Saturday, 25 July 2009

The Lord Mayor's Chapel, Bristol

The Lord Mayor’s Chapel is often overlooked by those visiting the nearby Cathedral, which it faces across College Green. But this small, Grade I Listed chapel contains a wealth of history, including an impressive collection of tombs and stained glass behind its modest but attractive west front.


The chapel was established to serve a religious hospital foundation in 1230, to care for the sick, feed the poor and educate 12 poor boys. Originally administered by the Cathedral, it became a separate institution in the late 13th century. It was endowed with lands by wealthy Bristol merchants until it was dissolved, along with other such religious foundations, in 1539.

Fortunately, it was purchased by Bristol Corporation in 1541, and has remained in their possession ever since: it is now the country’s only functioning chapel in civic ownership. Most of the foundation’s other buildings have long-since disappeared.

The building

The nave was erected around 1230, followed by the south aisle around 1280. The tower – visible from the passage at the side – was erected in 1487, and the chancel was rebuilt and the south aisle chapel added in 1500. In 1523, Sir Robert Poyntz, a close associate of Henry VII and Henry VIII, built a chantry chapel south of the chancel. The church underwent a major restoration in 1889, undertaken by the renowned church architect J L Pearson, who rebuilt the West Front (albeit retaining the window design) and North Transept. The original west window now resides in a garden, as a romantic ruin, in the Bristol suburbs.

Although the chapel has some fine Tudor architecture – the nave roof, the fan vaulting of the Poyntz Chapel and the East Window are all impressive – the church is chiefly known for its rich stained glass and fittings.

Pride of place must go to the tombs, dating from the 13th to the 18th centuries. Most of these were moved to the south aisle and south aisle chapel in the 18th century. There are simply too many to describe in detail, but as a collection they would flatter any cathedral.

The earliest are two crusader tombs in the South Aisle Chapel, with effigies in full chain mail armour, believed to be of the co-founders, Maurice de Gaunt (d. 1230) and his nephew Robert de Gournay (d. 1269). In the south aisle is a very rare merchant’s tomb from around 1360, wearing civilian dress, including short ‘pixie’ boots, stockings and a full-length cloak. Most poignant is that of John Cookin, dated 1627, who died aged 11. He is depicted, life-size, on one knee, carrying his schoolbooks, under a fine classical canopy.

But the stained and painted glass is also impressive: although some is original, most came from the Abbey of Fonthill in 1823, and dates from the late mediaeval period. Made in England, France and Cologne, much of it was inserted in the East Window, but the south aisle chapel also has 23 roundels of German and Flemish glass from the 16th and 17th centuries, and the Poyntz Chapel roundels from the 15th century.

Also of note are the fine 15th century reredos, and a large number of mediaeval piscinas and carved heads (mostly corbels) - don't miss the wonderful grotesque face in the south transept. Finally, the Poyntz Chapel floor is laid with 16th century floor tiles from Spain - said to be the largest such collection outside the Iberian Peninsular.

College Green, Bristol, BS1 5TB

Friday, 10 July 2009

St Mary the Virgin, Eastbourne

The Eastbourne familiar to most visitors is that of the genteel, largely Victorian, seaside resort. But it will surprise many that the town's history goes back a lot further: the area has been settled since the Roman period, and the Domesday Book records a church, watermill, salt pans, fisheries and ploughlands.

This settlement was a mile or so inland, and is today known as the 'old town’. At its centre is the surprisingly large church of St Mary, which dates from the 12th-14th centuries: it was fortunate in being sensitively restored in the 19th century, and is full of fascinating architectural and historical details.

The church was built around 1200, and the nave and chancel both survive from this period. The church was enlarged in the 14th century, with an additional west bay to the nave, a robust tower and north and south aisles. On entering, the Norman arcades and chancel arch dominate the spacious interior: the chancel arch, strangely, is rounded, whereas the nave and chancel arcades are pointed, although they were probably built around the same time.

The nave arcades have alternating round and octagonal piers, with stiff-leaf carving. The chancel arch and chancel arcades have a type of zig-zag decoration, whereas those in the nave are plain. The clerestory has large, simple lancets. The 14th century gave the tall tower arch and the decorated style windows in the aisles, tower and chancel. Two windows at the east of the south aisle are slightly later, from the 15th century.

The interior has a wealth of interesting details, fittings and furnishings. The chancel has decorated sedilia, piscina and Easter sepulchre, all with decorated ogee arches from the 14th century, and the south chapel has a tomb recess from the same period.

There is a rare rood piscina high on the south arcade next to the chancel arch, and there are two delightful faces in the south aisles - the one under the rood stair has a wonderfully bulbous nose. Both north and south chapels have 14th wooden screens with delicate ogee decoration. The font is slightly later, in the Perpendicular style.

The church has a superb collection of memorials on the walls and floors, dating from the early 17th to the mid 19th centuries. Most notable are those of Katherine Gildredge and her two infant children (d. 1625), carved by Edward Marshall, master mason to Charles II, and located in the north chapel. More poignant is that to Henry Lushington in the South aisle, (d. 1763). He was the eldest son of the vicar and a member of the East India Company. He survived the 1756 'Black Hole of Calcutta' uprising, but died in another incident in 1763, defending his colleagues in Patna.

Outside, the “Old Parsonage” - actually a Rectory Manor house - survives from the 16th century, alongside a timber-framed barn. More oddly, the churchyard contains a tall Norman cross, brought from St Erth in Cornwall.

Church Street, Eastbourne, East Sussex BN20 9HR

St Saviour, Eastbourne

Pevsner’s Sussex volume of the Buildings of England is blunt: “Eastbourne, as against Brighton and Bournemouth, is poor in worthwhile Victorian churches. In fact, there is only one: Street’s St Saviour.”

Whatever one thinks of that view, there can be no disagreement that St Saviour is an impressive building. Its architect was George Edmund Street, best known for the Royal Courts of Justice on the Strand, and a favoured architect of the 19th century Oxford Movement, which espoused traditional catholic liturgy and theology.

For St Saviour, Street designed a building in his favoured Gothic style, mixing Early English and late 13th century styles in blood-red brick with ashlar trimmings. Begun in 1867 to replace a iron ‘mission’ church, the spire – its dominant external feature – marked its completion in 1872.

Moving inside, you are immediately struck by the sense of space: the nave is wide and tall, with generous aisles leading dramatically to an apsidal East End. The next thing to strike you, as your eyes adjust to the light, is the decoration: the interior abounds in it: glass, mosaics, tiling, murals, painting and marble. Most of this was executed by the firm of Clayton & Bell (normally better known for their stained glass), with marble by the Italian form of Saviati.

The decoration reaches its climax, appropriately enough, in the sanctuary, where the scheme is almost overwhelming in its richness and complexity. The gilded reredos (1937) is by W H Randolph Blacking, and is dedicated to Henry Urling Whelpton, second incumbent and son of the first Vicar: in any other church it would dominate, but here must jostle for attention. More restrained, but equally impressive, are the murals over the chancel arch, painted directly onto the brick, and depicting Christ in glory with saints and angels.

There are two chapels: that on the left is dedicated to St Peter, in recognition of the parish absorbed by St Saviour’s in 1972, and on the south side the memorial chapel to its first Vicar, Henry Robert Whelpton. The baptistery at the west end houses an onyx font designed by Street and has murals depicting St Augustine preaching at Canterbury and St Oswald.

As one might expect, the church has a vibrant parish life, with worship in the Anglo-Catholic tradition. Happily, they keep their church open daily for private prayer.

South Street, Eastbourne, East Sussex BN21 4UT

Monday, 6 July 2009

St Andrew, Greensted

This unassuming church, tucked away in the Essex countryside, is not just rustic and charming - although it is both of those - but is also historically very important. A closer look reveals that the nave walls are built of upright, halved wooden logs, making St Andrew's Europe’s oldest extant wooden building, and the oldest wooden church in the world - as well as Britain's only log church.

The history of the site dates back around 1300 years: the land of the East Saxons - now Essex - was evangelised By Saint Cedd in 654AD, who was based at nearby Bradwell on the Essex coast. Remains have been found under the present church of a wooden building dating from the late sixth or seventh century, which may have been a sanctuary used by those early missionaries. The dedication to St Andrew also suggests a Celtic foundation.

The present nave is rather later, and has recently been dated by dendrochronology to around 1060. It was originally dated to some 200 years earlier, but, even with this later date, its status as Europe’s oldest standing wooden building and the world’s oldest wooden church remains.

The original church was probably thatched, and without windows. The Normans built a chancel, although all that remains now are the footings and a pillar piscina. The present brick chancel was erected around 1500, and at the same time the handsome chancel arch inserted, and roofs rebuilt and tiled. The date of the tower is uncertain, but it may have been added in the 17th century - one of the bells is dated 1618. The east wall of the chancel was rebuilt in the Victorian period and the roof and walls also repaired.

An interesting piece of local history is that some of the Tolpuddle Martyrs, after they were pardoned, were settled in Greensted on their return, and one of them, James Brine, was married here in 1839.

The church now is set in a pretty country churchyard, full of yews and lichen-covered gravestones. The porch was built next 12th century Crusader tomb, and leads directly into the Saxon nave. This is incredibly dark inside, despite the insertion of dormer windows, and retains its box pews. The chancel is somewhat brighter, and whitewashed.

The church has some interesting fittings: the pulpit was donated in 1698 by London pewterer Alexander Cleeve, and in the chancel are the Norman piscina and a memorial to one Jone Wood, dated 1585. The eagle lectern is an impressive bit of Victoriana: most of the glass is also Victorian, save a small but well preserved piece of 15th century glass set in the quatrefoil window in the west wall.

The rear of the church has all sorts of items for sale to help fundraising, from the usual postcards and guides to a wide selection of country jams and other sweet treats.

Church Lane, Greensted, Essex, CM5 9LD

St Martin, Chipping Ongar

St Martin’s is a historic Norman church in the pretty little town of Chipping Ongar, and is situated just off the High Street. Built just after the Norman conquest, around 1080, the original nave and chancel still survive, the flint walls incorporating reused Roman bricks and tiles which are clearly visible from the outside. The church was extended in Victorian times, but still retains its 15th century steeple, complete with 17th century clock.

Inside, the atmosphere in the nave is dark, thanks to the low, heavy 14th century roof, and some rather heavy Victorian stained glass. The porch, south aisle and nave arcade are also Victorian, and you have to look to find the mediaeval features: narrow, round-headed Norman windows in the north wall, above a stoup for Holy Water.

The chancel arch was rebuilt around 1350, but some Norman windows also survive in the chancel, alongside 14th and 16th century insertions, and some of the 'scissor’ roof beams are also thought to be Norman. The East window is a nice Decorated Gothic example from about 1300.

The fittings include a 16th century pulpit, a 15th century font and, on the south wall of the chancel, a memorial to Sara Mitford (d. 1776) by the noted English sculptor Joseph Nollekens. Under the south side of the altar is another memorial, to Jane Pallavicini, cousin of Oliver Cromwell (whose father fought on the Royalist side). Back outside, on the north wall of the sanctuary is a small recess (now with a door). This was originally an anchorite cell - where a hermit could take part in the service without being seen or coming into contact with the parishioners.

Finally, one of the Victorian windows depicts David Livingstone - who lived in Chipping Ongar in 1838-40 to undertake probationary year at the London Missionary Society school.

Off the High Street, Chipping Ongar, CM5 9JJ

Friday, 3 July 2009

St Mary, Udimore

Udimore is one of those small English villages strung out along a road, with no real centre, which is so easy to drive through. But just off the busy B2089 is the lovely church of St Mary, situated in an idyllic spot next to a farm and to a duck pond (which actually had a family of ducks on it when I visited).

Udimore is recorded in the Domesday Book, and there was an important lodge here in mediaeval times, in which both Edward I and Edward III stayed - Edwards III’s Queen, Eleanor, is said to have watched the English fleet from Udimore before the Battle of Winchelsea (against a Castilian fleet) on 29 August 1350.

Historically, the church nave was originally 12th century Norman, to which a south aisle was added around 1200, with the chancel added slightly later and the tower slightly later still, around 1230. The aisle was lost at some later period and the whole church was heavily restored in 1896.

From the outside, the church looks impressively large: the tower is robust and squat, and barely higher than the tall nave and chancel roofs. The walls on both north and south sides of the nave betray a series of alterations, with blocked arches abounding. On entering the church, it is clear that it once had a south aisle of three bays, in the Early English Gothic style, on round columns with stiff-leaf capitals, dating from the very beginning of the 13th century: these are best preserved in the central bay, which now forms the south 'porch’, although there is no internal door or wall.

It is not clear when the aisle was demolished, but may have been around the time of the Black Death. The porch was added during the 19th century, using a 15th century door, and the north wall nave lancets are also 19th century. The south nave windows are 15th century, although heavily restored, and probably came from the original south aisle wall.

The chancel is entered through a beautifully proportioned (and very pointed) arch, and now we find ourselves firmly in the 13th century. The chancel is indeed textbook Early English Gothic: there are lancets in the north and south walls, and a triple lancet composition at the east end. The westernmost lancet on the south wall was originally lower, to allow people outside the church to watch the mass: the sill was raised in line with the others in Victorian times - the alteration is clearly visible on the outside.

The church has some interesting fittings: in the chancel is a small wooden font, covered in plaster to make it look like stone: an edict at the Reformation forbade the use of wooden vessels, and this is an unusually late example (early 18th century) of a stone 'forgery' designed to hide the fact!

The Jacobean period is represented by a fine bench seat in the porch, and there is a particularly grand coat of arms of George III, erected by two churchwardens in 1772. The pulpit and font are both Victorian. Back outside, the churchyard contains some interesting graves, including a number of anthropomorphic 'bodystones’.

Udimore, just off the B2089, near Rye. TN31 6BB

St Michael, Playden

Playden is today almost a suburb of Rye, and passes almost unnoticed by those driving along the A268. But it is mentioned in the Domesday book (as “Plaidenham”), and has a fine – and largely unrestored - late 12th century church, tucked just off the main road.

From the outside, the most notable feature is the slender shingled broach spire, atop a robust Norman tower. The interior betrays the change from round Norman arches in the three easternmost bays of the nave, to Early Gothic arches in the westernmost bay, and under the tower. A small Norman window in the north aisle also testifies to a possibly older past.

But its treasures are its fittings: first amongst equals is the rare but astonishing decorated gothic wooden screen between the north aisle chapel and the tower. This has complex ogee work forming medallions above turned columns, and is believed to date from around 1310. The chancel is screened by a later Perpendicular screen, simpler but still handsome. Under the tower itself is an ancient ladder – there is no staircase – which has been dated to 1686. Alas, it is no longer safe to use.

Finally, in the north aisle is an unusual memorial stone, featuring two casks and a crossed matchstick and fork. It commemorates a Flemish brewer, Cornelis Roetmans who was buried here in 1530.

Playden, on A268 1 mile north of Rye.

St Dunstan, Snargate

Romney Marsh in Kent is famous for its ancient and atmospheric churches: built to serve villages which are shadows of their former selves, their isolated towers pepper the flat, windswept landscape.

So it is with St Dunstan, at Snargate; a few cottages and a pub, but otherwise all around is fields, willows and sheep. The name derives from the snare-gates, or sluices, built to maintain the water way to Romney harbour, and recorded as long ago as 1254. The flat landscape wasn’t always regarded as romantic, though: as late as 1799, Hasted’s History and Topographical Survey of the County of Kent describes it as a “very forlorn unhealthy place, partaking of the same bad qualities of both air and water as the neighbouring parishes in the Marsh”.

The first impression of the church is one of surprising size for so remote a location, a view reinforced on entering its spacious interior. Its early history is not known, but the present nave dates from around 1200, enlarged around 1250 with aisles to the north and south. The resulting arcades are simple but handsome affairs of four pointed Early English Gothic arches on round piers. The responds at either end of the south aisle have women’s faces beneath foliage. The nave roof is magnificent – perfect tie-beams and king posts, dating from the 16th century.

The north aisle roof – unusually gabled – is older still, dating from the fourteenth century. Its trusses have decorative bosses, depicting (from west to east): foliage, a spread- eagle, a cross fleury, the initials “WN” and, against the east wall, the arms of Sir John Copuldlike, whose wife Joane inherited the Manor in 1399.

The chancel was added in the 14th century, and has two bays of arcades to what were once north and south chapels, with octagonal columns. There is – unusually – no chancel arch, although the position of the rood-screen can clearly be seen, as can the remains of the staircase which went up to it. The fifteenth century added the robust Perpendicular tower, dating from around 1400, and also the aisle windows. The tower arch is particularly impressive, framing a text-book late Gothic window. Finally, the small brick porch was added in the 18th century.

The church has some fascinating fittings and furnishings that bear greater inspection. Pride of place goes to the wall painting of a ship in the north aisle, dating from 1500 (picture below). So good is the painting, that it can be dated to a type of ‘great ship’ from the period 1480-1520, of perhaps 800 tones, with four masts, a forecastle, half deck and quarter deck. There is a local tradition that such a painting indicated that the church was a safe place in which to hide smuggled goods, and indeed in 1743 a large seizure of tobacco was made in the belfry, and a cask of hollands (Dutch gin) was found under the vestry table!

To the right of the painting, either side of the north door, two lead plates record those who repaired the church in 1780, including “T. Apps, carpenter, and all his jolly men”.

Between the chancel and north aisle is a 14th century altar tomb in the Decorated Gothic style decorated with quatrefoils, dating from around 1360, but sadly lacking its inlaid brass. The sanctuary rails of wood atop wrought iron supports are 17th century, and the pulpit 18th century. All are simple but handsome. Back in the nave, the font, from around 1220, still has its original lead lining. Next to it are some preserved encaustic tiles, from 1485. Finally, the church has a ring of three bells, one of which, inscribed “+ AVE * MARIA”, dates from around 1275.

The church has a service once a fortnight, and is part of the parish of Brenzett with Snargate and Brookland with Fairfield. The church is normally open in daylight hours. It’s well worth a detour.

Snargate, on lane opposite Red Lion pub, between Brenzett and Appledore TN29 9RX

Wednesday, 1 July 2009

St John the Evangelist, Piddinghoe

Piddinghoe is a fortunate place. Although just a mile or two from Newhaven and half an hour from Brighton, this delightful little village nestling under the South Downs has more than its fair share of picture-postcard cottages, a quay on the River Ouse with colourful boats tied alongside, and a lake in the former clay workings now used for watersports.

It also has a fascinating and atmospheric little church, set on a mound directly above the river, notable for having one of three round towers in the Ouse valley (the others being at Southease and St Michael, Lewes). Their origin reflects the plentiful supply of flints for building walls, but a shortage of other stone from which to carve out quoins for tower corners. Otherwise, from the outside, all is typical Sussex: walls of more flint, and a tiled roof which sweeps down almost to the ground. Inside, it is - even for an old church - extraordinarily dark and atmospheric.

Historically, it was built some time in the late 11th or early 12th century, as it is included in a list of churches given to the Priory of St Pancras at Lewes in 1121. It then probably consisted of just a simple nave and the tower. Expansion began early in the 12th century, when three round arches were cut into the north wall to form an aisle. Four arches were similarly inserted in the south wall to create a south aisle, but these are pointed and slightly chamfered in the Gothic style, and date to around 1200.

The Chancel was added later still, and is in the Early English style of the 13th century, with an attractive composition on the East wall of three lancets, with a round oculus window above, and a handsome (though restored) chancel arch. North and south aisles were added to the Chancel, at the same time, each with a two-bay arcade. However, at some later point the south and chancel aisles were demolished, and it was not until the restoration in 1882 that they were rebuilt, following the original floor plan, albeit with tiny quatrefoil windows in the south arcade clerestory.

The church is dark owing to the small Victorian aisle windows, heavy with stained glass by Wailes & Strang. The one exception is an attractive modern window at the west end of the north aisle, by Marguerite Douglas-Thompson, inserted in 1983. The vaguely pre-Raphaelite Chancel glass is by Powell & Sons. The only other furnishing of note is the font, dating from the 13th century. The tower has three bells, cast in the 13th or 14th century, and all recast in 1713.

Back outside, there are two points of interest: next to the tower are the village’s stocks, still in place and now listed as historic monuments in their own right. Finally, the tower’s weather vane is shaped like a large fish, although its age is not known (other than being present in the 19th century). It features in Rudyard Kipling’s poem 'Sussex’, thus: ...where windy Piddinghoe’s begilded dolphin veers… Kipling clearly used some poetic licence, as the fish resembles a salmon rather than a dolphin!

Piddinghoe, nr. Newhaven BN9 9AN