Ninfield – St Mary
The nave is probably C11, but the oldest surviving features are C13, the date of the chancel, which was altered in the C17. The north aisle is C19, when there were many other alterations.
Ninfield church stands away from the village. Mentioned in Domesday Book (9,4), it hardly merits Horsfield’s dismissive ‘Unquestionably one of the meanest [churches] in Sussex’ (I p543), though much of its interest comes from the post-Reformation work.
The nave is probably C11 though the main evidence, a doorway with a triangular head and a small round-headed window (1 p329), was sacrificed to the C19 north aisle and the render on the south wall conceals any evidence of early work there might be. It has been suggested the doorway and window were pre-Conquest (SAC 87 p52), but the remaining stones reset in the aisle walls offer no clue. However, until 1833 there was a relatively narrow round-headed chancel arch (ICBS), which was probably of the same date. As at Westfield and Mountfield, it was flanked by probably later squints.
The oldest surviving visible feature of the nave is an early C13 chamfered west doorway, which until 1897 had a lancet above it (Langdon p20). The chancel, though this is obscured by later alterations, dates from this time, for Saunders (p70) (1863) shows a south lancet as today and the jamb of a second (both present ones appear all C19). The adjacent doorway is dated 1671 with the initials IB, referring to the then incumbent, but its form also looks C13, so it may only have been repaired in 1671. The nave was altered around 1400 with a moulded south doorway and two square-headed windows of differing size with pierced spandrels. Of the same date are the crownpost roof with moulded tiebeams and wallplates and the boarded over-sized belfry, with a contemporary bell (Elphick p47), though the broach spirelet shown on the Sharpe Collection drawing (c1797) has become a pyramid. The diagonal buttresses at the west end were added to support it. The stone footings of the C18 south porch suggest it had a predecessor, most probably also dating from c1400.
Alterations between the C17 and the early C19 are well recorded. The date of 1671 on the chancel doorway has been noted, and Quartermain shows an east window with an elliptical head ((E) p182), which was also probably C17, but probably later than the bishop’s visitation of 1686, when it was recorded that the east wall was ready to fall (SRS 78 p45). The brick south porch with a sundial is dated 1735 on the gable. Nothing is left of work of 1833, when P Carey of Hooe signed an application to the ICBS for a grant, signing himself as architect, later changed to surveyor. He appears to have been a builder primarily and at a later date a second surveyor is named, J Spray. However, Carey may also have had a hand in designing the work. This consisted of a wider brick chancel arch, with new seats and a gallery (ICBS). A dormer to the south, shown by Quartermain ((E) p183), would have been for this.
This work was replaced by a north aisle and new chancel arch. In 1874 George G Scott junior (whose family owned property in the parish (Stamp p392)) made costed plans, which were put to tender two years later (BAL/MSS ScGGJ/24/1). A restoration committee discussed them in 1878, but decided to raise funds first. Nothing happened until new plans by Sir A W Blomfield were made in 1885 (ESRO Par 430/4/1). Financial problems persisted and the omission of the aisle was considered, but in the event it was built with a heavy north arcade in the style of c1200, bearing the date 1885, though work was finished in 1887. The round-headed chancel arch dates from the same time. The variety of styles is untypical of Blomfield. Other work included three stepped east lancets and a south west nave window like the others (Quartermain shows a blank). Much stonework was renewed, including the nave and chancel windows. The work cost in total £1892 (KD 1899).
The next change was in 1897, when H P B Downing (BE(E) p562) inserted a two-light west window in place of the existing lancet on the occasion of Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee, as an inscription records, and in 1906 the aisle was extended to the east with an organ-chamber (Meads). In 1923 A G Scott (ICBS) designed a new front with wavy balusters for the apparently C17 gallery high up beneath the belfry. Its unusual position may be because it was formerly enclosed and part of the ringing-chamber (ibid). This change was part of general repairs which extended also to the roof. There were further repairs to the roof by L S Rider in 1957 (ICBS) and subsequent years and again in 1972, when the work included the aisle and vestry.
Carved heads: (Reset in the chancel south wall) They look mediaeval and were found in the north wave wall (1 ibid), but the precise date and origin are doubtful.
Font: C17 with a small square, moulded bowl. In 1686 the bishop’s visitation criticised the wooden font and the entry is followed by an annotation that a stone one had been acquired (SRS ibid). This must be the one, though when the VCH was written (9 p249), it had been supplanted by an early C20 alabaster one which has since disappeared.
Font cover: Also late C17, with hasps which fitted through holes and a curling top.
1. (East window) Heaton, Butler and Bayne, 1930 (DSGW 1939).
2. (North aisle, third window) Goddard and Gibbs, dated 1959 (DSGW 1961).
Panelling: (Reset in choirstalls) Early C17 and probably that which Arthur Mee (p268) saw behind the altar. This is said to have been brought here from Macclesfield, Cheshire (Mitchell/Shell Guide p147), but nothing more is known.
Reading desk: Early C17.
Royal Arms: (Above the chancel arch) Undated but of the Stuart period, probably after 1660. The surround may be a little later, perhaps early C18.
1. J Newport: Ancient Architecture in Ninfield Parish Church, SCM 9 (May 1935) p329
Measured plan by W H Godfrey in VCH 9 p249
My thanks to Nick Wiseman for all the interior photographs