Sussex Harmony’s Grand Day Out
by Rachael Jordan, Dave and Jan Green
Reproduced from an article in West Gallery no.83
Saturday August 19th dawned fine and bright. We were all set for our grand 25th
birthday tour and, as members old and new gathered in County Hall car park in Lewes,
excitement was mounting. Dave Green went to talk to the coach driver and discovered
that he was an old colleague from Brighton and Hove Buses, now driving for RDH
Coaches. This was a good start as they had got on well in the past. We all boarded the
coach and left at 9.30am on the dot. Rachel Jordan handed out copies of the new
birthday book, which she had worked so hard on for many weeks, and Dave handed out
a sheet detailing the churches we would visit and their points of interest. There was quiet for a while as people read the sheet and leafed through the music book, as well
as looking out of the coach windows to see where we were going. Everything had been
kept a secret until this morning!
Our first destination was Ote Hall Chapel in Wivelsfield. This is a Countess of
Huntingdon Connexion chapel and is kept locked apart from Sunday morning services
and organised access, so not many had been inside. It is a small, rectangular building
that is simply decorated and furnished. There is a pulpit, and an organ that came from
a church in Brighton. The chapel was founded in 1778 and built in 1780. Selina,
Countess of Huntingdon, lived nearby at Ote Hall Place. There was a small audience
waiting for us, who might have been somewhat taken aback when 42 of us trooped in
and started setting up music stands and enquiring of Rachel as to where we should sit.
However, there were faces showing, in turn, shock, amazement and delight when we
started singing. The sound reverberated round the chapel and Rachel’s face was a
picture – it said “wow”. We sang several pieces and all of the audience joined in the last
– Diadem – with great gusto. Jan Green and a small band of helpers then served tea,
coffee and biscuits in the hall attached to the chapel before we all trekked up to where
the coach had parked and re-boarded for our next destination.
Our next church was St Margaret’s at Warnham, an interesting building with many
features, including a large oak chest dating from 1771 and an old oak box. In 1847 the
old singing gallery from the chancel was removed and re-erected over the west door,
where it remained only until 1885. A narrow oak-panelled staircase now leads to the
ringing chamber. The ‘hour’ glass above the pulpit rests in a wrought iron support and
timed the sermons to one and a half hours! In the south aisle is a display case
containing the violin and spectacles of Michael Turner (1796 – 1885) of waltz fame, and
two leather-bound Books of Common Prayer and baptismal record of Percy Bysshe
Shelley. Michael Turner’s grave is situated in the churchyard by the south door and is
well worth a visit. His life is commemorated in verse on the gravestone, which is still
clear to read. He was the parish clerk and sexton for 50 years and played his violin
and led the church musicians from the gallery before the organ was installed. He
always wore a white smock frock, red kerchief, breeches, and an old-fashioned beaver
high hat on Sundays. Michael Turner’s Waltz is regularly played in folk circles and we
gave a rendition during our time in the church. Once again, there was a small audience
waiting for us and the usual rush to set up as, elated from our first venue, we could
hardly wait to sing again. I think we blew their socks off! Informally, we were invited
back in the future to give a workshop and evensong.
Having sung and looked around, we made our way across the road to the Sussex Oak
where the coach had parked and a buffet lunch had been arranged – indoors, as there
were a few clouds about by now. The landlord did us proud and our gluten-free singer
could hardly believe her luck when he first asked her what she would like in her
sandwiches and then brought out a huge plateful of freshly made sandwiches plus
slices of frittata and a bowl of salad. She had to ask for a ‘doggy bag’, which was
provided immediately. The rest of us were well fed on a variety of sandwiches, quiche,
frittata, chicken drumsticks, sausage rolls and crisps. The bar was well staffed so
no-one had to wait very long to be served in this very busy pub. Stuffed to the gills, we
were rounded up and staggered out to the coach, which then had to reverse out of the
crowded car park and down the narrow village street as far as the roundabout – Dave
in high-vis jacket acting as banksman for Jay, our driver. Other traffic was brought to
a standstill and looked aghast as we blocked their way. Drama over, Dave re-boarded
the coach and we went on our merry way.
Our third singing venue was St George’s church at West Grinstead – Grade 1 listed
with a wealth of features. A late medieval porch with Horsham stone roof; oak pews in
the nave are 16th and 17th century; brasses; ornate marble memorials; stained glass
window by Kempe, and more. The names of local farms are marked on the backs of
the pews – dated prior to 1820 – and there is a map on the wall depicting the location
of each farm.
There was a west gallery until 1890 and their choir has been in existence
over 200 years although, sadly they do not seem to have kept any of their old music.
Rachel, Dave and Jan had attended choir practice at St George’s one Friday in July to
introduce them to our music in the hope that they would join us on August 19th.
Several did just that now, singing with great enthusiasm and thoroughly enjoying
themselves. Again, we sang to a small audience – but then half of the would-be
audience was singing alongside us! After our short ‘concert’ we were served tea and
flapjack by members of St George’s choir – totally unexpected but very welcome – and
there was much chat over the delicious flapjack. Members of both choir and quire got
on like a house on fire and, before we left, Sussex Harmony had been invited to sing
at St George’s patronal day evensong. We were sad to leave this lovely village church
and people, but time was moving swiftly on and so must we.
Fourth and last on our itinerary was St Peter’s at Woodmancote. This small, ancient
Knights Templar church has a saxon font and a yew-tree lined pathway leading from the
gate to the church itself. At the rear of the churchyard are a large number of parallel
family tomb slabs and to the left side on leaving the church there is a memorial in the
shape of a cairn, which is dedicated to two of the Lewes martyrs, Thomas Harland and
John Oswald, who lived in nearby Blackstone village and were burnt at the stake in
Lewes on 6 June 1556. Our small, and mostly elderly, audience was smiling and
nodding to the music as we sang and played. We didn’t know it then, but we would meet
some of them again a short time later.
Our coach had dropped us off by the church gate and Jay was waiting patiently. We now
had a choice to make. We could get back on the coach for a short drive to our tea venue,
or we could walk about 500 yards along a leafy footpath. Most chose to walk, although the
less able of us were glad to climb on board the coach and be driven. We went to Terrys
Cross, which is a retirement home for retired clergy. Originally Anglican, it now has a mix
of denominations among the twelve fairly active residents. When planning this day, Dave
and Jan had been advised by members of St Peter’s that Terrys Cross ‘did a good tea’ and
would be willing to cater for us. This proved to be good advice and Sally, the manager,
had been very helpful and enthusiastic about our visit. She provided numerous different
flavoured fruit and cream-filled sponge cakes and copious quantities of tea and fresh
coffee in the residents’ sitting room, which is where we renewed our acquaintance with
some members of our audience! After ‘whetting our whistles’ we did a few more songs for
staff and residents, most of whom had now gone off to the dining room for their supper.
However, they returned before we left and said that they could hear us well in the dining
room and had much enjoyed the musical accompaniment to their meal.
Slightly tired by now but satisfied with a good day’s music-making, we all climbed aboard
the coach for our trip back to Lewes. The hat was passed for our driver and we hope he
got a good sum for his excellent driving (in some tricky situations – a 53-seater coach on
a single track lane with overhanging trees to name just one!), and for his patience and
good humour. He also said he liked our music! Will we do this again? Who knows?
But Dave said he’s not doing the 50th birthday tour!