Bedham Bluebells

For the first day in ages we got out and about for a walk today. Not far, just explored somewhere new (or old depending how you look at it…) and took in some seasonal delights at the same time.

I had often heard mention online of Bedham Church ruins, and seen many a photo of this mysterious place; a ruined church in the woods, in a remote and peaceful spot deep in the West Sussex countryside. Having eventually tracked down its approximate location (just north of Fittleworth, tucked in the edge of The Mens nature reserve), and having heard rumour of bluebells and other spring woodland joys, it was decided that this weekend we would make it our mission to find Bedham church.

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Bedham itself appears as quite a vague location on the map a long way off the main road; a scattered hamlet someway down winding, narrow, deep cut lanes, between Petworth, Fittleworth and Wisborough Green. Here the geology is sandstone, much of the land wooded, and the ground rises to form a ridge above the wider landscape of the weald. The hamlet’s history is interesting; in the 20th century it gained a reputation as a bolt holt from ‘modern’ life for those artists whose finances wouldn’t stretch to more fashionable locations. Perhaps one of the more famous residents was composer Sir Edward Elgar who lived nearby for some time. During the Second World War, Canadian soldiers were posted nearby and used the woodlands for firing ranges and training grounds ahead of D-Day.

The surrounding woodlands were largely in cultivation as coppice, with woodlanders and charcoal burners making up a significant portion of the local population.

The sounds of woodland work and the smell of charcoal smoke are largely lost from Bedham of today, and the 20th century £100 price-tag of a remote cottage in the hamlet is certainly a thing of the past. Bridleways and footpaths follow the historic rights of way, taking the intrepid for a journey in the footsteps of those woodlanders and artists, but for many visitors the main attraction is the ruins of Bedham Church.

A shell of a building, Bedham Church sits ambiguously in a clearing, below the road. If you weren’t looking for it it would be easy to miss, or else, appear surprising and out of place in its remoteness. On closer inspection, the manmade structure feels particularly grounded and in tune with its surroundings, as if the bricks, although reformed and constricted, actually grow quite naturally out of the sandstone from which they were made. There is however, a certain feeling of this building having been imposed on the woodland, intruding and yet over time, welcomed, accepted and reclaimed. A couple of houses in close proximity speak of the community that this building must have once served; it is clearly a shared building for a congregation, a coming together, rather than an individual personal indulgence.

Built in 1880, St Michael and All Angels Mission Church was a dual purpose building: a school house for local children during the week, and a church on Sundays. It consisted of a single room which would be separated by a curtain to provide teaching space for senior and infant pupils, and built in the style of a chapel, would be attended by the rest of the community for Sunday worship. Victorian society considered worship and religion a foundation of good morals, and education and ‘improvement’ as goodly values. So many such mission churches were built by the Church of England and wealthier landowners to reach out and minister to rural people. Bedham church was finally abandoned in the 1950’s and soon fell into disrepair. The hurricane of the late 1980’s removed the roof and cause serious structural damage. Now only the walls remain, shored up with a heavy iron prop.

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The woodland has become a tapestry of greens and blues, grey gnarled trunks and straight sun-seeking growth. It is bluebell time, and for a few short weeks a sea of blue of a shade rarely seen in nature at other times, fills the snippets of local woodlands glimpsed from car windows or explored by walking boots and cameras.

After we had had our fill of exploring the ruins of Bedham church, we set off on a meander through the woodland, heading at first downhill, before turning left along the line of the pylons and rejoining the lane which then winds back up to our original starting point and the car. Shallow rooted beech trees gave way to pines, an historic boundary bank delineated the edge of hazel coppice studded with a few veteran oaks.

The coppice stools had not seen a woodman’s billhook for decades, the acute angle of a lost fence was obscured by bramble. The woods are undeniably vibrant and animate, and yet once you notice the echoes of times and people past, the whole woodland seems a little less living, less dynamic, on an intangible level which tinges the experience with a curious sadness that raises the hairs on your neck. Perhaps the silent emptiness of the ruins of a building which had once been a central focus of life around this place had simply made our story-minds more susceptible to the shadows and visions of the imagined people of this lost community.

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