Tortington – Church of St Mary Magdalene

“On the Road Again” In the words of Jimmy Nelson we have ventured out of isolation to seek the “‘Beakheads”, but more of that anon. All churches are now open, but wisely only for prayer, and the disruption caused by our probing would not be welcome. Thankfully our dear friends, the Churches Preservation Trust have come to our rescue and have opened all their redundant churches between the hours of 10.00 to 16.00 daily. As we have found in the past (Privett and The Sombornes) this is a treasure chest of rare jewels and support of this charity is highly recommended.

Tortington lies just south of Arundel on that fertile plain between the South Downs and the sea. MW’s driving was exemplary on the M27, scrupulously adhering to the new 50mph speed limit, but in lanes temporarily narrowed during the conversion to a ‘Smart’ motorway, sitting in the passenger seat was unnerving as vast lorries passed close by.

Founded in the 12th century to serve both a priory and the villagers, it appears little changed apart from a 19th century restoration The flint and Caen stone building was used for worship until 1978 when it was declared redundant . Set close to a farm and surrounded by open tilled fields it is a perfect eerie spot for the ‘’grotesque bug eyed monsters to dwell in the original carvings on the chancel arch and porch. BQ

The church was erected close to Tortington Priory, a medieval Augustinian monastery, and served a small agricultural community known as the Torthta people. The hamlet is mentioned in the Domesday Book, but there is no mention of the church which was built in the 12th century. Surprisingly, despite subsequent alterations, little has been changed and the church presents a perfect example of sympathetic adaptation through the centuries.

This lovely porch erected around 1140 just shouts its Norman provenance. What craftsmanship and carvings are on show in this humble hamlet, and here we get the first indication of the bug-eyes which will dominate the chancel arch.

In this picture one’s eye is drawn imperceptibly toward the chancel arch which is again clearly Norman, and dates from the same period as the porch. The roof is of ‘king post’ design, probably from the 14th or 15th century. Two hatchments can be seen between the roof timbers which were carried at the funerals of members of the Leeves family in the 18th century. Also visible is the 16th century oak carved pulpit. The north wall has two stained glass windows depicting St Richard of Chichester and St Mary Magdalene – both by the 19th century artist Charles Kemp.

 Scurry quickly through the chancel arch avoiding eye contact with the forces of evil and sink into the inner sanctum and pray at this time of pestilence for the deliverance from the plague. How this church historically is a reminder of times which we glibly thought had past. The 1836 east window depicting the Lamb of God, the Blessed Trinity and the four evangelists is the work of Thomas Willement. The other windows are by the local artist Henry Wright from Arundel.

“Beakheads”is the name commonly given to a great diversity of carving dating from the 12th century. Their grotesque character can vary greatly and I wonder even in these far off days they represent the sin and vice that fills the world which must be rejected by the man of God – a view put forward by Michael Camille in his book ‘Image on the Edge’ in 1992.

The south aisle is narrow and probably dates from the 13th century. Against the wall is a small original oak bench dating from the early 15th century with carvings at both ends. This view is back to the entrance where behind the door sits the vast tub font.

For such an intimate and lovely church the tub font can only be described as overwhelming. Although in a recess, its size is the first thing that grabbed my attention on entering the church, its decoration with honeysuckle and shell motifs is in stark contrast to the rest of the bestiary visible elsewhere, which leads experts to think that it was the work of Anglo Saxon masons. Regular readers will know my own love of the Anglo Saxon which was so unlike their Norman conquerors.

The Parson’s Table Arundel

Our second visit for lunch in Arundel was much more convivial than our last visit (see July 2019 visit to Cathedral). This time the trauma was under control and I enjoyed an excellent meal made memorable by the cauliflower soup which, after discussion with the chef, led me to put chilli flakes in my own spicy parsnip soup, the pride of my culinary powers. A definite four star performance.

MW’s Impressions

It seems like an eternity since we were in Salisbury for our last Dine and Divine visit.  In fact it was almost exactly six months ago, but what a six months it has been.  A period dominated by uncertainty and concern which, although not over, has improved sufficiently for BQ and I to venture out for our first post-pandemic Dine and Divine visit.

As the stringency of the lockdown eased, so the traffic levels have increased so that as we travelled along the notorious A27 progress was as bad as ever.  The problem is the roundabouts.  There are nine of them in the ten mile section between Chichester and Arundel and at each there was a grindingly slow lengthy tailback.  When they were constructed 50 years ago these roundabouts were the perfect substitute for traffic lights at road crossings, as each vehicle quickly slotted into a gap in the flow of rotating traffic but now, with such increased car ownership, often there are no gaps.  In many European countries the solution has been to build a simple flyover for the dominant road, but here the answer has been to reintroduce traffic lights at each entry point – the worst of all worlds, as when the lights turn green the roundabout is frequently still congested by vehicles from the other direction.   It would be more efficient to return the whole arrangement to the original crossroads.  Usually this journey is the source of frustration and annoyance but today, after our extended period of house arrest, we had plenty to chat about and the time flew by.  However, it is the poor wretches who have to endure a daily commute along this dreadful road that I feel most sorry for. On our arrival in Tortington the village seemed deserted.  It was only the sight of the church weathervane high above the surrounding buildings that guided us to our destination.

 BQ has comprehensively described the church building, but it is worth mentioning the manor of Tortington which has had a long and varied history having been in existence for over nine hundred years.  It was first recorded in 1066 and, since then, the lands forming the manor have expanded and contracted as they passed through the hands of subsequent owners, landlords and tenants. Among this number were several Earls of Arundel and the religious community of the Augustinian Black Canons. Following the dissolution of the monasteries in 1536 the land reverted to the crown which, in turn, gifted the land and farm to a succession of courtiers until it was sold in the late 17th century and, sometime later, the residence of Tortington Place was constructed.  

 In 1879 the manor was sold to the Duke of Norfolk who let the estate to a succession of occupants until in 1922 it was converted into a Catholic girls’ boarding school.   Extensive additions were made during the 20s and 30s but at the outbreak of the Second World War the school and buildings were requisitioned by the War Office for billeting WAAFS and other personnel based at nearby airfields. Tortington Park was handed back to the school in 1948 and continued to operate until the end of the summer term of 1969. Shortly afterwards it was sold to the New England College for use as its UK campus. The college, based in the USA,  wanted to provide an opportunity for students to study in England opening in 1971 with over 180 resident students. 

Finally a new chapter in Tortington’s varied history began in 2001 when the site was substantially redeveloped into a new community comprising estate houses, town houses and apartments in a garden setting.

After our visit to Tortington we made our way to Arundel.  This was not the first time that we have had lunch in Arundel.  We were last there in July 2019 after visiting the Cathedral but then, as BQ has mentioned,  it was not a happy occasion.  In contrast, dining at the Parsons Table was an absolute pleasure and its award of 4 stars well deserved.

Our Lunch

  • Spiced Cauliflower Soup  BQ & MW
  • Pan Roasted Cod, Salt Cod Croquettes, Tarragon Peas, Tartare Sauce BQ
  • Grilled Sussex Bay Mackerel, Mint Potatoes, Fennel, Tomato, Black Olives, Saffron MW
  • Sauvignon Blanc  BQ & MW


One thought on “Tortington – Church of St Mary Magdalene

  1. I’m delighted to see you are now able to get back to visiting churches and dining out! I was only thinking recently that I missed reading your new posts, so this was a lovely treat 🙂


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