Dominating the lower stretches of the River Adur as it flows towards Shoreham, and perched imposingly above the A27 Shoreham Bypass, is Lancing College Chapel. Driving westwards, it is hard to resist looking at the detail of the chapel’s southern façade, at its buttresses and grey stone gothic features. Anyone unaware that this is a college chapel could think that it is a cathedral.
It is a school chapel, the largest school chapel in the world. Lancing College is a public school. (For foreigners, this means that it is a private school.) It is one of the Woodard group of schools, founded by Canon Nathaniel Woodard, whose tomb is in Lancing College Chapel. The chapel’s importance to the other Woodard schools, makes it a minster to the group.
Other superlatives seem to attach themselves to the chapel beyond it being the largest school chapel in the world. The chapel’s vaulted interior is one of the highest in the UK. At 90 feet above the floor, it is topped only by Westminster Abbey, York Minster and perhaps a few others (depending upon which source is used). The rose window, completed in 1977, with a diameter of 32 feet, is the largest rose window in England and the largest rose window to be built in Europe since 1538. It incorporates 30,000 separate pieces of glass. And the chapel has three organs.
Sited on a mix of flint and clay, the foundations had to be cut 60 feet down into the chalk of the South Downs. The work began in 1868 with the laying of the foundation stone. The chapel was consecrated in 1911. It is built with Sussex sandstone and is a Grade I listed building.
The style is neo-Gothic, Victorian Gothic or Gothic Revival, imitating a style prevalent in England in the 13th century, but with French influences. As such it is characterised by pointed arches, vaulted roofs, buttresses, large windows and spires. Iain Nairn, in Pevner’s multi-volume The Buildings of England says of Lancing College Chapel that the inside detail is 13th century French whilst the proportions are 15th century French.
When we arrived, we noticed ropes high up on the southern façade’s aisle windows. Draped around a couple of the buttress spires, they had been woven through the glazing of the aisle and passed inside. Once we were inside, the explanation was clear. Attired in hi-vis safety gear, two workers were busying themselves high up on the masonry inside the clerestory, clearly visible in the photograph above. A section of the nave below had been protected and roped off. Safety was paramount.
Say hello, therefore, to the brave souls from Vitruvius Building Conservation, the rope access specialists who are aloft in these photographs.
Once their feet were firmly planted on terra firma, their passion for this sort of work was clear – as was their knowledge of the chapel. The College is engaged in a long-term maintenance program which requires specialist intervention. Good to know that the mortar that they were replacing around that section of the aisle’s windows is one of 23 different, mostly lime-based ones that are used on the building.
We were interested in the stone courses of the chapel’s massive pillars. It’s tempting to think that their height diminishes as the pillars rise upwards, helping to exaggerate the building’s height. Not so, apparently. The height of each sandstone course was determined by what could be cut from the seam of the quarry at that particular stage of the work. What was clear was that each course was made from a single stone, not a fitted-together mosaic of different pieces.
The stalls apparently came from Eton College chapel, but their canopies were designed by Sir George Gilbert Scott (who can forget the Midland Grand Hotel at St Pancras Station?). Scott’s design for these canopies probably used the 14th century stall canopies of Nantwich’s St. Mary’s Church as their prototype. (St. Mary’s was one of the many churches that Scott worked on. He restored the church between 1854 and 1861, so would have known the canopies there in great detail.)
The college welcomes visitors to its chapel, which is freely open to the public. Holiday times will see it free of pupils. Weekends will probably see it free of weddings. Choose a sunny day, but a morning visit will produce better exterior photographs of the southern façade than I managed in the afternoon shots, above!
- Lancing College Chapel: https://www.lancingcollege.co.uk/chapel
- Vitruvius Building Conservation: http://www.vitruviusconservation.com/
- An interesting page and set of photographs about the Chapel’s ongoing maintenance projects, managed by St. Ann’s Gate Architects: http://www.stannsgate.com/project/lancing-college-chapel
- The Cheshire town of Nantwich, with good detail on St. Mary’s Church: http://www.cheshirenow.co.uk/nantwich.html/
- Sir George Gilbert Scott (on Wikipedia): https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_Gilbert_Scott/