KEVIN GORDON - Don’t miss your church entrance

The Lych Gate at Seaford shortly after it was erected.
The Lych Gate at Seaford shortly after it was erected.

You probably know by now that I do enjoy visiting churches.

An hour wandering around the peaceful churchyard and exploring the monuments and church fittings is always a joy.

But often when you visit one of our ancient churches you can miss some interesting features on the way in.

Many churches have Lych Gates and although most in the county are Victorian, the use of them dates back to pre-Reformation days when a priest would be expected to meet a funeral procession as it entered the grave yard for prayers to be said.

Trestles would be brought out in order to rest the coffin on although this was sometimes a more permanent stone structure like at Sompting or at Bolney Church.

There would also be seats within the lych gate for the pall bearers to have a well deserved rest as they may well have carried the coffin a considerable distance.

The oldest lych gate in the country is believed to be at St George’s Church in Beckenham, Kent.

It dates from the 13th century. The anciant gate at Worth near Crawley is probably the oldest in Sussex.

The lych gate became a popular feature of parish churches and were later built as War Memorials (like at Clayton and Plumpton Green churches) or as a memorial to a vicar or other parishioner.

The lych gate at East Blatchington Church is dedicated to the Reverend Robert Dennis (1846-1869) although it was erected a good 20 years after his death.

The lych gate at St Leonard’s Church, Seaford, was built in 1897 being a gift from a Mr Julian Senior.

Some Sussex churches have another form of entrance in the shape of a Tapsell gate.

The gate pivots on a central column and could also be used by pall bearers to rest a coffin while prayers were said at the church entrance.

No one seems to be sure where the name comes from although I have read that they were designed by a man called Tapsell who was a Sussex bell founder.

The first mention of a Tapsell gate was at Kingston just south of Lewes.

A churchwarden mentioned the gate in 1729 – the carpenter being paid 1 shilling and sixpence. St Pancras Church at Kingston still has its Tapsell gate but alas it is not the original. There are similar gates at East Dean, Friston and Jevington.

Porches were an important feature of the church and you maybe surprised that at one time ceremonies such as baptisms and marriages took place in the church porch, indeed there could even be a small altar and a piscina for holy water.

A marriage could take place anywhere and a couple only went to the church for the union to be blessed, however particularly pious couples would want to be married close to the church and you cannot get closer than the church.

The thick and ancient oak door at Wilmington Church has deeply incised graffiti “E + M Ap 26 1747” This may have been scratched by a young bridegroom after his marriage in the porch on 26th April 1747.

Porches were also used for the distribution of bread (and sometimes beer) to the poor they were also the site of a sundial - I mentioned scratch-dials in an item a few weeks ago. Most porches are made of stone but at Mountfield Church a weatherbeaten but beautiful wooden structure dates from the 14th century. Sometimes a porch would be quite large and even have an upper room.

Bishopstone church also has a large porch but it could be that this is because it may have originally built as a side chapel possibly to hold the remains of local Saint Llewenna.

The church porch is usually on the south side even though the door at the west end was often larger and grander. The west door tended only to be used for special occasions such as a visit from the local bishop.

Your visit may not receive as much attention than a bishop, but when you visit a church remember there is much to see before you even step inside.