Basil is reading Homer

A light-hearted tribute to the Friends of Lancing Chapel to celebrate their magnificent response to the Chapel Completion Campaign

The winner of the Chapel Guides’ ‘lockdown’ writing competition was Miss Janet Loryman. In her essay Janet mentions that she lives just opposite the cottage in North Lancing where Basil Handford lived for over 50 years, nearly 30 of them alone after his wife’s untimely death. Janet’s father was a neighbour of Basil’s and kept a friendly eye on him. She remembers her father coming home with the reassuring news that ‘Basil is reading Homer’ – so all was well. It is a scene I witnessed in my early days as secretary when visiting the venerable vice-chairman to discuss the business of the Friends of Lancing Chapel: the crackling log fire, the upright chair, the mellow light, the oak bookshelves laden with leather-bound volumes; the gently smoking pipe, the glass of (perhaps ‘sweet and honeyed’) wine and the Greek text laid reluctantly aside.

Seventy-five years ago Basil, a king indeed (though then usually known as ‘John’), was summoned by Provost Browne-Wilkinson to what could well be seen as a council of war. Fellows of all the Woodard divisions, like the leaders of the Argive states in antiquity, gathered to devise a rescue for the Chapel. This launched the Friends (if not a thousand ships) and led to the implementation of immediate post-war repairs. On the same day, at Basil’s instigation, a commitment was made to the heroic task of actually completing the building. It was the beginning of an epic journey and Basil’s own account of it has a distinctly Homeric ring. ‘I take some credit to myself for this,’ he said. In fact, it would not have happened without him. The challenge was titanic and demanded warriors of lion-like vision and energy. But even they were standing on the shoulders of giants. There were people involved in 1946 who had actually known the Founder and many who still had clear memories of Billy Woodard, Martin Gibbs and ‘Silent Dick’ Gale, the last of the original masons, and who had been swept along by their undaunted vigour.

The building of Lancing Chapel is indeed an heroic tale. The Founder’s initial concept and intransigence roused his followers to defeat all opposition. Their struggles and successes have become legends: the Founder’s illness and pacing out the height of the nave until he could go no further; his insistence on its exact position, where there was no bed rock for 70 feet; the stars seen in daylight from the bottom of the foundations; the search for stone and the acquisition of a quarry; the east end built up to full height and the hubristic challenge to the ‘niggardly generations’ who might follow (the ‘Founder’s curse’); the barquentine of Portland stone wrecked between the Scylla and Charybdis of Shoreham harbour and salvaged in Billy’s barge; unbuttressed window tracery; the total lack of money, the rhetorical begging letters, the generosity of so many and the miracle of guano. ‘For truly these things rest on the knees of the gods.’

These legends, like the legends of old, originated in the daily practical battles to overcome real obstacles. The complexity and energy involved in the current building of a relatively modest west porch emphasise the extraordinary, almost super-human achievements of Herbert Carpenter, William Slater, Benjamin Ingelow, architects; Henry Knight, foreman, and their masons and labourers, especially when indefatigable, loyal Billy dispensed with contractors and managed the project himself.  Imagine the trepidation of the two Edmunds, self-effacing Bursar Blackmore and almost immortal Chaplain Field. Just when all was nearly lost, intrepid Head Master Bernard Tower saved the day with a reckless gesture – wheeling in a chest of treasure and unleashing the contents.

When, after 43 years of blood, sweat, toil and, no doubt, tears, the first great campaign of building ended in 1911, it was confidently expected that the ante-chapel and the Olympus-scaling tower would soon be added. But war, pandemic, recession, slump, a crisis of reputation (pupil numbers) and war again blocked the way and left the corrugated iron in place over the west arch. Nonetheless the survivors of the old regime built Temple Moore’s beautiful war memorial cloister in the 1920s and furnished the interior. This was exhortation and example enough for their successors to feel honour-bound to raise their standard in 1946.

By 1952 the Friends had commissioned a new scheme for the west end from Stephen Dykes Bower. Carpenter’s original design and the magnificent south facing transept envisioned by Sir George Oatley in 1928 were both impossible dreams. Wilfred Derry, Patrick Halsey, Paul Witherington, Ted Megarry and the Longley family and company proved equal to the task and the west wall and rose window blossomed. When Basil set the cross on the west gable in October 1975 and quoted the Founder’s words, the Dykes Bower ante-chapel seemed easily achievable, though there were still OLs who adhered to the topless tower. ‘But Zeus does not ratify all the designs of men.’

From then on it might appear that we have been looking down the wrong end of a telescope as our ambition has shrunk. Basil, like Nestor, king of Pylos, with wisdom, judgement and eloquence, resolved the riddle of where to put the organ and dissipated the rage of the traditionalists. The scale of building has been reduced but the construction of Michael Drury’s three-arched porch has come after another forty-three years of challenges and adventures: fluctuating fortunes of the College in turbulent times; sandstone crumbling in the salt-laden spray of the wine-dark sea; iron-split mullions and buttresses taking flight in the hurricane – cataclysmic events demanding resolve and ingenuity. The building of the porch on the north door of the crypt by the artist-architect Alan Rome to Carpenter’s design in memory of Basil in 1993 encapsulates the link between the heroes of the 19th century and those who have succeeded them. It was an oracle presaging triumphs to come. The overlapping generations handed down the stories of the past and the traditions and standards to which we must adhere. The ancient craft of masonry is a perfect model for this and the matching architectural details turn the whole edifice into one great work of art, just like the epics of Homer.

Rome’s 1996 west porch design broke the spell of Dykes Bower and made it possible to think again. Then inflation stepped into the breach once more, but Michael Drury picked up the gauntlet and Robert Woodard, Ian Beer, Dennis Day, Christopher Campling, Michael Hackett and John Ebdon set the course for completion against huge odds: convincing supporters of the rightness of the scheme; refining the details to appease archdeacons, chancellors and planners; weathering the financial crash and raising money in more hostile times – the finances always ‘balanced on the razor’s edge,’ as Homer has it – and at the very last-minute facing Nemesis in the form of COVID-19 and snatching victory from the jaws of disaster are all potentially the stuff of legend.

Now we are in sight of Ithaca, still kept afloat by our loyal Friends, and ready to address ourselves to the domestic duties of conserving for ever our illustrious house of God. When the whole story is told (probably in a brief pamphlet!) it will feel like the Iliad and the Odyssey rolled into one. Basil’s own magisterial writings on the subject are infused with the spirit of those great heroic narratives. ‘Basil is reading Homer.’ Of course he was. Winged words! I hope he is reading Homer still. And, if there is braille in Elysium, I hope Homer is reading him. 

Jeremy Tomlinson

To read more about the Chapel Completion Campaign please visit https://www.lancingcollege.co.uk/lancing-chapel-completion-campaign-2019 

(Photo below: Basil Handford with Ian Beer at about the time of the dedication of the rose window. Courtesy of Lancing College Archives

Basil Handford and Ian Beer


New porch 2020 - artist impression


(Published in September 2020)