This was a day that didn’t go to plan. Our new policy of using a more relaxed and greener form of transport by travelling by train, instead of car, ran into the buffers. We had originally planned to go by Southwest Trains to Sherborne Abbey in Dorset, but the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers decided that the month of December would be a good time to bring their train drivers out on strike and so we had to come up with a plan B. Fortunately the good men of the Southern Railway had a more compassionate regard to the public during this month of peace and goodwill and their services were running as normal. And so we searched our guidebooks for a suitable destination along their line from Southampton to Brighton and came across Lancing College Chapel. It was a pleasant enough journey, trundling along the aging rail-track laid down in the 1840’s that follows the south coast through such towns as Chichester, Angmering, Goring-by-Sea and Worthing. This is not a high speed railway but, to my mind, all the more pleasant, with its contrasting views of both the sea and the beautiful South Downs rising up to the north. After 90 minutes we arrived in Lancing which had the air of a town that had seen better days. We walked past the usual charity and betting shops but then had the good fortune to come across Cornucopia, a bakery/coffee house. Excellent coffee, charming mother and daughter management and indulgent home baking which I voraciously enjoyed whilst BQ resisted, clearly occupying the high ground. The ladies kindly called a taxi for us which arrived in minutes and soon we were gazing up at the mightily impressive Lancing College Chapel.
It is impossible not to feel a sense of awe when arriving at the Chapel. It is vast. Not only is it the largest school chapel in the world but, with a nave reaching to 90 feet, its height is only surpassed by Westminster Abbey and York Minster. It is considered one of the finest examples of 19th century architecture in Britain. But what I find astonishing is that this magnificent edifice was constructed not to meet the spiritual needs of the residents of a town or city but as a place of worship for the pupils and staff of the adjacent school; although I see that the original intention was that it should act as the mother church of all of the independent schools founded by the Woodard Corporation.
In 1868 construction of the building commenced with the laying of the 70 feet deep foundations – an unusual depth due to underlying chalk and the anticipated weight of the soaring structure above. Although the chapel was dedicated in 1911, it was not complete. A planned 350 foot tower had to be abandoned and work on the west end of the building suspended. It would be another 36 years before a new design for the west end was commissioned and then a further 31 years before the west wall and its magnificent rose window was dedicated. Even so, to this day the chapel is still incomplete as can be seen by the exposed brickwork around the entrance. However, during our visit I was assured that the stone facing and the arches that will form a new entrance will finally be completed by the end of 2020. Surely, at over 150 years from start to finish this must rank as one of England’s longest-running building projects.
The unfinished west wall exterior as it is now and an artists impression of how it will appear by the end of 2020. God Willing!
In 1848 Canon Nathaniel Woodard, the curate of the nearby town of Shoreham-by-Sea, put forward the idea that the country needed more – and less exclusive – independent schools with a strong religious emphasis based around the Book of Common Prayer and, following these principles, he founded the College of St Mary and St Nicolas, which eventually became Lancing College. In his lifetime Nathaniel Woodard founded a total of eleven independent schools and acquired a number of others. They were to be known as Woodard Schools
Originally the pupils of Lancing College were exclusively boys who all boarded, but in 1971 girls were also admitted. Currently there are approximately 550 pupils between the ages of 13 and 18 of which 65% are boarders at a cost of £33,000 per year.
The stunning interior of the nave is brightly lit from the unusually tall clerestory windows. The floor is of Portland stone salvaged from a ship that was wrecked off Shoreham in the 1870’s.
The high altar was inscribed with golden Christian symbols to mark the second millennium. The silver cross dates from 1490 and was donated by Martin Gibbs, a former pupil who became one of Woodard’s most devoted supporters. He contributed generously to the chapel as well as paying for the building of Great School and other parts of the Upper Quad, part of which is known as Gibbs’ House. Incidentally, to this day, new arrivals at Gibbs’ House are known as ‘Gibboons’ and are carefully mentored by the senior boys.
The west wall, finally completed in 1978. Pride of Lancing Chapel is the spectacular rose window which, with a width of 32 ft, makes it the largest in England. The stone tracery which encloses 30,000 separate pieces of glass weighs 52 tons – truly remarkable statistics. It was dedicated by the Archbishop of Canterbury in the presence of Prince Charles.
Detail of the intricate design of the rose window. The 16 trefoils at the outer edge of the window contain designs showing the arms of all of the Woodard Corporation schools that contributed to the cost of the window. The adjacent triangular trefoils contain the arms of the dioceses in which the schools are situated.
The south aisle which leads to the Saint Nicholas Chapel and the Founder’s Chantry.
In the Founder’s Chantry on a slab of Sussex marble lies the bronze figure of the man who inspired so many excellent centres of learning, Nathaniel Woodard.
The Huddleston Memorial window, dedicated in 2007 by Desmond Tutu in memory of Bishop Trevor Huddleston who attended Lancing College in the 1920’s. He was known for his strong anti-apartheid views. Nelson Mandela said of him ‘No white person has done more for South Africa than Trevor Huddleston’.
The War Memorial Cloister built between the wars by the last of the resident college masons. The white limestone plaques are inscribed with the names of over 400 ex-students and college staff who fell during the various 2Oth century hostilities.
Toto Restaurant, Lancing
We were not spoiled for choice when researching a decent eatery in Lancing and entered the Toto Restaurant at the head of an uninspiring shopping mall without high hopes. However, we were most pleasantly surprised, the quality of the food was only exceeded by the friendliness of the staff and the warmth of our welcome. As our Italian patron bade us farewell it was though he was saying goodbye to much loved family members. A definite recommend!
It was fitting that we visited this chapel just before the election as I imagined that by the end of the week it was possible that Jeremy Corbyn would have plans to convert the existing school into a comprehensive. However, it was not to be and these buildings will continue to dominate the landscape for at least another five years. In my working life, during the many years of travelling along the A27 at night, this eerie gothic structure usually illuminated in a hideous orange glow would put the fear of God into me, no doubt achieving its object. My unease would not be relieved until I saw the friendly John Sainsbury sign on the outskirts of Worthing.
Now, as we alighted from the station, there it was again dominating the humble and friendly peasants below reminiscent of a famous novel set in the Balkans. From this preamble I hope it has become clear that, if there is one period of church building which I do not like, it is the neo-gothic revival . A movement that was an answer by the church to the non-conformity which was rife in the country. It represented both a philosophical and Catholic change based on original medieval architecture. I have always regarded it as pretentious, a word which fits effortlessly into the description of the largest school chapel in the world, and the largest rose window. At the age of sixteen my favourite writer was Evelyn Waugh who, whilst a pupil at Lancing College, wrote in his diary that he would speak ‘against’ in a debate that proposed ‘That this house is of the opinion that the nineteenth century Gothicist revival may be justified by the school buildings’.
Our visit coincided with the younger pupils rehearsing for the carol service, and the amplified recitation of the events at Bethlehem which resonated around this vast structure thankfully restored my humanity. It made me aware that the building was conceived and built around this humble moment in a stable, and was as relevant here as it would be in more modest surroundings. With my focus restored I looked again and found an awesome majesty in the narrow lofty interior which constantly drew my eyes upward. Whilst MW retreated to do his external shots I sheltered on this cold morning against the heating pipes that ran along the length of the building and thought of how many school children had done the same. In the front of every pupil there was a pamphlet setting out the form of services and responses for Advent and every place was assigned to one of the various houses. The raised side aisle seats were reserved for the staff and, in overlooking the pupils there was not much room for hanky-panky. This must represent the perfect template for Victorian values and discipline, and yet by the entrance to the crypt is the window dedicated to the memory of former pupil Trevor Huddlestone , the Bishop who did more to defeat apartheid than any other European.
Finally after much delay in the freezing wind the taxi arrived to take us back down the hill to civilisation, and the welcome heat of Toto’s Italian restaurant where a very welcome warming pasta was consumed before boarding the train home.
- Garlic Mushrooms with olive oil, garlic, white wine, parsley BQ
- Polpette al Ragù; meatballs, Parmesan cheese, eggs, tomato sauce, garlic MW
- Linguine al Granchio with crab, garlic, olive oil, cherry tomatoes, parsley, white wine. BQ
- Gnocchi Spada e Melanzane with swordfish, aubergine, cherry tomatoes, basil, white wine, garlic, olive oil. MW
- House Merlot BQ & MW