Heritage Website – Restoration

In The English Church by Tim Tatton-Brown and John Crook, St Mary's Church is described as 'one of the most magnificent Romanesque parish churches in the whole of the south-east of England'. This being so, the fabric of this notable 900-year-old building stands in constant need of care and conservation.

The Restoration of the Vaulted Ceiling, 2002–06

St Mary's is most unusual among English parish churches in having a stone vault soaring above the three tiers of arcade, triforium and clerestory, such a degree of splendour being found normally only in cathedrals and former abbey churches. The restoration and reconstruction of this medieval vault, with its Caen stone 'ribs' and chalk 'webs' between the ribs, has been one of the biggest such projects for many years, and, like the building itself, the work that has been done is significant in national, as well as local, terms.

It was first realised that all was not well with the vault in 1991. Quantities of stone dust from the ribs of the vault and of limewash, which had recently been applied to the 20th century cement and plaster rendering on the underside of the webs, began to appear on the pews below on a regular basis. By 1997 it became necessary to undertake a ground penetrating radar survey of the vault, and this revealed that, although in some places the webbing was still solid chalk, in others it was little more than dust, while many areas had been patched up in stone, brick or concrete. It was evident that much of the masonry was so badly decayed that there was a real danger of injury to worshippers and visitors from falling pieces of stone, and indeed the possibility that whole sections of the vault could collapse.

Following this it was agreed that the entire vault would have to be reconstructed, with the chalk webbing being completely replaced with new chalk blocks from Duncton Quarry near Petworth, but with the original Caen stone ribs retained and poulticed to draw out the salt which had found its way into the vault and caused its deterioration. The decision as to how best to reconstruct the vault had to be taken by the Architect in the light of the information that came from the demolition of the existing webs and from other medieval chalk vaults both in this country and in the north of France, and in the awareness that 'whatever was erected had to follow irregularly curving ribs and fit together on top of them'.

Phase 1 of the work, the reconstruction of the westernmost and most seriously decayed of the five bays of the vault, was carried out during 2002–03. The architect was Mr Richard Andrews of Carden and Godfrey of London, and the contractors were the Cathedral Works Organisation of Chichester. This pioneering work was rewarded with a prestigious Sussex Heritage Award, the Judges noting 'outstanding restoration of complex medieval structure; careful research of the original methodology enabled the unequal bays to be restored using tapered courses'.

Phase 2, the restoration of the remaining four of the five bays of the vault, took place during 2005–06, once again under the direction of the Church's Architect, Mr Richard Andrews, but this time the contractor was Joslins, Stonemasons of Long Hanborough, Oxfordshire (Contracts Manager, Mr Shaun Hester). This phase lasted for a full year, during which the church's normal services and life were maintained beneath a scaffolding 'crash deck' which was ingeniously suspended across the building from the north triforium to the south triforium. The stonemasons worked on a platform positioned above this deck, and, at a still higher level, in the cramped conditions of the roof-space over the vault. Because it was unsafe to walk along the top of the vault the contractor constructed a timber runway in the roof-space, along which a trolley ran to and from the external hoist in order to remove the old decayed stone from the church and bring in the new stone. In addition to the skilled work done by the masons themselves, Mr Rob Upton of Shoreham was employed as the carpenter responsible for erecting in each bay of the vault in turn the finely-constructed timber framework used by the masons to enable the old webs to be safely dismantled and the vault to be rebuilt to the same shape as before.

Following the completion of the work, the Architect was awarded the highly prestigious King of Prussia Gold Medal of the national Ecclesiastical Architects and Surveyors Association in November 2006. The Judges were 'greatly impressed by the original thought and skill brought to solve this particularly difficult problem. The repairs to the webs, near to a state of collapse, had to be undertaken in a confined and inaccessible space. All responsible are to be congratulated'. A further Sussex Heritage Award followed in 2007, the Judges noting 'excellent quality of work in a beautiful and interesting church, faithfully reproducing old techniques in traditional materials; careful calculations, scholarship and immense patience and perseverance; good detail and nice extra features, including new roof boss. Conservation and repair at its best!'

Through a combination of the dedication and skills of all those involved in both phases of the restoration the vault is now once again safe and secure. It is also glorious to behold, with the poulticed and repaired stone ribs still essentially as they were built in c.1200, and the reconstructed and unrendered chalk webs probably closer in appearance to the originals now than for many years past.

The New Carved Boss

To mark the completion of the restoration of the vault a new Boss was commissioned. This is the architectural name for the 'keystone' which locks the 'ribs' of the vault at their point of intersection. Such stones can be left uncarved, but in most great medieval churches they were decorated with images drawn from the life of the Church and of the world around them. Of the three vault bosses at St Mary's two have foliage decoration, while that in the centre was formerly smaller and quite plain. This has now been replaced with a carving which reflects the church's dedication and history, and at the same time crowns the work of restoration, and carries the date '2005'.

This new boss incorporates a floral border in keeping with the style of the two medieval bosses, but now featuring intertwined roses and lilies. Both flowers are associated with the Blessed Virgin Mary (to whom the Church is dedicated) in Christian iconography. For example, in paintings of the Annunciation (the visit of the angel Gabriel to Mary to announce that she was to be the mother of the Saviour) lilies are almost always present, while Mary is herself often described as the 'mystic Rose', as in the hymn Crown him with many crowns.

Through their association with Mary these flowers also put us in mind of the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ at Christmas, and lilies are used to decorate churches in honour of his Resurrection at Easter, as well. Within the floral border there is a simple representation of a boat, inspired by the image on the reverse side of the medieval Borough Seal of New Shoreham. As the Norman French/Latin title St Mary de Haura reminds us, St Mary's has always been the 'harbour' church, and there is a very long history of shipping and shipbuilding in the parish. The boat is also an ancient symbol for the Christian Church, and so puts us in mind of all the worship and witness carried out in this place during the past nine centuries.

We are very fortunate that Joslins were able to secure the services of Mr Bil Brown of Oxford to carve the new boss. His work can be seen at many notable buildings, including Blenheim Palace, Waddesdon Manor, and Windsor Castle; the Globe Theatre and the Stock Exchange in London; Christ Church Cathedral, Lincoln College and Magdalen College in Oxford; and Chichester Cathedral.

In commissioning the boss we had the support of the Chancellor of the Diocese of Chichester, the Council for the Care of Churches, English Heritage and the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings. The boss has been donated in memory of the late Mrs Joyce Andrews, mother of the Church's Architect.

The Wheel Window and Carved Capital

During Phase 2 of the Vault Restoration the Wheel Window which lights the roof-space above the vault was removed so as to enable the stonemasons to gain entrance to this area from the external scaffolding erected at the east end of the church. The masonry of the Wheel Window, a notable feature of St Mary's as seen from East Street, was badly decayed, and so Joslins skilfully reconstructed it, faithfully reproducing the design of the stonework they had removed. At the same time, they also replaced the carved capital of a column close to the vestries at the 'crossing', which had completely disintegrated in recent years.

Funding the Work

Phase 1 of the Vault Restoration, costing some £200,000, was paid for entirely by the Friends of St Mary's Church. The Friends also made a substantial contribution to Phase 2, but 56% of the Funding for this phase (£257,000) was provided by English Heritage/the Heritage Lottery Fund. Other grants came from the Historic Churches Preservation Trust, the Sussex Historic Churches Trust, the Alan Evans Memorial Trust, the Chase Charity, the Garfield Weston Foundation, the Lesley David Trust, St Mary of the Harbour Lodge, Shoreham & Southwick Round Table and Sir Richard Sutton's Settled Estates, and also from smaller trusts and local businesses. In addition, many individuals contributed to the cost of the work, by supporting fund-raising events, or by means of donations, or by 'sponsoring' the new chalk blocks which have been placed in the vault, in return for which they received a certificate and made an entry in a book which will be kept for posterity.

Text: Revd Victor Standing (Vicar, 2001–11)

Photos: Richard Andrews/Shaun Hester/

Giles Standing

Chancel vault before restoration

Chancel vault before restoration

King of Prussia Gold Medal award ceremony

Richard Andrews (Church Architect), with Prince
Nicholas von Preussen, and the Revd Victor Standing,
at the King of Prussia Gold Medal award ceremony
in London, November 2006

Demolishing the thin vault webs

Laying squared chalk bricks, from above

Finishing chalk brickwork, from above

New carved boss in vault

New carved boss in vault, showing boat and flowers

Reconstructed wheel window

Reconstructed wheel window

New carved capital

New carved capital at the crossing

Chancel vault restored

Chancel vault after restoration