by Martin Offer
St Martha’s Church occupies one of the most striking settings of any place of worship in Britain, perched on the crown of a hill 574 feet up and with no road leading to it.
The story of St Martha’s, and its hill, dates back to the Iron Age. It involves the Saxons, Normans and monks who worshiped here, a murder in a cathedral, the fabled Pilgrims Way, a massive explosion, and the vision of a young Victorian architect. It was touched by the threat from German Zepplins in World War 1 and by the age of supersonic flight in the 1970s. Yet, mostly, it is the story of the local men and women who, throughout a thousand years of history, were inspired by their faith to climb this lonely hill on the North Downs to worship God.
It is a strenuous walk from the lane below but the generations who have puffed their way up are rewarded with wonderful views. It is claimed that, on a clear day, eight counties can be seen.
Look to the north across Surrey and on the horizon are Oxfordshire, Buckingham, Berkshire, Middlesex, and London. Turn south and there is the distant ridge of the South Downs of Sussex, beyond which is the sea. Looking west are Hampshire and Wiltshire.
The broad sweep of woods and meadows is, in some ways, little changed in the thousand years since, it is believed, a first chapel was built on the summit by Saxons. Dating far back beyond this, Neolithic flints and Bronze Age earthworks suggest this was a spot venerated in prehistory.
Although recorded in the Doomsday Book, no trace of the original Saxon chapel remains and, by the early 13th Century, a Norman Church occupied the spot. This building was constructed between 1189 and 1204 and dominated by a tall west tower, creating a landmark which would have been visible for miles around.
By 1262 the church was been taken over by the Augustinian monks of Newark Abbey and, being a monastic place of worship, was larger than a typical parish church. Unusually, it had five doors to allow separate entrances for the monks and other worshippers. Different rituals such as baptisms, weddings and funerals would involve the use of different doors.
St Martha’s had links with two ancient manor houses which lay on either side of the hill. Chilworth Manor and Tyting House both featured in the Doomsday Book, and each had the legend of a secret passage leading to the church to provide an escape route for any priest being hounded during Henry VIII’s Dissolution. The start of a secret passage has been uncovered at Chilworth Manor.
St Martha Hill is frequently referred to in old documents as Martyr’s Hill, and some historians have suggested it was dedicated to Thomas a Becket after he was murdered in Canterbury Cathedral in 1170, and canonised by the Pope two years later. However, the name seems to date from a much earlier time and it is possible the first martyrs were early Christians who met their deaths on the hill long before Beckett’s time.
St Martha’s Hill lies just to the south of the main North Downs, the chalk ridge which was used for thousands of years as an ancient trackway, from east to west, across southern England. At a time before maps and roads, such route-ways formed the main paths of communication for cattle drovers, soldiers, tin miners, traders and pilgrims. Speculation that a huge tide of pilgrims may have travelled along this trackway from Winchester to Beckett’s shrine at Canterbury led some enthusiastic 19th Century historians to dub the route The Pilgrims Way.
In fact, there is much dispute over this. No evidence exists to suggest that large numbers of the faithful ever followed this particular trail, and idea of the Pilgrims Way appears to be a Victorian invention. It is reasonable to assume, though, that any pilgrims who had followed the route would have spotted the lonely church and climbed the hill to worship, on their way to Canterbury.
Disaster struck St Martha’s in 1745 when the church was wrecked by a huge explosion which rocked the hill and brought the tower crashing to the ground. This was caused by one of several accidental blasts at the gunpowder works tucked under the southern slopes of the hill, in the Tillingbourne Valley. Since 1626 the valley had been lined with mills and factories producing a variety of goods, including paper for Britain’s banknotes. Explosives were still being manufactured here 100 years ago and it was only when production ceased, after the First World War, that the river and its valley returned to being a peaceful, rural backwater. Little evidence of its turbulent past remains.
Although severely damaged, and without its tower, the east part of the church was bricked up and continued to be used for the next 100 years. The surge in road construction at this time meant that much of the masonry from the fallen tower had been carted away to be used for road building. In 1846 services stopped altogether.
The 6th Duke of Northumberland, Lord Lovaine, who owned St Martha’s Hill and the ruined church, faced a dilemma : should he rebuild St Martha’s, or dismantle what was left ?
Happily he, and other local landowners, chose the former option and a local architect, 32 year old Henry Woodyer, was brought in to oversee the designing and rebuilding of St Martha’s church, a project which would cost £700.
Victorians frequently get a bad press for damaging old churches by unsympathetic development, so Woodyer deserves special credit for creating such a wonderful building. Inspired by the Norman style, he incorporated the remaining walls into a new design, with a well-proportioned central tower to replace the large western tower of the original church.
He used local dark ironstone for the walls and kept the interior clear and simple in whitewash. One of the original doors was blocked up, but the other four were retained.
Pevsner’s Buildings of England describes the result as “ an impressive job...expressing the spirit of the lonely exposed site perfectly.”
The new church was opened on 15th May 1850 with service of re-consecration.
The lack of motorised access to St Martha’s has always been essential to its charm. Cars are only allowed up for weddings and funerals. In the 1960s the farm manager at nearby Tyting was always ready to take the elderly vicar up by Land Rover after a heavy snowfall and when the farm’s tractor driver was married, his bride was conveyed to the altar sitting on straw bales on a trailer pulled by his tractor.
Horses present a better method of travel and, although they are now prohibited on the hill due to concerns about erosion, the annual Horseman’s Service drew scores of riders during its heyday in the 1960s. The churchyard would be encircled by horses and their riders with the outdoor service relayed by loudspeaker over the stamping and snorting of those gathered.
St. Martha’s has always been comfortable out of the limelight. In fact, the authorities went to some lengths to disguise it during World War 1 when it was feared it might be useful as a landmark for Zepplins. An old post card shows the church with full-sized pine trees piled around it, resembling a huge bonfire. During the Battle of the Somme the dull booming of guns on the Western Front was heard from the southern door.
St.Martha’s Hill featured briefly in strange the 1944 film ‘A Canterbury Tale’ showing pilgrims walking up the hill in the opening sequence. Although an old postcard (above) shows actors dressed pilgrims filing into the church, this sequence did not appear in the film.
The church did appear, briefly, in exterior shots in Kenneth Branagh’s film ‘In the Bleak Midwinter’, with Richard Briers and Joan Collins, where the cast put on a production of Hamlet in order to raise funds to save the church.
Evonne Arnaud, for whom Guildford’s theatre is named, is buried in the churchyard and Hollywood came visiting one Sunday when actor James Mason, who was staying with his family in White Lane, attended a service and read the lesson.
Amongst the congregation during the 1970’s was Sir George Edwards, the chairman of the British Aircraft Corporation and key figure behind the development of Concorde. In 1973 he arranged a coach trip to for his fellow parishioners to Bristol to see the aircraft being built. Like many former members of the congregation he now lies in the churchyard but, an accomplished artist, his views of the church are available on postcards.
St Martha’s Hill is made of greensand, a poor soil which can only support heathland plants such as heather, bracken and tufted grass. The earliest engravings show the hill bare of any trees but, shortly after the church was rebuilt, pines were planted on the east and west approaches, to anchor the soil and slow erosion in such an exposed spot.
Wood from one of these pines was used in 1942, by a 21 year old local farmer’s daughter, to carve the statue of St Martha’s which is displayed in the church.
Natural fires over the centuries would have suppressed other vegetation, and grazing by sheep kept the shoots of young trees from taking hold. Now, though, the sheep are gone and any heath fires are tackled by the authorities. As a result the hill has become more densely wooded, mostly with Silver Birch, which has changed the barer heathland appearance of the lower slopes. The trees themselves were thinned out by the great storm of 1987 and, early in the millennium, trees and bushes on the south of the summit were cleared away to open up the view.
St Martha’s was first supplied with electricity in 1935 and shortly afterwards began the annual floodlighting at Christmas, a tradition, incidentally, which goes back further than the Christmas lights in Oxford Street.
In his Highways and Byways, Eric Parker described his delight in seeing the church floodlit for the first time :
I shall always have in my mind when I think of St Martha’s a sight I saw in a Christmas week between the wars... there it stood on the hill above..darkness below and glory in the height above, a vision nearer heaven, as I thought then and think of it today, than all else of earth and sky.
Eric Parker’s words probably come closest to expressing why generations of people have loved this Surrey church.
For many is not the architecture or the history of St.Martha’s which impresses. It is the spirit of this lonely chapel high on a hill, under an ever-changing sky, a place of simple austerity where the seasons bloom and fade beyond its walls and the quiet rhythm of human life passes through its doors in a cycle little changed by the rolling of the centuries.