Two things immediately come to mind when I think of Sussex, England: the best fish and chips I’ve ever had and the South Downs.
The fish and chips were consumed in the cafeteria of a British Homes Store in Brighton. The memory of the crispy brown batter encasing tender flaky white fish and the most amazing chips fried to perfection with not a hint of grease sustains me to this day when I am hungry.
On a deeper note, my love affair with the South Downs is going on almost 40 years now. The Downs are perpetually green undulating hills that cross several counties in southern England. To me they are a homing beacon, gentle sentinels ever present and safe that let me know I am always welcome no matter how much time has passed since my last visit.
They are also home to a hidden treasure where I have spent many hours contemplating and simply enjoying its beauty and history. Nestled at the foot of the Downs in the village of Clayton is the church of St. John the Baptist. St. Johns is not grand and doesn’t dominate a skyline like St. Paul’s. It is a small anglo-saxon church and I fell in love with on sight.
It was early winter and chilly outside when I first went to St. Johns. Inside the church was chilly too, lit only by the pale grey of the overcast sky filtering through the stained glass windows. In this soft light I had my first glimpse of the wonderful 12th century frescos painted on the walls.
The frescos were discovered in 1893 by workmen making repairs and depict scenes of the final judgment day. It’s believed they were painted by friars from St. Pancras Priory in Lewes, Sussex. Using earth tones of reds, browns and ochers, this incredible effort must have taken months and maybe even years for the monks to complete with only daylight and candles to work by.
Above the arch leading to the chancellery is the figure of Christ seated on a throne with the apostles in attendance on either side, their expressions both pious and humble. On another wall is an image of the devil herding the damned towards hell, and his expression gives you the idea that he is thoroughly enjoying his task.
The murals also seem to change with the seasons. In the brighter light of late spring and summer the colors are more more vibrant as they probably would have appeared when first painted. In contrast, the muted light of fall and winter gives them a somber appearance which is perhaps more fitting for the Last Judgment.
In the fall the altar is a burst of color, surrounded by pumpkins and baskets of corn and turnips from local farms and cottage gardens. I feel this is how the altar must have looked for centuries in the harvest season with people bringing their offerings in thanks for a bountiful growing season.
I’m not sure what it is that draws me back to this part of the world over and over again. The wall paintings in the church are always worth coming to see and if you like to read headstones in graveyards this one will not disappoint. The village green nearby beckons you to sit and marvel at the splendor of the South Downs. But those are just reasons to return, not explanations. And maybe I’ll never figure it out and that’s okay. This part of southern England will always be a haven of peace for me in a country that I love, and that’s okay too.
About the Author: My name is Louise Zontek. I was born in Sydney, Australia and have lived in the United States since 1980. I love to travel and have a particular passion for ancient civilizations and history.
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