My visit to St John’s Church was short and rather muddy but it is a delightful little building hidden away on the edge of Ashdown Forest between Withyham and Crowborough. It is not a church that you would stumble across by chance and sadly is usually locked due to the theft of some of the fittings last year.
The church is approached from a bumpy unmade track and cannot be seen from the main road.
I first had a look around the graveyard which I quickly found was a quagmire and not easy to visit after wet weather. It contains one (non-commonwealth) war grave, that of Margaret Elspeth Robertson GREEN, a company commander in the ATS who died on 14thDecember 1939. Margaret was the daughter of Warwick Green OBE the Navy Paymaster. She lived at Hammerwood, in Five Ashes but led the Crowborough Girl Guide pack and was a member of the local golf club. She died during an operation in a Marylebone hospital in May 1947. At the time of her death Margaret was in command of the 2ndEdinburgh Company of the ATS.
From the graveyard I had a brief look around the churchyard which was also waterlogged and, apart from a few graves and an impressive life-size weeping angel the moss-covered gravestones had been removed to the churchyard walls and indeed had almost become a part of them.
The church was locked but I popped into the nearby parish office where I was lucky to find the vicar who gave me brief history lesson and two ladies who were able to open up the church for me and I am so pleased they did. It is beautiful and on a cold February afternoon was surprising warm and welcoming.
The church was built for Lady Elizabeth SACKVILLE (1793-1870) who also went by the name of Baroness Buckhurst of Buckhurst and Countess De La Warr. She had married the Lord Chamberlain, George Sackville-West (5thEarl De La Warr) in 1813 and had ten children with him.
The Lady Sackville was a supporter of the early Victorian Catholic revival. Clearly the two local churches, St Michael and All Angels in Withyham and the relatively newly built All Saints church in Crowborough were not ‘high;’ enough for her. She gave fourteen acres of Ashdown Forest for a new church to be built, officially a ‘chapel of ease’ for Withyham but clearly built to be her own personal (nearly) Catholic church. It was completed in 1839.
The stone-built church is in Early English style but has no tower or spire, just a small bell-cote at the west end. It was designed and built by William Lamport BLAKER and was based on the design of a church in Littlemore, Oxfordshire. Blaker was a builder from Worthing and although he submitted plans for the restoration of Sompting Church it appears St John’s was the only church he actually built.
The interior of the church looks much older than the outside and the red and gold wooden relief above the chancel arch has the look of an ancient rood-screen. The dark wooden pews and hammer-beam roof above also gives the church a look of age although the oldest fitting is the pulpit which has 17thcentury panels. The church is lit by tall lancet windows decorated with Kempe windows. Charles Eamer KEMP. (I think he added the extra e on the end of his name to sound posh) was from Ovingdean near Brighton. Indeed it was his family that laid down Kemp Town to the east of the city. His windows can be seen in churches and cathedrals all over the country and can easily be recognised by the trademark wheatsheaf which can be seen in the lower left hand corner of most of Kempe windows.
I thought that the reredos carving behind the altar looked foreign and later found that it had been carved in Oberammergau in Germany.
Behind the pulpit was a sparking brass for a member of the RAMSBOTHAM family one of several memorials with the same name. One records the death of Geoffrey Bury Ramsbotham a young Lieutenant in the Southdown regiment (The Royal Sussex). He has no known grave but is remembered on the Le Touret Memorial in France and on the War Memorial at Honiton Devon (spelled as Ramsbottom).
Geoffrey was only 21 when he was killed in action. Facing his memorial is another for an even younger man. Teenager Leopold Grahame STERN was lost whilst flying over German lines in Northern France.. He was born in Rodmell and went to Lancing College. He was a keen sportsman. He got a commission as a 2nd Lieutenant in 99 Squadron of the RAF and was killed when he was flying one of seven British aircraft which were ambushed by 30 enemy fighters. Geoffrey is buried in the local cemetery in Metz, Northern France and is remembered on the war memorials at Henfield and Lancing College.
Despite my short stay I enjoyed my visit to St John’s thanks to the friendly vicar and the ladies who clearly love their church. On leaving I noticed I was the first to sign the visitors book for several months. What a shame this little gem of a church is not visited more often.
Sources: Pevsner’s Buildings of England. Victorian Churches of Sussex D.Robert Elleray. Lancing College and St John’s websites.