Sitting a short distance back from the A285 south of Petworth is a pretty little church. It’s not really in a village or surrounded by houses (although it’s part of the Upwaltham hamlet), and just stands alone, in its own space, like something from Little House on the Prairie. I’ve often wanted to stop, but the A285 can be a busy road, and often, you’ve already gone past by the time you’ve had a chance to think.
12th century beginnings
Built in the early 12th century, St Mary’s The Virgin of Upwaltham was a drovers’ church (those that drove cattle to market) and although there have been a few alterations (and some repairs following lottery funding in 2018), little has changed since it was built. It has a distinctive apsidal chancel (semi-circular) which is rare in Sussex which adds to its charm and is sometimes described as the “church in the field”. You approach it by little more than a rough track.
Not far from the South Downs Way, the church is now part of the Four Nations Memorial Walk that commemorates WWII plane crashes. That’s because this quiet little corner of Sussex was the site of not one, but two WWII tragedies. In February 1944, a Lancaster bomber crashed into a nearby hill killing all eight on board. Locals who rushed to the scene, showed great bravery, dragging the pilot from the plane with exploding ammunition all around, but sadly he died later in hospital. The oldest on board was 52, and the youngest, a Canadian of just 20.
Tragedy strikes again
A year later (almost to the day) in February 1945, an American Dakota also crashed nearby killing everyone on board. It’s believed that the plane flew in low over the Channel, in heavy cloud, not realising they’d made landfall. It would appear the pilot made a last ditched and desperate attempt to bank sharply and avoid a collision with the hill. Of the seven on board, the oldest known passenger was 32, and the youngest on board was only 22.
There is now a memorial plaque and an information booklet in the church which shares what little is known about those that died. It won’t take you long to visit St Mary’s but it’s a haunting and beautiful reminder of the sacrifices others have made.
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