On the night of Saturday July 29th 1944 a V1 flying bomb (a ‘doodlebug’) was hit at sea. It staggered forward for three miles, turned, and was heading straight for Marine Court, where the ballroom was packed with British and Canadian service men and women.
It suddenly turned again, and shot up the one small turning which led to St Leonard’s Parish Church. It exploded in front of the doors, making a 16-foot crater, bringing down the tower and demolishing the church.
If it had hit Marine Court, or if it had struck the church 12 hours later, when a big parade service was scheduled, hundreds of people would have been killed. As it was, there was not a single casualty.
On the following morning church members arrived for the morning service and were stunned to find James Burton’s 19th-century church destroyed.
Shortly afterwards the then Rector, Canon Cuthbert Griffiths, had a dream which was vividly imprinted on his mind. The Lord was preaching from a boat on the lake, as described in Matthew chapter 13. In his dream Canon Griffiths saw that faces in the crowd on the shore were those of people in his congregation.
On waking, the thought was born of visiting Galilee and trying to secure the prow of a boat as the pulpit for the new church.
In the fishing village of Ein Gev in Israel he found a boat builder and the ‘boat pulpit’ was commissioned. The ship which brought it to this country was on its last voyage and the shipping company presented the church with the ship’s binnacle and this became the church lectern.
When the architect of the present church, Adrian Gilbert Scott, came to view the site he stood by the sea and exclaimed, ‘No architect could wish for a more romantic or inspiring site on which the build a church.’
It is built south to north and is the only church on the south coast where, on leaving, the view is straight out to sea.
In a strategic position and with its unique features, the present Grade 2 listed building has survived several trials. After a landslip in the 1990s it even faced the risk of closure. The crisis times however brought a new awareness that the church is essentially the people rather than the building. However after further problems with the church building and the cliff the church finally closed for public worship on 1st September 2018