In Sedgeford, albeit a ‘conservation area’, nothing lasts forever – even the way the Eternal is expressed in buildings and customs.
And you don’t have to be an archaeologist to notice. But it helps. First there is the evidence of the remote pagan burial practices of the Bronze and Iron Ages in these parts. Then there is the long history of Christian worship.
Sedgeford has so far had four chapels/churches. The first was only discovered at the end of the last century, thanks to the ground-breaking work of the Sedgeford Historical Archaeological Research Project conducted in the village’s West End (the Reeddham).
SHARP excavated the skeleton of a severely crippled woman of the thegn (elite) class respectfully buried inside a small Saxon chapel. The chapel was possibly privately owned by the lords of the manor and used by them to avoid travelling to distant minsters and as a source of income. Was the crippled woman regarded as some kind of blessing on the site?
It is rare until modern times for a holy site once established to be abandoned. Just as Anglo-Saxon Christians built churches on sacred pagan sites, so the Normans generally overbuilt Saxon churches.
But as SHARP’s West End Paddock states: “The abandonment of this chapel probably resulted from the practical considerations of finding a stable (less marshy) site and the need for a larger and more impressive church that could serve the needs of the wider community as well as the elite: perhaps an early form of St Mary the Virgin church situated directly north of the Paddock.”
This is supported by the intriguing possibility that the move happened before the Normans came, around the time of a momentous and mysterious shift of Sedgeford over the river (reversing a millennia of settlement on the north-facing slopes) to its current site.
For nearly a millennium, still somewhat marooned from the new village and a little too near the river and the bottom of the hill for comfort (floods have been known), St Mary’s stood unrivalled. Until 1830.
In that year, ‘nonconformist’ worship was offered at a new Methodist chapel on Docking Road (built 1830). Not because of flood or even fire (also known), but because of candles!
The Wesleyan Methodist chapel offered a simpler service to the Anglican St Mary’s. One 1830s worshipper at St Mary’s complained of “49 lights (candles) on the Communion Table when one would have done just as well – I never seen such doins.”
This did not prevent chapel-goers sometimes attending services in the church, however, in the ecumenical spirit of their founder John Wesley.
No such spirit existed between the Wesleyan church and their subsequent rivals in nonconformism, the Primitive Methodists. A large congregation of ‘Prims’ spent 20 years in the wilderness – or at any rate in a room on Sedgeford’s village green – before progressing to a room that later became a grocer’s shop and (fittingly?) a disused carpenter’s store.
Their Promised Land and ‘permanent’ place of worship was a Primitive Methodist chapel erected in 1861 (known locally as The Voss) Its distinctive carrstone structure stood on Holly Hill, overlooking the imposing St Mary’s. It expressed the Methodism of those not satisfied that the Methodist worship on offer at the Wesleyan chapel on Docking Road was Methodist enough.
Meanwhile, the Wesleyan chapel closed for a time, and grass grew on the doorstep.
These matters were, according to Holcomebe Ingleby, author of The Charm of A Village (An Account of Sedgeford, Its History and Its Carnivals) the cause of ‘strife for many years’ and reflected national quarrels within Methodism promoted by the Wesleyan Reform Movement – notably about Temperance.
The Voss was destroyed in a vicious blaze on the night of December 30, 2012, tragically taking the life of its 86-year-old artist occupant Elsie Faulkner. The site has now been cleared and only a patch of grass remains.
There are plans to build a small house in the gap it has left and emotionally it is a large gap to fill: to many, the Voss is forever where auditionees repaired for a read-through of Elsie’s husband’s latest village pantomime and to enjoy the couple’s welcome and hospitality.
The Wesleyan Chapel too has gone, though its outer shell remains. It saw out the 20th century in its original capacity but is being converted inside. Perhaps for a new family; perhaps, as with so many a farm labourer’s homes of yesteryear, for a holiday home.