The Prayer Book of 1549 required the burial party to stop at the church gate for prayers to be said prior to a funeral.
In order to protect the priest from inclement weather, a roof was often built over the gate. This is known as a Lych Gate; the word lic being the Middle English name for a body or corpse.
Usually each church had a bier – a wheeled stretcher to carry the coffin, but if this was not provided, the coffin had to be carried.
To save the shoulders of pall bearers when prayers were said at the church gate, a block was often built inside the Lych Gate. Examples can be seen at Sompting and Bolney.
Here in East Sussex however, there was an alternative in the form of a tapsel gate. This is a wooden five bar gate that, rather than being hinged, is carefully balanced on a central pivot. They seem to be peculiar to Sussex and were probably invented by a man called John Tapsel from Mountfield near Battle.
The design allows a heavy wooden gate to be easily opened (in either direction) and requires less space. It was useful for pall-bearers as they were able to rest the coffin on the top of the gate as they walked on either side.
John Tapsel possibly fitted the first tapsel gate to be mentioned - the one at St Pancras church at Kingston , just to the south of Lewes. The church records show that a carpenter was paid one shilling and sixpence for installing the gate in 1729.
There is a tapsel gate at Pycombe to the north of Brighton which incorporates one of the famous shepherd’s crooks that were made in the village.
A modern tapsel gate was built about ten years ago for the parish church at St Botolphs in West Sussex.
The best place to visit to see these unique gates however are three villages between Seaford and Eastbourne at Jevington, Friston and East Dean. All three gates have a similar design. The one at East Dean is free-standing and is on the south side of St Simon and St Jude’s churchyard, giving access to Lower Street.
I always enjoy walking around the well tended churchyard here as it contains the grave of my great-grandparents who lived in the village. Unfortunately, the grave was damaged during the great storm of 1987.
A short distance up East Dean Hill is the delightful Saxon church of St Mary the Virgin at Friston. If you walk up from East Dean, you will enter the churchyard through a kissing gate.
Kissing gates are designed to allow people through but not cattle. They are named as the gate ‘kisses’ the wall on either side and therefore does not need a latch. Many people think that it is good luck to kiss your partner as you walk through the gate – one of the few superstitions I am happy to believe!
The church also has a tapsel gate under a wooden archway. The churchyard here has a number of interesting gravestones including that of Arthur Beckett (1872-1943) the author and Sussex historian. He edited the Sussex County Magazine. His grave is decorated with round-head rampions, a flower known as ‘The Pride of Sussex’.
A nearby grave to Brian Shaw, a dancing teacher, is also beautifully decorated with local flowers and a fox. It is an unusual example of a grave stone decorated on both sides.
There is also a gravestone for Frank Bridge (1879-1941), a composer who taught Benjamin Britten and once deputised for Sir Henry Wood at the Proms.
Three miles away is St Andrews’s Church, Jevington. This has a tapsel gate on the north side of the churchyard. It once had an integral stile but apparently this was removed in 1933 when the gate was restored.
The good people of Jevington are so proud of their tapsel gate that it is now included on the badge for Willingdon and Jevington Parish Council.
It is a shame that there not more tapsel gates in Sussex. It would be nice if more churches consider using this local traditional gate in future.