by Alexandra Harris

This piece was commissioned by the ILS as part of the 'Crossing Borders' series.

Come round to the back of the church, the southern side, where the whitewashed wall is brilliant in the August sun, though it’s five o’clock and strange to be still shielding one’s eyes. Sit in the shade of the hedge while you catch your breath from the walk. The churchyard is neat, with hummocky turf and only here and there a clump of ragwort standing up like a bunch of grave flowers past their best. Over the low fence, the meadows begin. Beyond this first field, where the hay is drying, the land becomes watery and the wild brooks begin: thick rushes, sedges, purple grasses loud with crickets, ditches and drains, dark silent water running in channels. A raised causeway made by the Romans cuts across the marsh over there in the middle distance, though it’s only visible from above and in a slanting light. When you turn away, you’ll know that the living expanse of the brooks is at your back, waiting there with a force like the sea, a grassland sea, low and hot under the sun.

Hardham. Heringham. Home of Heregyð, a Saxon woman. Look at the south wall, will you, and tell me what you see? Sometimes, when I’m in the midst of other things, at work, or listening to friends at dinner with a glass of wine getting warmer in my hand, or pushing through a summer lane with hogweed up to my shoulders, an image of this lumpy white surface appears in front of me and I wonder what to do with it.

The lumpiness comes from the rubble below the plaster. The church was built from heavy blocks of this and that, sandrock, greensand, flint, each stone smoothed and shaped as best the men could manage during those months of building a thousand years ago, when their arms ached from the mallet and from hoisting up the blocks with ropes to lay one course after the next. They carried bricks over in a barrow from the ruins of the Roman station, and clay tiles too, still mortared together with lime slathered round them when Britannia was newly conquered.

The local workmen had known the old and broken walls since they were young; they’d played on Sunday afternoons in a strange tiled pit which was like a pool. They dug out the shiny white tiles with fingernails and arranged them in new shapes on the ground, or tossed them like knucklebones to be caught on the backs of their hands. Grass grew up between the shards and later it was all cleared to make another grazing field for Godwine’s herds.

After the stones came the whitewash, thick and clean, slaked lime mixed with chalk. Then more layers over the centuries, each one gleaming at first. I like the sheen and the smoothness of this paint over the unseen surface of the stones. But there’s a break in the smoothness: a sharp shadow, lowish down at the chancel end. It’s a gash, reaching almost but not quite through the full thickness of the wall. A violent cut, but carefully made. Violence and care: that’s the sum of it. The recess is painted over in thick white, so that the edges are soft and homely looking, as if it’s always been here and ought to be here. But it’s not homely. It runs obliquely into the wall, at an angle so strange you have to get up and peer at it. It’s rather sculptural, like a modernist carving; you can enjoy the shape for a moment as you might enjoy one of Ben Nicholson’s abstract constructions made from white and light. 

No, this isn’t modernist; it’s eight hundred years old. It forms a shelf on which you can lay your hand, but I’m reluctant to put my hand there. It makes me think of putting a hand through flesh, of Thomas poking his finger into the wound. It’s common to cut windows in walls, of course, and this is only another sort of window, like the shapely lancets high in the nave. How plain and straight they look by comparison, open-eyed, letting the light in.

An anchorite was living here by 1253; there’s a record of money being left to him by the Bishop of Chichester, Richard de Wych, who died that year and was later a saint. ‘Item incluso de Heringham dimidiam marcam.’ Half a mark: enough to register his continuing support of the man sitting upright in his tomb day by day. He remembered too, with the same sum, the ‘incluse de Stopeham’ and the ‘incluse de Hoghton’, the women shuttered up at Stopham, just a mile or so upstream and Houghton a few miles south, at the foot of the Downs.

In the August sun I find it hard to fathom the meaning of these words. For some months or years, the man who came to this spot to surrender the world had been imagining what it would be like. He thought his way into a tiny room with the door nailed up. He thought of his body chafing at constriction, and then thought of the wall as an extension of his body. He decided that this was what he wanted. A sponsor was sought, someone who would pay for the building of the anchorhold and for the employment of an attendant who would prepare basic meals for him and pass them through a narrow window.

Apart from the squint, there is no physical trace of a cell at Hardham: no stone construction has been found. Perhaps the walls were made from wattle and daub, and reeds cut from the marshes to make a thatched roof sloping up to join the church. Workers pounded at the stone to make an opening so that the holy man would be able to see through from his cell to the altar. Blocks were pulled out, re-cut, re-inserted. It was an awkward job, making a window this small, and at an angle. It must form a kind of funnel, narrowing from the prayer-ledge in the cell to a tiny perforation of the chancel interior, just enough to reveal the cross on the altar, if it were precisely placed, and the Eucharist raised above it.

A mass was said, the cell blessed. The episcopal seal was laid upon it. The bishop made the sign of the cross and performed the last rites over the body of the man who went in through the one-way door, dust to dust, and never saw the world again. Tuesday came, Wednesday, and he did not see them. Spring came and he saw no leaf.

Most cells were built on the shadow side of a church, so that light and warmth would be scarce. Not at Hardham, and that realisation comes as some relief. This southerly cell must have been lit by at least a faint gleam on a summer day, though the window to the churchyard, the ‘world-side window’, was small and hung with black fabric that must not be drawn aside. This was a danger-point in the armoury of the enclosing walls, an opening through which distraction and sin might enter if it were not well guarded. The inhabitant may have thought himself into a dread of sun, and struggled against the southern brightness.

This happened here, and it seems impossible. The sky is deeper and deeper blue. There’s a neat path of stone chippings where the cell must have stood, and its neatness dispels horror. A wattle structure is easily forgotten, a mud floor pressed by bare feet is quickly covered over. And there is the view, still stretching away, grass humming, rivers flowing. 

The hamlet is little more than a lay-by, a track curving off from the straight main road and looping back to join it. There’s a hedge to screen the traffic, but a few conifers are all that stands between sixty miles an hour and the stillness of the church. Willows and poplar branches are dragged into the wake of each lorry as it passes, so that the air is clouded with dust and pollen. There’s the sweet smell of wood on a sawyard truck, straw flying off an overloaded tractor, a clanking skip with swinging chains, tradesmen’s vans, commuter cars, school runs, all following the Roman road, fast and straight. Only once in a while does someone put out an indicator, slow to a halt, hold up the traffic while they turn into the lane by the Saxon church. 

A few minutes in the cool of the church would be a relief in this heat, and you can’t come to Hardham without looking at the paintings. The porch is dark after the daylight. Then, in the nave, the eyes adjust, as many eyes have done before. Keen eyes, tired eyes, the shining eyes of a baby, the worried eyes of a mother. People have been stepping into the nave for a thousand years, feeling the cool and damp air on the skin.

There was a bride and groom for their wedding last week, both working in Bristol now, her dress pristine white against the flaking walls with their mud-red drawings of long hands, curving stomachs, exposed ribs. There was the warden who hung the painted ‘open’ on the door and took the little arrangements of wedding flowers out to the compost – white dahlias now touched brown at the edges.

There was Caroline, a young woman from Pulborough, writing a thesis on the paintings. She walked here with her father, single file along the narrow path by the road, and sat on the left for an hour at least, getting up occasionally to peer at an image, not liking to touch the plaster though there was nothing to stop her. She laid out photocopied pages along the bench, making notes in the margins. And as she worked she felt her confidence rising. She knew now what she wanted to say and that she would go on – perhaps all her life – reading and looking, like this, following clues from page to page until what she saw when she looked up was solid and satisfying in its clarity.

There was Clive Bell, who came in briskly and professionally, knowing his business as an art historian, but who sat quietly at the back for longer than he knew before starting to talk with his companion about Cluny and Byzantium and the emotional significance of a gesturing hand. With his own hand he repeated the gesture.

There was Elizabeth, who stood very upright each Sunday and remembered the pictures she used to stare at. She understood, she thought, why they had to be painted over. It was written now in neat white lettering on black hanging panels ‘Thou shalt not make to thyself any graven image’. They had been a bit gruesome anyhow, the pictures, with St George there tied to his torturous wheel, spiked like a harrow. She never liked seeing that on a Sunday. But she missed the angel high on the wall who held her arms so beautifully crossed, and had a green halo which seemed to shine out because nothing else – except the other haloes – was painted that green, which was the colour of a copper pot left for years in the rain.

There was Thomas, who liked best the twelve small pictures around the arch that seemed more recognisable than the saint with his lancet or the disciples at the table you saw in the chancel when you lined up by the altar. There was a picture of a figure working for each month of the year. Thomas knew the way they bent with the flail and pushed a spade into the ground. It was like seeing himself and the other men there, up on the wall by the angels.

There was Richard, who saw the paintings over many years when he came and went from the priory across the fields, and then chose to look at them no more. He saw only the host, and when it was raised it seemed to send out a light of that particular sharp green. 

They all came out blinking into the sun, except for Richard. I’ve walked, sometimes, on the path that runs close to the priory ruins. Through the trees, before the land drops down to the river, you can see the three arches of the old Augustinian chapter house. From among the low farm buildings, just beyond the drive and the cars and the plant pots, they rise on slender moulded columns and curve gently, generously, to finely carved points. Three portions of blue Sussex sky are framed in quatrefoils.

As a child I used to make a telescope with my two hands and peer through the tunnel at a world I could edit as I pleased. I could point the telescope at a single tree in a carpark and I’d be in a forest, or at a wooden beam over the garage of our mock-Tudor house and I’d be in a medieval manor. I’m still doing it. Prior Richard walks out along the familiar path to the church where a small crowd has gathered. He leaves behind him the refectory, the cloister, ribbed columns in marble, waxed wooden benches, vegetable gardens edged with willow hurdles, fishponds. He leaves the path and the sky. He goes to the place where a recluse has lived and died before him. The mass is said, the last rites, in he goes to the tiny cell and the door is closed.

It’s here again, this incomprehensible past, breaking into the summer day. I visit churches because they are places of continuity, because even if the building has changed there’s probably a list somewhere of the incumbents who have served here.  It’s copied in italic hand from the parish book, and is framed by the door or stowed by the hymn books. Norman names, English names, with only a few gaps. Here they are: Browning, Goodyear, Rayment, Arledge. But this isn’t continuous is it: people walling themselves in to nurture their souls. For about two centuries, solitary enclosure was a venerated form of existence. At least eight hundred men and women were immured, and probably many more of whom no record has survived. In Sussex, where the practice seems to have been especially common, most local people would have passed by an anchorhold, or worshipped in a church knowing that one member of the congregation was unseen and could not see.  

If what brought anchorites to their cells was despair of the world, or a death-wish, or a dream of purity, it was understood as a vocation, a logical enactment of Christian faith. The extremity of the surrender was encouraged. It was continuously policed in the rule books copied out so that each recluse might have one. They were life-lines these books, in that they carved the abyss of dark time into hours of prayer and the living death into an organised working life. Hundreds of prayers were to be repeated each day, and the rule decreed an intricate choreography that would keep the mind trained on the task: fall to the ground at this word and this word; make a cross made over the bed with two fingers, four times, here and here.

A male anchorite might follow a book adapted from the Rule of St Benedict. Women, whose bodies required different kinds of control, and who were more often lay people without previous training, followed the guidance set out in Ancrene Wisse, or other books like it. The language was sometimes beautiful, opening images to the starved eye. ‘Saplings are hedged round with thorns so animals do not eat them while they are tender. You are the saplings planted in God’s orchard.’ But if an anchoress refreshed herself with the thought of her soul as a vital sapling, bright green, unfurling upwards, it was only remembered saplings that she kept in mind; those in the churchyard were hidden from her. ‘What is more depraved than the eye?’ ‘All the openings of your windows should be closed … and if they can be more firmly closed, they should be more firmly closed.’ So men and women deprived themselves of sight at Steyning, at Houghton, at Stopham, at Heringham. 

In his entry on Hardham, Pevsner lists the church windows: the high lancets contemporary with the Saxon building, the later additions to let in the light. Then an asterisk: ‘*Plus a pronounced blocked squint, visible outside, in the S W corner of the chancel.’ Even before it was blocked, this was a window and a not-window, an anti-window, an opening for two symbols only, a cross and the circle of the host. This was a ‘chirche-thurl’, less a window than a hole. The anchorite was advised that the ‘huses thurle’ or house-hole on the other side should be even smaller.

Peering into the wall, aslant, seeing nothing but shadow, I’m looking into a past so alien to me that I can hold it in my mind for only moments at a time. What looks to me like darkness was someone else’s vision of light; what looks oblique was a passage to direct sight of God. What I imagine as insupportable confinement was another’s image of flight.

Hardham. Heriedehem in Domesday. Eringeham or Herham by the time the hole was punched in the wall. Home of Heregyð, whose name could be shortened to Here. Whoever Here was: a Saxon who owned this place and gave her name to it. Home of Here. I don’t own this land but I feel at home here, and that’s why I keep coming back. But because each time I return, I’ve read a little more about it, the place becomes homelier and stranger at once. Now the blaze of the sun has faded, now we’re heading away again along the road, I’m wondering if there’s anything more vertiginous than standing on the spot.

Photo credit: B