My mother used to say ‘you were born in the cottage hospital on the seafront with the window open and a gale blowing and that’s when you became hooked on the sea’.”
For three decades, armed with a map of Dunwich from 1587 that has proved remarkably accurate, Stuart has explored this underwater marvel.
“It’s pitch black at times - today it would be. You go by feel and sound, you strike things. I found Roman bronze cannon by striking them - they boom.”
With the help of his map, Stuart sought to discover key landmarks, and in 1973 he found the ruins of one church, St Peter’s, which was taken by the sea 200 years ago.
“We had the map and we took a rope and measured and found that the remains fitted the map.
“When I dive on some of the churches I get a very strong sensation. I’ve been to almost every East Anglian church and the feeling you get in each is different. At some of the churches on the seabed I have had similarly strong sensations.
“I sit and watch my bubbles, then I stop breathing and listen. In the silence I get a very intense feeling of I don’t know what. I also get it in certain dry land churches.”
Stuart is about to get a much clearer picture of Dunwich – one that does not depend on touch to make it real. He has teamed up with Southampton University scientists who, armed with the latest thermal imaging equipment, which can map buildings beneath the silt, will spend the summer surveying the seabed, and create a 3D image of the ruins of this lost city.
A model in Dunwich’s museum gives a vivid picture of what was once here. There in miniature are the grand Preceptory of the Knights Templar – similar to the Temple Church in London - and the houses of the Benedictines and Dominicans. Lines painted across the model date the relentless march of the sea.
I take a walk to the Franciscans’ friary – a rather sorry ruin swathed in orange plastic building-site tape that sits in a field close to the cliff, nuzzled by cows. Until recently the bones from the graveyard stuck ghoulishly from the pale sandy cliffs.
Drowned Dunwich is fascinating, but what of the living village? Mr Ginn sees the threat to it not just from the sea but more immediately from the desirability of Dunwich for wealthy second home owners.
“One of the difficulties with Dunwich is the number of houses that are no longer lived in full time. About half the total of roughly 120 houses are either second homes or accommodation for rent, so that means the community is quite stretched to do all the things a community must do to survive. But we are very fortunate in Dunwich. We get help from other villages, they have to work together, they have become micro communities and they have to help each other in order to retain their identities.
“Dunwich has an active church that is cared for and loved. It’s made up to look much older than its age - it was built in the 1830s - but because it is alongside the 12th century leper chapel there is an immediate link with the past.
“There is a congregation of about 15 but it was 60 last Sunday when a neighbouring village - Westleton - cancelled its service and everyone went to Dunwich.”
Westleton is Mr Ginn’s home. He came here from London in 1985, with his wife Linda, a former nurse who is now part of the ministry team as the parish nurse.
“Parish nurses don’t actually treat the sick but, as medical provision retreats – we often have to travel a long way to a doctor’s surgery – they play a vital role. The parish nurse is there when someone is frightened and alone. They can help the individual or the family that is affected by the illness of one of its members.”
So there is Dunwich, drawing together in faith to cope with modern life – and occasionally looking over its shoulder at the approaching sea.
But inside the most northerly Catholic church on the British mainland, with its bright white paint and warm pine panelling, things are decidedly more welcoming.
After Friday morning mass Fr John Allen invites the small congregation next door to the parish house, for coffee and biscuits.
We carry yellow plastic boxes packed with nativity figures that will be taken to Our Lady and St Joseph’s church at Kirkwall on Orkney, which suffered a flood last year.
A handsome pipe organ is squeezed into the hall of the parish house, and the living room is dominated by a second – plus a grand piano. We sit and chat in the conservatory, while a hefty gull gazes at us hungrily from the patio as we munch our biscuits.
“The organs are a project of mine,” says Fr John. “You need a winter project and I brought these with me with the idea of installing them in two of the churches. But there is no tradition of organ music here - the fiddle and accordion are the traditional instruments - so I decided to put them together in the house. I did organ building for five years after school.”
Fr John is actually a priest of the diocese of Arundel and Brighton. “I came here for four weeks, just to help out,” he says. “That was 10 years ago!”
He stayed because he is very much needed. Priests are in short supply in the region – a problem for all denominations.
The move happened by chance. Fr John, in the area visiting family, was invited to a dinner to mark the 40th anniversary of the ordination of the Diocese of Aberdeen’s Bishop Mario Conti – whose parish this once was, and who is now Archbishop of Glasgow. After dinner they spoke and the bishop mentioned the difficulty of finding priests, and of how he had had the loan of one from another diocese. “I said talk to Cormac, [Cardinal Cormac Murphy O’Connor was then Bishop of Arundel and Brighton] he might lend you a priest.
“When I got home the phone was ringing and it was Cormac: ‘I understand you want to go to Scotland’ he said. I believe that vocation is not up to the individual; that you should go where you are needed, so I came.”
Thurso is only half of this seaside parish. The mother church, St Joachim’s, is at Wick, 20 miles around the north eastern peak of the mainland. Both churches – which between them venerate the mother and father of the Virgin Mary - were built in response to the arrival of industry, and with it an influx of Catholics in this overwhelmingly Protestant area.
St Joachim, which dates from 1836, was built because of an annual invasion of many hundreds for the six-week herring harvest. But the herrings are long gone, and so is the need for labourers to gut and cure them.
St Anne’s was dedicated in 1960, shortly after the commissioning of the UK’s first nuclear reactor at Dounreay, eight miles to the west of Thurso. With its congregation outnumbering Wick’s three to one, the priest moved here, to a house and parish church built on one of the new estates put up for Dounreay workers.
But the decision was taken in 2001 to close Dounreay, and all that goes on there now is the long process of decommissioning.
Not that Fr John’s work is diminishing. He is also looking after the Orkneys, which we can see from his living room window once the morning mist begins to clear.
He has overseen the 15 months of work it has taken to restore Our Lady and St Joseph’s in the Orcadian capital of Kirkwall which, together with the parish house, was flooded in 2007. Also in his care is the Italian Chapel, on the island of Lamb Holm, built by Italian prisoners captured in North Africa in 1942 and brought to the Orkneys to work building causeways between the islands. They fashioned their camp chapel from a Nissen hut, but ornately embellished and decorated it.
So a weekend timetable for Fr John begins in Thurso with vigil mass at 6.30 on Saturday, followed by a 9am Mass on Sunday. Then it is over to Wick for Mass at 11, followed by a ferry ride to Orkney.
“On Orkney I have a 3.30 mass at the Italian Chapel during the tourist season, and then mass at St Magnus’s Cathedral – I’ve been saying Mass there while the church at Kirkwall is being repaired. St Magnus’s is now run by Orkney Islands Council and all denominations can use it.
“Then, not every Sunday, but I have regular masses at the three out of four chapels that are still used on other islands.”
A retired priest, Fr Ronnie Walls, will say a Sunday morning mass at Kirkwall once the church is reopened.
Fr John travels some 170 miles each Sunday, and must stay on Orkney overnight. If the weather turns bad he can be stuck on the islands. “I was once stranded on Orkney for four days, and there have been seven occasions in the past year I’ve been there at least two days.”
Once a month there is also a Mass at Talmine near Tongue, an outpost two thirds of the way along Scotland’s northern coast.
As we leave the day has brightened, the sun is out and the closest Orkney island, Hoy, can be seen clearly across the sparkling waters.
We take a leisurely route from Thurso to Wick, along the coast of this stunning seaside parish, taking in Dunstan Head, the most northerly point on the British mainland, and Castle Mey, once the holiday home of the Queen Mother, now run as a trust by Prince Charles, who visits each August.
In Wick we step inside St Joachim’s, which has the constraint of a non-conformist chapel. The story of St Joachim's is a remarkable one, told in a booklet on sale at the church.
The site was donated to Fr Walter Lovi for his help during a Cholera epidemic. Fr Lovi arrived in the town in 1832 and found “a kind of latent dread of old popery” which meant no one would rent him a place for Mass.
Many of the casual workers who formed Fr Lovi’s congregations came from Ireland and the West coast of Scotland, and had trekked for 15 days across the country.
He found much need of his presence, reporting: “The herring fishing has increased wealth but also wickedness. No care is taken of the 10,000 young strangers of both sexes who are crowded together with the inhabitants in the narrow streets of Wick during the six weeks of the fishing, when they are exposed to drink and every kind of temptation.”
When cholera struck, many workers fled, and the curers faced ruin. But Fr Lovi persuaded all the Catholics to remain. He was at the hospital constantly, helping the few nurses who had been bribed to stay.
Suddenly the town’s view of him changed radically: “I am blessed and caressed and even kissed by the people as I go along the streets – I am called more often than the doctors.”
He was given the choice of every vacant plot in the town on which to build a church, and in four years had achieved his goal. But outside the fishing season there were no parishioners, and until 1860 the church was only used for six weeks each summer.
Then came a period of great optimism, when St Joachim became the administrative centre of the Arctic Missions, which included Iceland, the Faroes, Greenland, Lapland and part of Hudson Bay. An imposing school was built adjoining the church, and a Belgian order of nuns was to come to run it. But the nuns never arrived, the school never opened and, after six years, the centre of the Arctic Mission was transferred to Denmark.
Since then the tale of Catholic fortunes in the parish has continued to be tied to waves of immigration.
After the town went dry in 1924, Italians came to open cafes and ice cream parlours to replace the many pubs, and made up the bulk of the congregation. During the Second World War, RAF fighter bases along Scotland’s northern coast brought another wave of Catholics, and some married locals and settled.
Now, with Dounreay winding down, you might forgive Fr John if he senses a struggle ahead. Not a bit of it. He has over 200 at Mass, between Wick and Thurso, is very positive about the future, and sees opportunities in the common shortage of clergy. “Ecumenism in Thurso is very active,” he says. “A number of the churches are without ministers and I’ve offered to take services, and to carry out funerals for non-Catholics if the family doesn’t object.” The Mission continues.
Today there are two Southports. One is the grand Victorian town where, on stately
Then there is new
The pier belongs to old
But where is the sea? It’s somewhere way out beyond the end of the pier. In
In the 1870s
Much of Marshtown was burned to the ground in a forced clearance in 1902. Thirties suburbs have over-run the area, but you can still find some of the original long, low houses – familiar from rural Ireland – dotted along Shellfield Road and the streets around it, among the bay-front semis with their leaded lights.
The Irish Catholic community is still here, and it has thrived. One of those Irishmen who found work in Southport went on to
Building it was a struggle.
Fr Thomas Leigh, the parish priest, says: “It was a very poor area and a hard life. They had nothing, really, and they weren’t welcomed by some of the locals. So much so that when they came to build their own church the foundations were vandalised each night - had quick lime poured in them and so on - and they had to bring police 17 miles from
Bernard O’Malley, a parishioner from local farming stock, remembers: “This was missionary territory. They used to send the young priests as missionaries out to Banks, a couple of miles north, and one day the parish priest here got an anonymous letter saying if they went out there would be trouble. The priest showed my father the letter and my father asked for the schedule of when the priests were going out. He got all the farms where there were Irish and gathered them together and went along with the priests, and there was never a spot of trouble.”
Today, St Patrick’s is a thriving parish. Around 800 come to mass each week – 1200 at Easter and Christmas -- and, alongside the church, are a thriving parish centre and a primary school with 300 pupils.
The success is remarkable when you consider the pessimistic view of the diocese about building a church here. It was considered folly. In early years there were only a handful at
Father Tom came here in 1995, and has put a great deal of effort into making the parish what it is today. (Bernard O’Malley says: “He’s never stopped working since he got here”.) Father Tom stresses the vital importance, in contrast to those early times, of keeping the church open all day so that all who need it – Catholics, those of other faiths and none, will find a haven here.
Certainly Fr Tom did not initially grasp the task he had been set. He says: “I was at a parish called Holy Name at Fazakerley, just on the edge of the inner city in
And build a church Fr Tom did, to accommodate the much-increased congregation. It is bright and modern, with pews curved in a semi circle, and an embroidered altar back that has Christ flanked by St Patrick and a representation of one of the traditional, white-washed cottages the original Irish inhabitants of the parish lived in.
Fr Tom says: “We set out to have it ready for the Millennium and what with some money that my predecessor had been putting aside and a great fund-raising effort, we raised about £750,000 and had the church ready for Christmas Day, 1999. We did everything we could think of to raise the money: socials and dances. Everyone got a box with our logo on for what we call Slummy Money, which is the loose coins you find in your pocket at the end of the day.
“We have a carol concert on the Wednesday before Christmas and that year we began in the old church – which is still a part of the complex and now our church hall -- and half way through we all processed out of the old church, through the lobby in between that was full of cement mixers and builders’ gear, and into the new church, taking the Blessed Sacrament with us.
“Once in the new church we began to light candles and as the light came there was a gasp and I believe we brought all the warmth and prayer and the Masses that have been said in the old church into the new one. Certainly people say it is a very warm church, and often new churches can feel a little cold.”
Father Tom is a Liverpudlian, born and raised in the suburb of Litherland, in a working class family. “As a child I saw the priests - we had three - and they were wonderful men. I saw what they did in the community, helping people, and I thought I’d like to do what they are doing when I grow up, without really knowing what it was that they did.
“There are all sorts of little things that drew me to the priesthood. I remember my mother telling me that if someone was poor and hungry then the priest very quietly would make sure they were fed.
“I remember one priest ran a gala weekend each year with floats and a parade, and once seeing a priest in his shirt sleeves stoking the boiler before Mass so the church would be nice and warm when the people arrived.
“And I just thought what they did was wonderful, so I spoke to one of the priests and things went from there. I went to junior and senior seminary in
After visiting St Patrick’s I take a stroll around Marshtown. I find the original houses, a pub called The Shrimpers and, in
Our Teetotal Ship
Our ship is
Afloat on the
Broad flowing wave
You could easily say the same about St Patrick’s, with Fr Tom at the helm.