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Local study, social history and archaeology in one place – pt 2 .

Sometimes churches can hold surprises and on occasion be the surprise itself. When Catherine ran a workshop in Surrey recently, I took the opportunity to go and explore some heritage generally, and churches in particular. I managed to squeeze in four churches in a couple of days, including St Michael’s shown above. It was, incidentally, one of the churches used in the film Four Weddings & a Funeral! The range of churches I came across was fantastic, and I’m sure the good people of Reigate have seen at least a couple of them. In the images below you can see what I mean.

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St Michael’s church in Betchworth dates to at least the Domesday Book, although the exact character of the pre-conquest building is unknown. The evidence for this building is limited to a single fragment which is now found in a wall under the tower. As you might imagine, there have been many changes over the years. As I said in the earlier post, windows are one way to track changes in the fabric of a church and the images of St Michael’s show some of the changes made in this small parish church. Sadly, and is something we find in many churches, the Victorian zeal for refurbishing churches has erased or changed many aspects of St Michael’s. Among the changes recorded are the moving of the tower and the addition and removal of pews. If you want to learn more about the church visit its website .

After visiting St Michael’s, a short walk found me at what is possibly one of the most unusual churches I have ever been to – Reigate Mill church, and you can see why it is so named! A mill is shown on the site as early as 1753 in Emanuel and John Owen’s map of Surrey. By the early 19th century the mill had passed into the ownership of Michael Bowyer and remained in the family until it was sold in 1868 and it stopped milling two years later, and fell into some disrepair. In 1880 the brick roundhouse at the base of the mill was converted into a chapel of ease – a church building other than the parish church, built within the bounds of a parish for the attendance of those who cannot reach the parish church easily! It opened for services on the 14th Sept 1880 and continues to do so on the second Sunday of the month May-September. The next church could not be more different, and is to be found on the outskirts of Reigate – Reigate Heath church. This small church is an example of a timber frame and corrugated iron building that was mass-produced from the middle of the 19th century and was mainly exported to the colonies in a ‘flat-pack’ style for quick assembly. However, this one found its way to Surrey and the first service was held on 28 July 1907, and morning services have been held every Sunday since then.

These churches found within a relatively short walk of each other provide examples of how we can study broader changes at a local level. Changes in style, technology, design as well as religious belief can all be seen in the fabric and ornament of these buildings and make them ideal places for schools to use as a base for studying the local area. Another way of studying the past in churches is to look at gravestones . . . but that’s another story.

I’d like to leave you with some images from the last of the churches shown above that I visited – St Peter & St Paul in Chaldon, just up the road from Reigate and it proved to be a worthwhile detour. Hidden away in the Surrey countryside is this little, unassuming church holds one of the best-kept secrets of any church. There has been a church on this site since at least the 8th century and was recorded in the Charter of Frithwald, dated 727 AD. It later came under the overlordship of the King of Mercia who founded Chertsey Abbey in 666 AD, the Abbey being the first religious settlement in Surrey. As you might expect, not much is known of the early church buildings which were probably of timber construction, but there are no known remains of them.

The present church was started in the late 10th or early 11th century, before the Normans came. It consisted originally of a rectangular nave, 27 feet long and just over 17 feet wide with high walls probably having an apse at the east end, characteristic of Saxon church building. The west wall is of traditional flint construction and is almost certainly original, and the wall containing the chancel arch may also be. The aisles were opened up by simple Early English arches into the similar high walls, – the south aisle in the early 13th century, and the north aisle perhaps 50 years later. The chancel arch is also Early English, an enlargement of the original archway. There were a number of significant additions to the building, including a chapel, built in the 14th century.

The Chaldon mural, dating to c1200 CE.

The Chaldon mural, dating to c1200 CE.

However, it is something else that attracts visitors here, for on the west wall is the earliest known English wall painting – it dates from about 1200 and “is without equal in any other part of Europe”. It is thought to have been painted by a travelling artist-monk with an extensive knowledge of Greek ecclesiastical art. The picture depicts the ‘Ladder of Salvation of the Human Soul’ together with ‘Purgatory and Hell’ Wall paintings of this kind were intended as a visual aid to religious teaching and they provide a wide philosophical background to such studies.


Section of the mural depicting souls in hell.

The fresco, painted in dark red and yellow ochre, measures 17ft 3in x 11ft 2in. At some stage, probably in post-reformation times and like many murals in churches across the land, the painting was white-washed over. It wasn’t seen again until 1869 when the then Rector, Reverend Henry Shepherd, had decorators in to prepare the walls for re-limewashing. He noticed signs of colour and stopped the work. The Surrey Archaeological Society undertook the cleaning and preserving of the mural and a Mr. J.G.Waller, an expert in these matters, undertook the restoration. The mural was later covered with a protective wax coating, which over the years caused it to lose colour owing to the growth of mould underneath. This was removed in August 1989 when the Mural was cleaned and conserved using modern methods.

It is, I think you’ll agree, one of the most impressive sights one could see in any church, let alone one tucked away in the English countryside. If you have thence, do visit to see it for yourself, you will not be disappointed!


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