Visiting Local Churches No. 12

St Peter's, Newdigate

There was a church here in the late 12th. century, it was founded by the Warennes, Earls of Surrey, whose seat is Newdigate Place (now Home Farm).

The earliest dateable features of the present church are the triplet of lancets, in the east window of the chancel and the two single windows to north and south of it, all are from c.1200.

The 60 ft. tower, St.Peter's most distinctive feature, is late 14th or early 15th century. It is of particular interest to historians of vernacular architecture. Only one other Surrey church (Burstow) has a similar plan and is wholly built of timber. Basically it has three square storeys surmounted by an octagonal spire, the main weight being carried by four huge oak timbers standing on a massive slab of wood.

The bells in the tower were increased from five to six in 1805 and for Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee in 1897 a large clock was installed adding to the tower's weight. Despite these additions and the general wear and tear the basic plan of the tower has remained unaltered for 600 years. The exterior oak shingles were replaced in 1985, and much to Newdigate's pride, were cut by local craftsmen, using local timber and paid for by local people.

Entry via the south door leads into the south aisle and reveals a massive circular pillar - a clear reminder of the medieval structure of the church. This pillar, with its later addition of an octagonal capital, has a flattened surface in one part of it, perhaps to hold the Holy water stoup or basin (mentioned in the 1547-53 inventories). The deep holes in the surface indicate where the chained Bible was attached and a collection of incised crosses perhaps pilgrim's marks. To the right is the Cudworth chapel with two light window and piscina dating from 14th-15th century.

St.Peter's, like so many livings in Tudor times, was affected by the transfer of the patronage to the Crown and by the injunctions in 1547 condemning pictures and most lights in churches. In 1550 all stone altars were destroyed by decree and replaced by wooden communion tables.

Fortunately the old oak chest, hollowed out of a log, was not destroyed during Tudor times. Although chests of this type have been dated to the 13th century when the art of joinery was being developed, it is thought that this chest is probably later and may have been of the same period as the tower - perhaps made from the surplus wood at the time of the tower's construction in late 14th or early 15th century. It now occupies a traditional medieval position in the north of the chancel and holds the records of the 800th anniversary.

There are several memorials of interest. The reconstruction in 1876-77 was carried out by architect TEC Streatfield, a memorial window to him can be seen in the tower and on the south wall of the chancel there is a brass plate commemorating Joane, first wife of the Rev. George Steere, the rector during the period of the Civil War who founded and endowed the village school, which still flourishes today. Another memorial is in the west window of the north aisle, it shows Jesus in the carpenter's shop - an apt reminder of a major benefactor of the church, Mrs Ellen Jansen, who, together with school master, Henry Hackwood, started the wood-carving classes for local youths. Among works resulting are the wood carvings of angels on the choir stalls, the poppy heads on the front pews and the symbolic designs on the bench ends. These carvings were dedicated to Henry Hackwood, the school teacher who shared the teaching of the youths with Mrs Jansen.

Of the many gravestones which formerly were situated in the nave that of William de Newdigate who died in 1377 is the oldest. This is now under the tower on the south side. The Coat of Arms of Newdigate, three lion's paws, are evident on the gravestone. However, the observant visitor studying the oldest glass in the church (north east window of the north aisle) will see the Arms again but back-to-front! During 1877 restorations the window glass was reset wrong way round.

The present altar was made from a single piece of 4" thick oak by local craftsman, David Cramp, who also constructed the lych gates. A candlestick and cross were added in 1975 to commemorate 800 years of worship in St.Peter's. As part of these special celebrations a specially bound lectern edition of the New English Bible was commissioned (in a special Bible box), it contains the signatures of most residents of Newdigate in that year. Also 120 kneelers were made by a team of parishioners, they were based on eight different designs; the signatures of all the embroiderers were inscribed in the lectern bible. With a pair of binoculars directed at the roof of the nave you can see all the names of the sixty people who redecorated the church interior in 1977.

The Church is open every weekday morning.

Eric Burledon: published Abinger & Coldharbour Parish News May 2004

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