|Crowborough and District Historical Society||
|Ashdown's Vanished Church by John D. Sharp published December 1994|
|original publication by West Crowborough Society|
The photograph is of the former church of St.Richard de Wych on Ashdown Forest. Although not an ancient building, it seems very sad that, in our recent times it had to be demolished. Very little has been written about the place or the great house and its owner. Such information which exists is sketchy and sometimes contradictory. But let us start at the beginning.
The area which concerns us is near Wych Cross - a short distance from the present Ashdown Forest Centre. In about 1822 a large house was built in an area which was then called Ashdown Park, possibly by a certain Thomas Bradford, the first owner. Some time later the property passed to Admiral Jacob Henniker on his retirement from the Royal Navy. We know that the Admiral died in 1843, and the estate was then in possession of his son, Edward who also owned the nearby Old Lodge. It was in 1867 that a wealthy Durham business man, Thomas Charles Thompson acquired Ashdown Park. Shortly after, Thompson demolished the great house and built another in Victorian Gothic style, and slightly smaller than the original.
Mr Thompson established a prosperous farm, with cottages for the workers and a school for their children. Being a devout churchgoer, he was troubled by the fact that his many employees had to walk four miles to worship at Hartfield parish church (neither Forest Row or Coleman's Hatch churches existed at that time). Sometime between 1867 and 1877 he built his large church, dedicated to St. Richard de Wych who was Bishop of the Diocese of Chichester in 1244. Although it has been said that the church was never consecrated, we know that it was ministered by a Curate. On Mr Thompson's death in 1892 the estate passed to his grandson, C.K.T.Fisher, a noted water-colourist Sadly, this owner fought and was killed in the Great War of 1914-18, and thus ended the Thompson link with Ashdown Park. Arthur Mee in his Sussex book in the King's England series tells us:
"Hidden away in the Forest near here, but well worth finding, is the beautiful little church of St.Richard de Wycke (now known as Holy Trinity, Coleman's Hatch) built towards the end of the last century. We found it delightful, standing in a carpet of heather ringed with trees and rhododendrons, with no graves about it. It has two griffins, a dragon, and another great gargoyle looking down, and St.Richard himself is with a child in a canopied niche. Indoors is a fine array of stone corbels, many of them with charming bronze bowls for the lamps, decorated with winged lions and little heads. On the corbels themselves are lilies and roses, grapes and apples, a raven and a dove, and the Four Evangelists. A tablet in the sanctuary is in memory of Captain Fisher who fell in the war, and in the nave hangs his wooden cross from France."
Although this excerpt may contain one or two slight inaccuracies we thought it well worth including, if only for the sake of Arthur Mee's graphic description.
Captain Fisher bequeathed Ashdown Park to be used as a convalescent home for Belgian officers. It was as a direct result of this occupation that we come to the next great change in the estate's existence. In 1920 Ashdown Park was purchased by a religious order, the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur. This led to the gradual decline of the church, and soon after occupying the house the Nuns built their own Chapel as part of the main buildings. The Church at Coleman's Hatch was built in 1913 and so St.Richard's became less and less used, and eventually became totally neglected and ultimately fell prey to those pests of our time -vandals. In the 1970's this lovely church was demolished, the stone going to local stone-merchants. One wonders what happened to the corbels, the little cherubs, griffins, gargoyles - and St.Richard with the child.
After the Nuns departed from Ashdown Park the estate entered an intellectual phase, becoming a branch of the University of California. This tenancy did not last long, Ashdown Park then being taken over by Barclay's Bank as a training centre. The Nuns' chapel was transformed into a conference hall and the rooms were converted for lectures, offices etc.
In 1993 Ashdown Park was sold again, and so began another chapter in its chequered existence. It was bought by the Small Luxury Hotels Group, and became the Ashdown Park Hotel. With its 186 acres of beautifully landscaped grounds and lake, it must be one of the premier hotels in Britain.
But what of the poor old church of St. Richard? We can only surmise that it is gone without trace. Some time it is my intention to try and find the site, and give a further report on it. As far as I know only two pictures of the church exist, but if any members have any private 'snapshots' - or any other information, please get in touch.