Just east of Chichester (and so small if you blink, you’ll miss it) is the hamlet of Merston. It was listed in the Domesday Book in 1086 and at that time had 16 households and three mills. By 1661, the population had flourished to 79! The reason for my visit here was a heritage sign to St Giles Church (St Giles pops up all over Sussex. He lived between 650 and about 710 and is the patron saint of lepers but I haven’t managed to establish whether he ever actually came to Sussex).
This tiny Grade I listed church dates back to the 13th century and possibly earlier. It has a 12th century font, a 17th century porch, a tiny door and a 19th century belfry. The seating is described as of “outstanding national historic interest” and dates to the mid 19th century. There used to be elms at the start of the churchyard but they have long gone and the church is currently closed for repairs. There is a small building next to it, which has been both a stable and a 19th century schoolhouse, and now describes itself as a studio which you can view by appointment. I hadn’t made an appointment but I am intrigued.
The graveyard extends behind the church and is worth a visit if you’re passing. The first reason to visit is that it is home to a descension of woodpeckers (yes, that is the collective noun for woodpeckers) and if you approach quietly as we did, the sight of 15 or more woodpeckers in flight is quite remarkable.
The sad Sussex tale of the Ides
Of the dozen or so gravestones, there are two that immediately stand out as bigger and bolder than the others. Strangely, someone has clearly attempted to clean them recently albeit that they are now some 200 years old. They belong to Henry and Mary Ide who died in the early 19th century and for reasons that will become clear, I wanted to know more about this couple.
I haven’t been very successful in tracking them down but what I have learnt is this: Ide is an Anglo-Saxon name and there are (or were) lots of Ides living in this area in centuries past. Henry and Mary married in 1778 in nearby Tangmere but Mary appears to have been illiterate as she signed her name on the register with just an M. This seems strange, given the size and grandeur of their headstones. I dug some more, and Henry appears to have been churchwarden for a while, but I could find out no more about how they seem to have made the transition from humble beginnings to prestigious gravestone owners.
But what is truly tragic and remarkable about Mary and Henry is the three gravestones that stand next to theirs: those of their son Henry, who died aged 5 months, their daughter Harriet who died aged 15, and their daughter Sarah who died two years later aged 22. I may never uncover the full story of the Ides and whether they had other children who survived. Mary was quite clearly a bit younger than her husband and outlived him by some years. But you can’t help but ache a little for the pain she and her husband must have suffered. It’s a sad tale but perhaps one of those strange tales of Old Sussex that should not be forgotten.
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