If you live in or visit West Sussex, you know Lancing Chapel. You will have seen it towering over the landscape near Lancing, Shoreham and Bramber and you may have even been able to make out its outline from much further afield. The Chapel is one of the tallest interior-vaulted churches in the UK with an apex 27.4m above the floor. Not forgetting the lower floor and the foundations, this gives you an idea of its enormity. And standing on top of the South Downs, it can create a formidable impression on a bleak winter’s day.
The beginnings of an institution
The story of Lancing Chapel really begins at the site of a blue plaque on the wall of an old house in Shoreham not far from the church. This announces that it was once home to Nathanial Woodard, a man on a mission.
Woodard was the curate at St Mary de Haura Church in New Shoreham. Acutely aware of the terrible poverty that existed at the time in Shoreham, he went on to found a number of schools for the middle classes. In Sussex, these include Lancing, Ardingly and Hurstpierpoint.
He started the first school in Shoreham, but when a farm came up for sale on the Downs (the site of Lancing College now) a bigger vision started to take shape. And to say it was an ambitious vision for its day is an understatement. Woodard has been described as having a genius for raising funds, and having ensured the school was built, the first foundation stone for the Chapel was laid in 1868. Woodard was also determined to save our souls and the impressive Chapel was to act as a beacon of Christian worship.
The story of the long build
In the event, the completion of the Chapel took 154 years. If you ever get the chance to speak to Friends of Lancing Chapel and in particular, Jeremy Tomlinson, do, because he has an encyclopedic knowledge of the trials and tribulations that followed the laying of the first stone which I couldn’t possibly do justice to. Jeremy Tomlinson worked at Lancing College for 41 years as a teacher of English, Head of Drama, Housemaster, Senior Master and Registrar. He is now Steward of the Chapel.
But to give you an idea of the scale of the project, the Chapel was first designed by R.H. Carpenter and William Slater and also included the design of a tower, the foundations of which were laid (and can still be seen) although the tower was never complete. The foundations of the Chapel took five years to build and are 60 foot (18 metres) deep. Some of the material used in these was shingle and stone transported up from the beach, whilst the material chosen for the Chapel itself was Sussex sandstone from Scaynes Hill. It’s worth taking a moment to digest what a phenomenal task lugging the materials uphill to the site must have been and Sussex sandstone is a notoriously difficult stone to work with and maintain as it is porous and crumbly.
But in due course, the building of the Chapel started at one end (the east) and progressed slowly towards the other. This was at the insistence of Woodard so that should he die before it was complete, they couldn’t cut costs by reducing the height of the building.
There are photos and drawings in the archives that show Lancing Chapel being built. But constant challenges including a lack of funds and structural issues meant that years turned to decades without it being completed, and I suspect that wrangling and negotiating over suitable alternative designs have become an art form for those involved. The crypt was finished in 1875, and the school used it to worship from then until 1911 when the upper chapel was finally complete. But even then, the west end was not finished and instead was boarded up with a vast sheet of corrugated that remained in place until after WWII.
As an aside, when you enter the Chapel, you may pay little attention to the rows of wooden chairs. But you should. When the upper Chapel was completed in 1911, the pupils were invited to buy a chair. These chairs. But all those chairs that were bought by a pupil who did not return from WWI are now marked with a disc. Reflecting on this creates one of those spine-tingling moments of poignancy.
The west wall was finally constructed between 1960 and 2017, and between 2020 and 2021, the west end of the chapel was finally completed with a three-arched porch designed by Michael Drury. The Founder’s great-great grandson, Jolyon Woodard, topped out the north buttress on 25 May 2021. The porch has since won a Sussex Heritage Trust award and in fact, the west wall and rose window won the same award in 1978. It has also won the Sussex Heritage Trust Award for New Ecclesiastical Building.
Take a moment
The Chapel is in the Medieval Gothic Revival style with French influences. It is a Grade I listed building and believed to be the largest school chapel in the world. It’s juxtaposed with Lancing College which is also an impressively beautiful construction.
It has a 32 ft rose window which is the largest rose window built since the Middle Ages. It was built in 1977 by James Longley Construction, one of Sussex’s most renowned building companies which operated from 1863 to 2020, and who were also involved in the building of Christ’s Hospital near Horsham.
At the opposite end to the entrance, in the apse, are 1930s tapestries designed by Amy Chilston and woven on the William Morris looms. The Chapel also has a stained glass window consecrated by Desmond Tutu on 22 May 2007. The chapel has three organs and as perhaps you might expect, Nathaniel Woodard’s tomb is in the Chapel
But above all else, the chapel has the wow factor, and you do not have to be religious to be rendered in awe. Look up. From the moment you arrive to when you enter through the newly completed porch. Look at the beautifully painted roof inside the porch, at the symmetry of the vaulted ceiling, and at the incredible woodwork. Look back at the rose window and the organ. Go down into the crypt. Lancing Chapel has a sense of the magnificent.
Standing in the nave, you feel like you’ve slipped out of the Sussex landscape, and been transported to some grand European Medici-esq master structure. As was the founder Woodard’s wish, it does inspire you to aspire. And regardless of religion, it takes you to a spiritual place. So next time you see it towering down from the South Downs, deviate a little, and spend a moment discovering one of the great wonders of Sussex!
The Chapel reopened to visitors in April 2022 and is open to the public daily throughout the year from 10 am to 4 pm, and 12 noon to 4 pm on Sundays and Bank Holidays (closed on Christmas Day, Boxing Day, New Year’s Day, Good Friday & Easter Sunday). It continues to cost an enormous amount to maintain, and although entry is free, you are invited to make a donation to the Friends of Lancing Chapel. The Friends of Lancing Chapel is a charity completely independent of the school. It cooperates with the Lancing Chapel Trust, the charity which owns the chapel building, and maintains close contact with Lancing College and Woodard Schools.
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