Plans forging ahead to finish an iconic chapel

Lancing College Chapel.
Lancing College Chapel.

LANCING College Chapel, one of the great, iconic buildings of Sussex, stands high on the South Downs, a neo-Gothic Grade I listed building. Bizarrely, it has remained incomplete - until now.

The foundation stone of the College Chapel was laid in 1868 and the building dedicated to St Mary and St Nicolas as a worship for the College and the wider community. “It is extraordinary to think that this celebrated Chapel has, in fact, never been completed,” says spokeswoman Lianne Jarrett.

“The west end was never built. To celebrate the 200th birthday of the Rev Nathaniel Woodard, the Friends of Lancing Chapel have announced their intention to complete the west end by building the porch designed by the late Alan Rome.”

Planning permission has been obtained, and the foundations are in place. The foundation stone will be laid on Saturday, September 17 by Rear Admiral Sir Robert Woodard, great grandson of the Founder, after the annual Festival Service for the Friends. Construction will begin as soon as sufficient funds have been raised.

As Lianne says, “The Rev Nathaniel Woodard, founder of Lancing College, recognised the importance of excellent education for all sectors of society.

“He began to realise this vision when he purchased 500 acres of land and started to build Lancing College, and the foundations of its Chapel. Lancing was the first of the Woodard Schools, which reflect his aim “To provide a good and complete education... of sound principle and sound knowledge, firmly grounded in the Christian faith.”

The original architects, R.H. Carpenter and William Slater, had designed the Chapel to fit the slope of the Downs, and to make the most of the visual and propaganda potential of the site.

Woodard had insisted on the Chapel being literally on the edge of a cliff, and to have sufficient height and mass to make an impact on the landscape - although this required massive foundations. The construction of the upper Chapel started at the east end and used up vast amounts of money and labour.

When Nathaniel Woodard died in 1891, the building of the great Chapel, the symbol of his vision, was still in progress. Bernard Tower, who became Head Master in 1902, saw that ‘completing’ the Chapel, and bringing it into use, would raise the profile and morale of the College.

He put what seemed to be disproportionate resources into the building. By 1911, the main nave was complete and there was a great consecration service on July 18 that year. The vast, gaping 90’ by 30’ open arch, at the west end, had been boarded over on the interior and exterior.

In 1914, the Walker organ was installed at the west end. Then came the First World War and there was little further building until the 1950s. The transept towers had temporary roofs and many of the pinnacles were incomplete. The west end remained untouched, but not forgotten. The problem of the west end was the grandiose extravagance of the original scheme, and the passage of time which caused temporary structures to become permanent and tentative pathways to become established rights of way.

A succession of architects (including Temple Moore and Sir George Oatley) worked on the building. In all the early drawings, it adjoins the College Dining Hall at right angles, with a massive tower at the west end.

The Friends of Lancing Chapel was set up in 1946 with the dual objectives of completing and maintaining the Chapel, which was neglected and bleak, with some damage sustained during the War. In the 1950s, the missing pinnacles and copper turrets at the east end were added, and a long re-glazing programme began.

The Friends appointed Stephen Dykes Bower, Surveyor of Westminster Abbey and doyen of the neo-gothic movement, to complete the building and make a new design for the west end. Details for this were never agreed, although the massive Rose Window, in the new west wall, is a magnificent testament to his work. It was dedicated by the Archbishop of Canterbury, in the presence of the Prince of Wales in 1978.

Most of the drawings and artist’s impressions had been done by a young student of Dykes Bower’s, Alan Rome, who was previously apprenticed to Oatley. For the next thirty years, the Friends concentrated on restoring, completing, improving and furnishing the existing building, rather than extending it.

When Alan Rome succeeded as Chapel Architect in 1982, he was commissioned to devise a solution for the west end. His design, which is both appropriate and impressive, anchoring the building into the landscape, has been chosen by the Friends. It received planning permission in 2009.

The completed west end will be a simple, massive porch, with vaults springing from the unfinished arches, with a roof line and buttresses flowing from Dykes Bower’s west wall. The west doors will be replaced in oak and protected; and the arches behind the organ will be filled with stone carved with ‘blind tracery’.

Over the past thirty years approximately £2 million has been spent conserving and improving the Chapel. Major projects which the Trust, the College and the Friends are planning to fund over the next few years include further stone and ironwork conservation, and restoring the roof as well as the vaulting of the War Memorial Cloister.

Lancing College Chapel is open to visitors Mon-Sat 10am to 4pm (Sun and Bank Holidays 12pm to 4pm).