St Helens Old Church

St Helens Duver is one of the gems of the Island. Spreading out to the west and the east there are beautiful walks along the sandy beaches, crystal clear sea, with views across the Solent and round into Bembridge Harbour.

There is somewhere to eat and buy ice creams, and behind it there is a beautiful National Trust protected area. Whatever the weather or time of year the Duver is a great place to spend some time.

The area is redolent with history. The dunes on the beach played host to the Island’s first golf course, which in its day was one of the leading courses in the country. The boatyards, sitting within the protection of the harbour, have a proud history notably in recent times building Motor Torpedo Boats during World War Two.

It’s not just golf and boat building that distinguishes the history of the Duver. Whether you arrive by sea, road or on foot standing sentinel is the tower of St. Helens Old Church. Probably few now realise the age or the history of this seemingly beleaguered remnant of a bygone age but the tower is testimony to the fascination history of the area and has witnessed many momentous moments.

Better known examples include French invasion force landing in 1340, which was repulsed by a local force led by Sir Theobald Russell, and in 1346 King Edward III led an expeditionary force to Normandy from this place.

The tower stands as a living and working reminder of the two great influences on the Duver – the sea and the church – because the sea facing side of the tower is a crucial landmark for sailors navigating the surrounding sea and shifting sandbanks.

The first church was built around 1200. It was part of a larger Cluniac monastic settlement. This community identified the natural advantages of fertile land, an abundance of fresh water, and the proximity of the sea which afforded good communications to the mainland and beyond, all of which continue to attract people to this area today.

The purity of the local water is a good example of a continuing thread of living history. Attracting the religious foundation, which built the church, it then drew the Royal Navy to the area. The local water would stay fresher for longer and was a favourite of sailors. The sheltered nature of the Duver’s bay also provided good anchorage for generations of Royal Navy ships. In addition stones from the old church were often taken to be used to clean the decks of old sailing ships, giving rise to the practice known as ‘holy-stoning’ the decks.

A poignant plaque on the tower marks the fact that Lord Nelson boarded HMS Trafalgar just off the Duver on his way to that fateful battle at Trafalgar. Eventually rising sea levels, eroding beaches, and successive storms forced worshippers to build a new church on higher land and abandon their original place of worship. But as long as the tower stands there is a reminder of those early worshippers, and the continuance of a protective warning marker helping passing sailors to avoid local peril and danger.