THE churchyard of St Margaret of Antioch, Isfield, is, at the moment, awash with snowdrops, and the graves are adrift among great clumps of green and white. Soon, the fragile little flowers will be replaced by swaths of daffodils, which, in their turn, will be upstaged by the theatrical snowdrifts of pink blossom from the cherry tree by the graveyard’s stone wall.
I often think of the great herbalist Nicholas Culpeper, who was born and brought up here, in the depths of East Sussex, as I walk to and from the church — especially at this time of the year, when the natural world is coming to life again after the bleakness of winter.
Lives that connect
CULPEPER was the grandson of a Puritan writer, William Attersoll, who became Rector of Isfield in the year 1600. William’s daughter had married the Revd Nicholas Culpeper, of Oakley, in Surrey, who died shortly before before his son, Nicholas, named in his memory, was born.
His first encounters with the plants and flowers of field and garden, of hedgerow and bank, would have been in this countryside, around his grandfather’s church.
Apprenticed to an apothecary in London, young Nicholas caused consternation by eloping with the daughter of a wealthy merchant. He set himself up in a shop in Spitalfields, where, to the fury of the Society of Apothecaries, he then proceeded to minister to the poor by giving away his remedies free, declaring that “No man deserves to starve to pay an insulting, insolent physician.”
Enterprisingly, the medical powers-that-were huffily accused him of witchcraft — although he got away with it, because the Civil War broke out, which rather diverted people’s attention.
Even more radical than his Puritan grandfather, and as virulently anti-clerical as only a child of the Manse can be, he declared: “Three kinds of people mainly disease the people — priests, physicians, and lawyers — priests disease matters belonging to their souls, physicians disease matters belonging to their bodies, and lawyers disease matters belonging to their estate.”
Nicholas fought in the First Battle of Newbury, and, while acting as a field surgeon, received a wound in the chest from which he never really recovered.
All his life, he spent much time, in the teeth of vested medical opposition, translating Latin medical texts into English to make them accessible to all — very much in the spirit of members of the previous generation, who had translated the Bible into the vernacular at even greater cost. His most significant work was The English Physician, better known as The Complete Herbal, which has, remarkably, been in print continuously since its publication in 1652.
As I wander around the churchyard, seeing the plants coming to life, direct descendants of the ones that the young Culpeper would have seen, I feel that I am part of a continuum with him and his grandfather, whose successor I am as the 26th Rector since his time.
I looked up cherries in the Herbal: “The gum of the cherry tree dissolved in wine is good for the cold, cough, and hoarseness of the throat”; and also daffodils: “The juice, mixed with honey, frankincense, wine, and myrrh, and dropped into the ear, is good against all the corrupt filth . . . in these parts.”
But, alas, no snowdrops!
A LITTLE while ago, I found myself at a loose end in Chichester Cathedral, and, to while away the time, had a look in the Treasury, for the first time in years.
There, in rank upon rank of glass display cases, are the treasures of the diocese, from episcopal regalia to the Georgian silverware of humble parish churches. My favourite piece is a little 13th-century chalice, discovered in a bishop’s tomb in the 19th century; so fond of it was I as a boy (I was that sort of child) that, when I was ordained priest, my father had a replica made as an ordination present, which I use to this day.
Moving to another cabinet, I was brought up short. A George II chalice, flagon, and patten set, dating from 1738, sat there minding its own business. With a jolt of recognition, I registered that it came from St Michael’s, Little Horsted, where (among other places) I am Rector.
I had no idea that we had anything like that. I felt as if I had encountered a stranger wearing my favourite jumper. Then, adding to my sense of dislocation, I noticed that the silverware (my silverware!) was sharing the shelf with a George I communion set from St Mary’s, Walberton: the church where I was a choirboy, in the village where I grew up, and where my faith journey and sense of vocation both began.
Isfield, Little Horsted, and Walberton: my present and my past, together and resonating with a radical Puritan and a little boy earnestly looking at flowers in a churchyard. Eliot’s words from “Little Gidding” came to mind: “We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”
The Revd John Wall is Rector of the Uckfield Plurality in East Sussex.