Norman church which began life in Saxon times

St Andrew's Church, Ferring
St Andrew's Church, Ferring

A report from Ferring History Group’s (FHG) latest meeting which included a talk about St Andrew’s Church.

Nobody knows more about Ferring’s parish church than David Garnett, the membership secretary of the Ferring History Group.

The lychgate at St Andrew's Church, Ferring

The lychgate at St Andrew's Church, Ferring

That’s not surprising. He’s written a guide to St Andrew’s, a Norman church which began life as a simple Saxon one and in 2015 celebrated the 1,250 years that had elapsed since its founding charter was drawn up in 765 AD.

Garnett’s guide replaces one written in 1982 by Sir Charles Cawley who retired to Ferring after serving as chief scientist at the Ministry of Power from 1959-67. In its turn, the Cawley guide replaced one written by Ferring vicar and rural dean Wilfred Reeves in 1973.

On July 26 members of the Ferring History Group converged on St Andrew’s to hear Garnett talk about the church he’s researched so exhaustively and developed a considerable affection for.

He explained that, in the charter of 765 AD, Osmund, King of the South Saxons, made a grant of land to his thane Walhere to build what it describes as a “monasterium” in Ferring.

Garnett believes it’s fair to assume that the so-called “monasterium” was built “on the rise where the present church stands which would probably already have been the meeting place of the village moot, or assembly.”

But he thinks the structure may have been a minster church serving a number of local communities rather than an actual monastery.

He noted that a second charter of 791 AD records that, “Ealdwulf, alderman of the South Saxons, with the agreement and permission of Offa, King of the English,” (who subdued Sussex in 771 AD) gave, “a little piece of wood under my jurisdiction in the place which is called Cealtborgsteal for the church of Saint Andrew which is situated in the land which is called Ferring.”

Suggesting that “Cealtborgsteal” may well have been on Highdown Hill, Garnett observed that, “the importance of this charter lies in the clear proof it provides that a church of St. Andrew in Ferring had been built by 791 AD, making it one of the oldest churches in Sussex.”

In his view it’s, “certain... that a small church called St Andrew’s, probably timber-built and thatched, had already stood in Ferring for over 275 years when William the Conqueror landed at Pevensey in 1066.”

Garnett went on to tell his listeners that with the arrival of the Normans, Ferring’s Saxon church was pulled down and in all probability replaced when Ralph de Luffa served as Bishop of Chichester from 1091 to 1123.

“Much of the original Norman building remains as part of the church today,” he observed.

Work to enlarge the chancel and build the north aisle of the church in the 12th and 13th centuries may have been carried out when Richard de Wych was Bishop of Chichester.

In his guidebook to St Andrew’s, Garnett notes that one of the miracles that led to Richard’s canonisation by Pope Urban IV in 1262 took place in Ferring.

A large crowd had flocked to the village to see the bishop (and, presumably, hear him preach) when it was discovered that there was insufficient bread to feed them all.

Richard, who was renowned for his simple, austere, holy life, then handed matters over to God, declaring (in an account quoted by Garnett): “Let all come, and the Lord will give.”

Inspired, no doubt, by the Feeding of the 5,000 when Jesus took five loaves and two small fishes and fed a multitude, the saintly bishop ensured there was more than enough bread to satisfy his hungry admirers.

Garnett reminded his listeners that, like many a Sussex church, St Andrew’s had suffered from theft over the years.

The hourglass was stolen from the hourglass stand next to the pulpit in 1978. A sketch of St Andrew’s made in 1802 vanished in 1992 and a bassoon and clarinet in a glass case disappeared in 1995. That same year a pair of silver candlesticks from the high altar were also stolen along with a silver chalice from the aumbry (a recessed cabinet in the church wall).

At least one of those attending Garnett’s talk remembered that there used to be a serpent (the bass wind instrument) in a glass case on one of the church’s pillars. Thieves appear to have claimed that, too.

Garnett remarked that St Andrew’s lost its sturdy Norman font more than a hundred years ago.

It was removed during renovations in 1886 and a new one, donated by a certain General Freemantle, erected in its place.

Garnett was less than impressed, harrumphing indignantly: “That’s the Victorians for you. Let’s get rid of it!”

After the font was replaced, it vanished. In 1935, Ferring’s vicar, Henry Copley Moyle, asked readers of the parish magazine to keep an eye out for it. Sadly, there were no sightings.

During his talk Garnett pointed out several of the moving memorial tablets in St Andrew’s. One, in white marble, commemorating Elizabeth Richardson, who died on March 22, 1752, aged 52, reads: “She was an indulgent and tender parent of exemplary piety and as she had lived so she died greatly esteemed and lamented by all her friends.”

Quite why Ferring’s parish church is dedicated to St Andrew has long puzzled parishioners.

The vexed question surfaced again during Garnett’s talk.

Ferring vicar, Rev Gary Ingram said he thought the church was so named because Ferring was a fishing village and St Andrew (the brother of St Peter) was the patron saint of fishermen.

But Ed Miller, Ferring historian and secretary of the FHG, observed that none of the archives and records he’s studied over the years referred to Ferring as a fishing village. He suggested that the difficulty of launching boats from the beach and retrieving them later was the reason fishing had never flourished in the village.

Garnett’s July 26 talk to the FHG proved particularly moving for one of those who attended it.

Stephen Webbe, who grew up in Ferring, recalled: “I went to Canon Reeves’ Sunday school in the church and attended one or two of his confirmation classes at the Vicarage.

“I even read an Easter address in the church when I was about 12.

“Then, when I was older, I helped Canon Reeves celebrate Holy Communion on Sundays. I’m not sure how a rock ’n’ roll-loving teenager and an ardent member of the combined cadet force was persuaded to wear a cassock and surplice. But I took to it and I still remember lighting the altar candles at the beginning of the service and snuffing them out when it ended, bowing to the altar every time I passed it.”

Looking back fondly at his time as a server at Holy Communion, Webbe said: “One of the moments I treasure to this day was when we returned to the vestry and Canon Reeves intoned The Chorister’s Prayer: ‘Bless, O Lord, us thy servants, who minister in thy temple. Grant that what we sing with our lips, we may believe in our hearts; and what we believe in our hearts, we may show forth in our lives. Through Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.’”

Webbe, who lived at Home Farm House with his parents and brother, recalled that Canon Reeves, “always alerted my mother when he had a wedding coming up so she wouldn’t blot out the churchyard (not to mention north Ferring) with one of her infamously smoky bonfires. I’ve always thought they must have been visible from space.”

Canon Reeves was a former oil industry geologist who held an MSc from Birmingham University and Webbe recalls that he often worked the scorching sands of Arabia into his sermons.

Webbe, who has looked into Canon Reeves’ life and career, says he served as assistant priest at the Church of the Good Shepherd in Brighton for almost four years before making a hurried entry into the army in 1939 after being called up as a chaplain to the forces.

As a captain attached to 6th Anti Aircraft Regiment, Royal Artillery, Rev Reeves was ordered to France with the British Expeditionary Force.

“David Garnett’s guidebook mentions that he was mentioned in dispatches for his service at Dunkirk,” said Webbe. “I’d love to have heard him reminisce about the hellish scenes many of us have just seen in the new Dunkirk film.”

Webbe noted that Canon Reeves devoted 28 years of his ministry to Ferring: “That was from 1945 to 1973. He wasn’t the longest serving vicar of the parish. That distinction goes to Rev Henry Dixon who served for 38 years in the 19th century. But he was one of the most energetic.

“As Rural Dean from 1958 to 1971 he was frequently to be seen in the pages of the Worthing Herald officiating at all manner of ceremonies and dedications.

“I’m sure he’d heartily approve of David Garnett’s updating of the guide he published in 1973 when he handed the baton onto Rev Rex Paterson and retired to Bexhill.”