Petersfield -


Bevis's Thumb   Huddled around the largest Bronze Age long barrow in Sussex, in glorious countryside north-west of Chichester, are the Mardens. There are four of them, North, East, West and Up, and they’ve been there for centuries. What is more, despite being only ten miles from the sprawl of Portsmouth, three of them have hardly changed. Today’s cottages may be built of flint and the farms sport an occasional Dutch barn, but the landscape is much as it was six, seven, eight hundred years ago.
People have lived here for thousands of years, and the barrow, called Bevis’s Thumb, stands at the foot of Telegraph Hill. It is 210 ft. long, obviously the burial place of some very important prehistoric man. During the Middle Ages a legend grew that it was the grave of the giant Sir Bevis of Hampton. Hampton may be Southampton, but Bevis is usually linked with Arundel, owing to the name of his horse, Hirondelle. He is said to have thrown his sword, Morglay, from the battlements of Arundel Castle to mark the place of his burial. Some giant! There are other ancient burial sites on North Marden Down.   Bevis's Thumb

The Romans came to these parts as well, as we know from the palace at Fishbourne, and at Watergate Hangar, near West Marden, another Roman Villa has been excavated. Originally a simple three-roomed cottage, it was later enlarged, and pottery found at the site indicates that it was occupied between the 2nd and the 4th centuries.

Christianity came early, with missionaries penetrating the dense forests to convert the remote pagan settlements. Their churches would have been made of wattle and daub, but were rebuilt of flint both before and after the Norman conquest, and these are the churches that stand today in three of the villages.

North Marden North Marden North Marden

The earliest is St. Mary’s at North Marden, standing in a farmyard well back from the Petersfield – Chichester road. It was founded in the 12th century by Geoffrey, son of Azo, and its walls remain virtually untouched - just a single room, with a semi-circular east end, one of only four in the whole of England. The notable Norman south door stands protected by a Victorian porch.

East Marden           St. Richard of Chichester would have known this church when he passed through the Mardens. He is said to have performed a minor miracle hereabouts, when, in answer to the prayers of the villagers during a drought, he provided a spring of cold, clear water. Could this be the origin of the thatched well, which forms a landmark in the centre of East Marden to this day?St. Peter’s Church all dates from the 13th century, and contains a beautiful little organ which once belonged to Prince Albert, who often played it at St. James’s Palace.

But the gem of the Mardens is St. Michael’s at Up Marden, 500 ft. up on the ridge and completely hidden from the lane. Though it has hardly changed since it was built in the 13th century, it found fame in 1965, when Ian Nairn wrote enthusiastically about it in the Sussex volume of Pevsner’s Buildings of England series. He called it one of the loveliest interiors in England, the slow, loving, gentle accretion century by century, until it is something as organic as the South Downs themselves.

Up Marden, a special place Up Marden in winter Up Marden looking east Up Marden looking west

Indeed, the little weather-boarded tower seems to grow out of the surrounding trees and the whole place is incredibly moving whether one is Anglican or not, whether one is Christian or not. More recently the columnist Simon Jenkins has enthused about it in The Times and in his book England’s Thousand Best Churches. The love and affection in which all these churches are held reflects enormous credit on the incumbents and the parishioners, who obviously care so much about them. The population of these places has hardly changed since records began. North Marden had twenty souls in 1971, and can hardly have increased.

Although East Marden had a shop and a school between the two World Wars, the main centre of population now seems to be West Marden. Alone of the four villages, here we find main road traffic, a dining pub and even a building site, all symbols of the present day. Also alone of these villages, there is no church, though the Victoria County History suggests that there may once have been a chapel here.

East Marden: Organ from St James Palace   Those lucky enough to know the Mardens won’t forget them in a hurry. They still exude peace and tranquillity, and might well have been the object of Kipling’s affection a hundred years ago when he wrote:

Here through the strong and shadeless days
The tinkling silence thrills;
Or little, lost, Down churches praise
The Lord who made the hills.

Tom Muckley, November 2003

This article was originally published by the Petersfield Post