Tuesday, October 22, 2013

The smallest church in England?

7th—8th October 2013

Stella recently met a visual artist in the Lewes area who plays guitar and bass. He used to play in bands twenty-some years ago, but hasn't played with anyone else since. So she suggested that I visit and the three of us attempt a session. It didn't work out terribly well — we tried playing through some traditional songs ("Scarborough Fair", "Wild Mountain Thyme"), and a few of Stella's, but it just didn't really flow. But he and I had a good chat about John Martyn and Danny Thompson and The Clash (whose recent Sunday morning interview on Radio 6 had made my day).

The next day, as well as playing me some almost-mixed tracks from her forthcoming second album (I play a little bit of saz on "A Few Shells"), Stella took me to see the nearby village of Alfriston. The name of this village seemed extremely familiar, and yet I still can't work out why, as I'm now certain I've never been there nor seemingly knew anything about it. It's a beautiful spot at the foot of the South Downs, famous for being where the nominally Christian hymn "Morning Has Broken" was written. And you can see why — the land around the village has a delicate magic about it. I used to have to sing that song in primary school assembly, less than enthusiastically, but looking at it now I realise that it's exactly the kind of thing Stella would have written if she'd been around in the early 1930s!

We wandered up a little footpath to what claims to be the smallest church in England (although I seem to recall St. Beuno's on the Somerset coast making a similar claim), it's the Church of the Good Shepherd, supposedly in the village of Lullington, but there was no village that we could see, just a tiny church situation on a little hilltop with a stunning downland view. You could get maybe twenty people inside it.

There was a harmonium in the corner which led me to tell Stella about the harmonium I got given for my birthday (an eBay bargain via Libby and Dave). This was unplayable when I got it, the leather of the bellows having perished. But I took the bellows apart and over the last few months gradually reconstructed them (using chamois leather and Araldite), having finally got around to gluing and clamping them back to the instrument A few days earlier. So I was excited about my newly working harmonium (despite having no keyboard skills!) Sam Bailey and Aidan from Arlet both had a play on it the evening after the last Piano in the Woods, inspiring me to make an effort to at least learn some basic chord shapes, etc.. so I can start experimenting.

So we were standing in what's certainly the smallest church in Sussex, paying particular attention to the harmonium. And then, later that day back at Stella's, I looked the church up online to find out its history. And at the end of the Wikipedia page I found reference to the fact that British Sea Power (an eccentric indie band I'd read about and been mildly intrigued by the idea of, but never actually heard) wrote a song about it called "The Smallest Church in Sussex", and recorded it on the harmonium there, releasing it as the B-side to a single. And it's a beautiful, poignant song:


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