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Stunning Sussex Frescoes, and Ghosts!

St John the Baptists Church. Clayton

Most people head to Clayton just north of Brighton to visit the distinctive Jack and Jill windmills and walk on the South Downs. But just down the hill are two remarkable Sussex curiosities: some stunning 12th century Sussex frescoes and a haunted Gothic-style Victorian tunnel.

Jack and Jill windmills. Clayton, Sussex

Stunning Sussex frescoes

St John the Baptist Church is just off the main A273 north of Clayton Hill. The church dates to the 11th century and is Grade I listed. At the time it was built, it was owned by Lewes Priory. There have been alterations over the centuries since but it provides serious pause for thought when you realise the door is from the Norman era.

St John the Baptist Church, Clayton

You don’t have to be religious to appreciate the frescoes that you find inside. Their precise age isn’t known but they are thought to be 11th century or 12th century and are some of the oldest in England. They are part of a number of Sussex frescoes painted by monks from the Priory (notable others being at Hardham near Pulborough). The Clayton frescoes depict Judgement Day but they were hidden for hundreds of years and not first re-discovered until 1893.

Sussex frescoes

Christ is featured above the main arch, with his apostles on either side. On the north wall (the side on which you enter the church) there is a procession led by bishops with angels, and the defeat of the Antichrist. On the other side of the church, you can make out one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse and another procession – but this one of the damned.

Sussex frescoes

With the sun pouring into the chancel, the paintings have a wow factor that is hard to put into words. They create a spirituality and bring time into context. You’re not far from a Roman road, and here is the vibrant, hand-painted work of someone who lived hundreds of years ago. Whilst for them it was of course all about religion, for the modern-day visitor it’s a little like stepping through a unique time portal. I know I’m not alone in feeling this because my visit was shared with a passing cyclist who was similarly in awe.

Sussex frescoes

Before you leave, take a moment to walk around the cemetery, from where you can see the Jack and Jill windmills on the Downs above.

Sussex frescoes

Clayton Tunnel

As you rejoin the A273 from the church, almost immediately opposite is Clayton Tunnel which is remarkable for a number of reasons. At 2,065 meters long, it’s the longest tunnel on the main London to Brighton line and at the time it was built (1839 to 1841) was a significant feat of engineering that many believed couldn’t be done. For reasons that are not clear, it was built in dramatic Gothic style with two turrets on either side of the entrance. Legend has it that this may have been because the owner of the land it was built on insisted that it looked notable. And it certainly does. The architect was one David Mocatta who also designed the Ouse Valley Viaduct.

Clayton Tunnel

Apart from its dramatic looks which feel completely at odds with the surroundings, it’s also famous for its many ghost stories. These are in part due to the fact that the tunnel was the scene of a terrible accident in 1861. Having signalled one train into the tunnel, the signalman failed to signal stop to a second train that then entered the tunnel. However, the signalman had unknowingly attracted the second driver’s attention by waving a red flag and this second driver started to reverse out. With terrible consequences, the signalman then mistook a message from the north end as indicating the tunnel was clear and as a result, he allowed a third train into the tunnel which collided with the second reversing train, killing 23 and injuring many others.

Tales of ghosts

It’s perhaps unsurprising that there are so many ghost stories about the tunnel and these have particularly been told by residents of the little house that sits between the two turrets.  There are many tales of blood-curdling screams and footsteps. One resident whose family lived here from 1956 describes the sound of fingers drumming on a table, the silhouette of a man and a white lady. A nearby field where the bodies from the crash were laid is also reported to be haunted. Apart from the victims of the crash, the hauntings are thought to be by a  man who died in the tunnel while sheltering from a storm and one of the railway gangers.

Jack and Jill windmills

Once you’ve explored these two curiosities, either pop to the Jack and Jill Inn next to the tunnel or visit the windmills themselves and enjoy the views.

If you like this post about these stunning frescoes and ghosts, you may also like:

Wow’d By Sussex Frescoes

Strange Tales of Old Sussex – Ghosts, Murder & Smugglers!


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