Old Hamsey Church is secluded on a unique type of island. A thin ribbon of water has created a moat around this remote civil parish, separating the village of Hamsey from the East Sussex countryside except for a single, narrow bridge about three meters wide.
On a map, this section of land resembles a cookie cut from the dough, but not yet removed. Walking there, it’s easy to underestimate the barrier created by the River Ouse until you make a wrong turn off a footpath and are forced to retrace your steps.
This small “island,” just three miles north of Lewes, England, has historical ties dating back to 925, when King Athelstan met his counsellors at this location. It’s also documented in the Domesday survey of 1086 that the ancient church has served its congregation since before the Norman conquest in 1066. It’s a small patch of land with a long historical timeline, but few details outlining the cause of its demise.
Some blame the plague for destroying the population in Hamsey, others say that there was a natural move to a larger expanse of land for a community with growing needs. Whatever the true account, Hamsey is now a deserted village with a handful of homes with names like “Hamsey Place Farmhouse” and “Great North Barn,” flint and brick structures at the foot of the the country lane that leads to the church. Because it avoided any sort of restoration efforts, Old Hamsey Church is also a place frozen in time. Visitors can reflect and contemplate within the refuge of a medieval nave dating back to before the 12th century.
Walking to Old Hamsey Church is about the Journey AND the Destination
To have a lost village shrouded in so much mystery made it an ideal walking destination. It had also been almost a year since moving to England, and there was something appealing about making a pilgrimage to a site that represented how I felt as an expat, not quite connected to the place I call home, a community tantalisingly close but sometimes unreachable.
The three or so miles to Hamsey is a quiet walk, with the River Ouse to one side and views of the chalk pits, tall grasses and English countryside to the other. At first, I was uneasy about being on the footpath alone. The subdued sounds of trees blowing and birds calling in the distance magnified the lack of human activity. My mind instantly went to worse case scenarios.
The possibility of me twisting an ankle and not finding help, or being followed and assaulted in the countryside made me alert and on edge for the first 20 minutes. Long walks are a simple and primitive act of empowerment. It frustrated me that such a joy should feel strange and slightly dangerous.
But soon the weight of my fear transformed into a sense of exhilaration. It was a beautiful day, and I could just see the outline of Old Hamsey Church on the horizon. There was the occasional swan swimming in the muddy river and an abandoned WWII bunker to explore. I was giddy in my immersion of quintessential English sites of interest.
There weren’t any markers to indicate the distance to the church, and though its rooftop was visible just over the treetops, it felt like I was skirting around the edge of Hamsey’s border without much progress.
When the herd of cattle appeared and began marching along the path, I was stalled for even longer. Growing up on a farm in Iowa, I’m fully aware of the damage one, swift kick from a hind leg can do to a knee cap. These weren’t just lazy cattle either, these were cows with their calves, a site that makes me even more uneasy. Mothers are protective, and they pushed their way toward me with curiosity and too much courage.
I resorted to climbing on top of the bunker.
Eating an apple and feeling a bit foolish, I waited for the cattle to move on to a new patch of grass. It was a lesson in patience. When the final cow sashayed past my perch, I scrambled down off the bunker and continued on my way.
Finding an Unusual Sanctuary in Hamsey
The path shifted to a slight incline, and the river narrowed to a bubbling band of water. At the top of the hill, I took a right on what was a more maintained gravel road and found the bridge. It was an anti-climatic arrival. A woman and her two dogs broke the magic that I had found Brigadoon, but they disappeared on their walk and I once again had the village lane to myself.
Walking through the street, there are a few barn conversions and one or two farmhouses with big, modern windows. Nothing stirred, and the gravel crunching under my feet seemed obscenely loud. The lane curved and ascended up toward the church and I felt a hesitation, like I was intruding. I was a pebble tossed in a glass-surfaced pond. I had the urge to almost tiptoe, acutely conscious of the ripples of disturbance I was creating.
It was so quiet, and despite the blue, sunny skies, there was an air of meloncholy as I neared the church. Not so much in an eery way, but almost as if it would be appropriate to whisper so as not to disturb what was unseen.
The sign outside the ancient, wooden door stated it was open, but when I tried to enter I had no such luck. After examining the latch, and trying four, five more times, I gave up and wandered around the headstones. While there are only a sprinkling of stone markers, it’s estimated that this has been a burial site since 1066, with 3,500 people “lying several deep” in what now is a tranquil, sea of tall grass.
I searched for another entrance behind the church while the gargoyle stared with its gaping mouth, mocking me from its vantage point. No such luck.
It was time to make my way back home, but I decided to try the door one last time before admitting defeat. I eased the latch, and.. it opened. I let out a high-pitched squeal in excitement.
Stepping inside, my eyes adjusted to the shadows. There was a smell of cold stone and dust, old wood never quite drying in the dark interior. Tentatively, I sat on one of the narrow 16th century church pews and silently took in the church’s interior. It was like being inside a treasure chest.
My eyes were drawn to the ceiling. Thin strips of wooden boards formed a ribcage high above, supported by 14th century king-post trusses aged the color of ancient bones. The soft cream of the worn altar and canopied tombstone from 1538 glowed warmly in the sunbeams. There was almost a magic in the cool air of the sanctuary. Sitting alone, the stillness was tangible like a comforting blanket.
This was a special place. A place with thousands of years’ worth of contemplation, hope, celebration and mourning. For the first time in a very long time, I closed my eyes and prayed.
A chapel is where you can hear something beating below your heart.
He goes on to write in his article “The Silence Beneath the Public Babble:”
“We’ve always needed chapels, however confused or contradictory we may be in the way we define our religious inclinations; we’ve always had to have quietness and stillness to undertake our journeys into battle, or just the tumult of the world. How can we act in the world, if we haven’t had the time and chance to find out who we are and what the world and action might be?”
A place of refuge is a personal preference. Pico Iyer chooses the silence of a chapel, others might prefer long walks in the English countryside. In the abandoned village of Hamsey, a secluded piece of land in East Sussex, I found my unexpected sanctuary sitting on an uncomfortable wooden pew in Old Hamsey Church. Looking through the guest book before I departed, it was clear I wasn’t the only one.
Know Before You Go:
You can access the trail to Hamsey via the Sussex Ouse Valley Way footpath in Lewes, located northwest of Tescos, across the river and veering a sharp right at the footbridge. There are signs.
The walk to Old Hamsey Church is a gentle stroll but no there are no places to stop for a toilet or refreshments. Be prepared with snacks and water to avoid getting hangry. No need for hiking boots, but it’s best to have on some sort of comfortable trainer (running shoes) that you don’t mind getting dirty/muddy.
The church is accessible by car, but since I don’t have a UK drivers license, I am not of any use for directions or parking services.
Exploring the Church
Old Hamsey Church (or officially St. Peter’s Church, Hamsey) is a historic Grade I listed building. There is no electricity or heat in the church, so dress appropriately depending on the weather. There are also no available toilets at the church.
Opening Times: Weekends 10am – 4pm, but is subject to change. Avoid any disappointment and check their service times on the Friends of Hamsey Church website.
Souvenirs: Bring a few £’s worth of coins for the beautiful postcards they have available. Purchase is based on a honor system and cash box, and proceeds go to the upkeep of the church
Special Services: Friends of Hamsey organize summer evening services, Christmas events and open days throughout the year. You can find their event calendar here for a truly unique experience.
Overview Map of Walking Route: