Tuesday, 31 March 2009

St Illtud, Llantwit Major / Eglwys St Illtud, Llanilltud Fawr

Tucked away – almost literally - among the rolling hills of the Vale of Glamorgan is the small Welsh town of Llantwit Major (Llanilltud Fawr). Although to-day it has a sprawl of dull suburbs, the old town, with its rambling narrow lanes of stone cottages, is a delight. There’s a 15th century town hall, some fine 16th century inns (I recommend the Old Swan for well-kept real ale), and at its centre, the church of St Illtud (sometimes Illtyd).

The church, although modest in scale, is one of the most important historically in Wales. Here, in 496 AD, the aforementioned St Illtud - a Breton by birth - established a monastery, which rapidly became a major seat of learning in Dark Ages Europe: at its height, it is reputed to have had 700 houses, 7 halls, and 2,000 students from all over the world, studying theology, poetry and rhetoric, geometry, grammar and arithmetic. Recognised as the earliest centre of learning in the UK, the ravages of Viking raids in the 8th and 9th centuries and the relative decline of Celtic Christianity saw the college peter out in the mediaeval period. Had it survived, it would pre-date Bologna as Europe’s oldest University by 500 years.

Alas, it did not; but the monastery church did, and it is a fascinating monument. The building unusually retains its form of having two churches: a western church for the parishioners, and the main eastern church reserved for the monks, which has both a second nave and a chancel. The tower and crossing separate the two. Ruins of a Galilee Chapel beyond the western part indicate it was once larger still.

The western church is rather scrubbed now, but it has a lovely 15th century wooden roof, 13th and 16th century tombstones, and an important collection of 7th to 9th century Celtic crosses, commemorating the Welsh kings and saints buried here. Despite their quality and importance, these appear strangely unappreciated – they were hemmed in by stacks of chairs during my last visit.

The crossing itself, dating from the 13th century, is of little interest save for the large decorated Norman font, but the nave of the eastern church – now the main worship space – certainly is. The architecture is a spare and primitive Gothic, with pointed arches resting on square pillars, and whitewashed walls, bare of carving, presumably reflecting the relative impoverishment of the local mediaeval economy. But extensive remnants of frescoes survive, dated around 1400, including a fine (and larger-than-life) St Christopher carrying Christ, a well-preserved one of St Mary Magdalene, and some geometric decoration. There are also stone carvings and tombs from the 14th century, and in the chancel a very fine 15th carved stone reredos, donated by the Raglan family.

The church’s modern surroundings are lovely: the graveyard is beautifully maintained (more arboretum than cemetery, with yews, oaks and palms). On my last visit, the nearby cottage gardens were veritably bursting with lilac and hawthorn.

Burial Lane
, Llantwit Major CF61 1RA Website

St Mary Bourne Street, London

Hidden away behind Sloane Square tube station, amidst the rows of stuccoed terraces, lies the small chapel of St Mary's Bourne Street.

There's nothing especially notable about the chapel itself, a competent version of Victorian Early English gothic, executed in red brick in 1874. Although it has some rich furnishings, and is a quiet and intimate space, what makes it stand out is its services.

For here is possibly London 'highest' Anglo-Catholic church: its mission to keep alive the catholic tradition within the Church of England. It's not everyone's liturgical cup of tea, but it attracts a varied and loyal congregation.

The services are elaborate in their ritual, rich in liturgy and especially rich in music. The high masses - sung, of course, in Latin - are wonderful experiences for lovers of divine music, and include Handel, Mozart, Bach, Allegri, Palestrina, Byrd, Tallis, Haydn - and many more. The vestments are equally sumptuous, and the whole spectacle is swathed in incense.

Strangely, the rumbling of underground trains beneath - they can clearly be felt through the floor - only adds to the feeling of mystery...
Bourne Street, Chelsea, London SW1W 8JJ Website

St Laurence, Bradford-on-Avon

Bradford-on-Avon is a lovely historic town close to Bath, with a handsome mediaeval bridge, an impressive 14th Century tithe barn and a lovely parish church of Norman foundation.

But the most famous building in Bradford-on-Avon is undoubtedly the diminutive church of St Lawrence which, by an accident of history, is arguably Britain's most perfectly preserved Saxon church. A church was founded on the site in AD 705 by St Aldhelm, although most archaeologists agree that the present building dates from the reign of King Aethelred II (978-1016).

Its history is rather obscure, but appears quite early on to have been converted into secular use, with other buildings growing up around it, and extra floors inserted into its nave and chancel. These were removed when it was rediscovered and restored in 1856, although the walls still show evidence of them. There are no remaining additions from later periods, so the building we now see is purely Saxon.

The church is tiny - the nave is just 25ft long and the chancel is 13ft long, although it feels larger as it considerably taller than it is wide. It has lost its south porticus, but the north porticus is still intact. Decoration is restrained: the exterior has Romanesque blind arcading, and the interior has simple mouldings around the narrow door arches, but the most interesting carvings are those of two bearded flying angels on the east wall of the nave. These were found nearby and placed here in 1855. They were probably originally part of a much larger sulptural scheme.

There are only a few, small windows, giving a dusky light. Although the interior is bare of furnishings, this is nevertheless an ancient and atmospheric space. It is still used for worship by the congregation of the adjacent Holy Trinity.

Church of St Laurence, Church Street, Bradford-on-Avon, Wiltshire

St John the Baptist, Croydon

Architecturally, modern Croydon has a grim reputation, with its uninspiring office blocks, pedestrianised zones and shopping malls - a perspective only confirmed by the view from the railway line to Brighton.

But Croydon is actually an historic place, for the Archbishops of Canterbury built a Palace here, adjacent to what is now the parish church. Better still, much of this historic legacy survives. Set amongst trees and lawns, the church feels a world away from bustling, modern Croydon. Of Saxon foundation and mentioned in the Domesday book, Henry VII and Henry VIII visited, and it is the resting place of numerous Archbishops.

The present church is largely a Victorian rebuilding of a late mediaeval Gothic church, following a fire in 1867 which left only the tower, south porch and walls standing. Fortunately, the architect responsible for the restoration was Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, who incorporated the remains in a competent Victorian Perpendicular design to the original floor-plan.

As you enter under the original West Tower, the 92ft high nave is an impressive sight, with generous aisles lending a feeling of spaciousness. The floor-plan is square, with no transepts, and the aisles lead to chapels either side of the richly-decorated chancel.

A large number of original fittings survived the fire: there is a splendid 15th century brass eagle lecturn; the impressive painted tomb to Archibishop Whitgift (d. 1604); a handsome marble renaissance memorial to Archbishop Sheldon (d. 1677); numerous 15th and 16th century memorial brasses; and niches and other elements of the original fabric. A more modern feature is a complete Victorian scheme of colourful encaustic tiling in the chancel.

The church is the busy centre of parish life, and services provide an opportunity to listen to the excellent choir (CD recordings available). For details of services, recitals and concerts, see web-site.

The adjacent Archbishops' Palace is now a school, but guided tours are available, to see the 13th century undercroft, the impressive 15th century Great Hall, Chapel and dining rooms, as well as the Long Gallery and other domestic rooms (see: www.friendsofoldpalace.org).

Church Street, Croydon, CR0 1RN Website

Bath Abbey

Bath is an ancient city with a surprisingly young church. Although there has been an Abbey here since 676 AD (King Edgar was even crowned here in 973 AD), the present church owes its origins to Bishop Oliver King, who began to rebuild it in 1499.

Alas, the work was abruptly interrupted by the dissolution in the 1540's, so the last of Britain's great mediaeval churches was finally consecrated only in 1616. Its enormous Perpendicular windows gave it the nickname 'the Lantern of the West', but in truth elements such as the nave roof were quick additions to complete the church.

Its restoration in 1864 finally saw these elements finished to their original design, under the sure hand of Sir Giles Gilbert Scott. The result is a feast of perpendicular architecture, with spectacular fan vaults and those huge panel windows. This is not to everyone's taste - it has been likened to a mediaeval greenhouse - but the central space is nevertheless awe-inspiring.

A lovely quirk is the carving on the west front, depicting the dream which supposedly led Bishop King to rebuild the church in the first place: two stone ladders, with angels climbing up and down them to and from heaven. Proof, if proof were needed, of British eccentricity, even in matters of religion...

York Street, Bath, BA1 1LT Website

Temple Church, London

The Temple church is one of London's most fascinating and, thanks to its appearance in the Da Vinci code, is also one of London's most visited.

It was built as the London headquarters of the Templars, an order of soldier-monks established to protect pilgrims travelling to the Holy Land. Over the years, its fortunes waxed and waned with theirs and, after the Templars' demise in 1340, it was given by Edward II to the Order of St John (the ‘Knights Hospitallers’). They in turn leased it to the lawyers of the colleges of the Inner and Middle Temples.

The Crown acquired it after the dissolution in 1540, and established it permanently as the church for the Inner and Middle Temples, who still run it to-day. Its most famous incumbent, Richard Hooker (1554-1600), is regarded as a founding theologian of the Anglican communion, and the church witnessed fierce debates on theology in his time.

The location is fascinating: the route to the church through the collegiate architecture of the Inner and Middle Temples is like a walk back through an earlier time. The oldest part of the present building, the nave, was consecrated in 1185, its circular design reflecting that of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.

From the outside, the West Door is pure Norman, but the windows and interior are an uncluttered Early Gothic, with arches resting on slender pillars of Purbeck marble. The spacious chancel is a delicate and pure form of this style, built in 1240 by Henry III, who had originally intended to be buried here. (He ended up in Westminster Abbey instead.)

Badly burned in 1941, it has been lovingly restored. The only interior details to survive were the tombs, located in the nave, but for many these are the main draw: fascinating life-sized effigies of 13th century knights.

To-day, the "Da Vinci Code" has ensured great crowds of pilgrims on a different quest: arrive half an hour after opening time if you want to see the church at its best. Better still, attend a choral service or concert: the choir is superb.

Temple, Holborn, London EC4Y 7BB Website

St Magnus the Martyr, City of London

Located under the gaze of the nearby Monument, St Magnus is regarded by many as one of Wren's finest London churches.

However, it is lucky to be there at all: it survived a major fire on London Bridge in 1640, only to succumb to the Great Fire of 1666. Rebuilt by Wren, another fire in 1760 burned the roof. An air raid in 1940 saw yet further damage, and recent restoration was undertaken after - you've guessed it - yet another fire in the 1980s.

Fortunately, much of Wren's interior has survived despite all this trauma and, although much altered, it is a beautiful composition of classical architecture. Beautiful dark wood carving contrasts with whitewashed walls and extensive gilding, set off by some delicate wrought ironwork, colourful glass and a wide range of 18th century (and later Anglo-catholic) furnishings. The services here are equally fine compositions of incense and high-church ritual.

Just inside the nave on the left is a fine model of the Old London Bridge (good for kids). Just a pity they can't divert the traffic away from adjacent Thames Street.

Lower Thames Street, London EC3R 6DN Website

St Mary's, Shrewsbury

Now in the care of the Churches Conservation trust, St Mary's lies in a lovely leafy close in the centre of mediaeval Shrewsbury.

From the outside, the 222ft spire is the dominant feature, but inside, you find a superbly well preserved church, with a Norman tower, a nave in the transitional style of the early 1200s, and elements from all the major Gothic styles - Early English, Decorated and Perpendicular - represented in the aisles, transepts and chapels.

But the real glory is to be found by looking out, up, and down.

The windows contain an outstanding collection of mediaeval stained glass, some of it local, but most brought here from Europe in the mid-19th century. The prize goes to the 14th century Tree of Jesse window - the most complete in England - whose colours are still vibrant. But there's also important glass from Belgium, Germany (from Altenburg Abbey and Trier Cathedral) and Holland, from the 15th to 17th centuries.

Look up, at the 15th-century coffered wooden roof, decorated with animals, birds and angels. And before you leave, look down at the superb collection of early Victorian encaustic tilework, beautifully restored. Covering almost the whole of the floorspace, they combine a range of vigorous geometric patterns with bold colours. Finally, in the Trinity Chapel, there's a magnificent tiled reredos featuring colourful opus-sectile mosaic work.

All in all, this is a veritable feast of pre-20th century crafts and design

St Mary's Street, Shrewsbury, Shropshire SY1 1EF Website

St Thomas a Becket, Fairfield, Kent

Many churches might describe themselves as ‘tranquil’, but few can live up to the description as well as Fairfield.

Set in a field in Romney Marsh, surrounded by water courses and with sheep nibbling grass by its entrance, Fairfield is truly a magical spot. The village it once served has long since disappeared, but the church has somehow survived. It is now part of a parish which includes the wonderfully-named villages of Brenzett and Snargate.

Dedicated to St Thomas a Becket, from the outside Fairfield looks rather severe – the 13th century timber frame was encased in brickwork in the 18th century, and its immense roof covered in red tiles. But entering the interior is like going back in time – the Georgian interior feels as though little has changed for over 200 years. Close the heavy door behind you, and all is peaceful and silent, except for the muffled sound of the wind. It is truly evocative of a bygone age.

Although parishioners once arrived here by boat, now you can get there via a small minor road leading from the A259 between Rye and Ashford. The key is held in a house 100 metres away, and then it’s under a 5 minute walk across the fields to the church. The land around is still flat and marshy, however: there’s a wonderful black and white photograph at the back of the church showing it standing like an island surrounded by floods in 1960.

Bring wellies if it’s been raining.

Fairfield, near Brookland, Kent, TN29 9RZ

Monday, 30 March 2009

St Nicholas, Islip

Islip is another of those ancient Oxfordshire towns: there was an Anglo- Saxon settlement here, probably including the royal hunting lodge of King Ethelred (the Unready), which became the birthplace of the subsequent King (and Saint) Edward the Confessor in 1004. Edward is alleged to have given the land and buildings of his birthplace to his newly-established abbey at Westminster in 1065. The Dean and Chapter of the Abbey still retain the right to nominate Islip’s Rector.

Although there must have been a church here in Saxon times, the present building dates to the end of the 12th century. It was substantially rebuilt in the 14th century, and all that remains from the earlier church is the impressive transitional arcade between the nave and north aisles, and the small round-headed window in the south aisle. The impressive pinnacled tower was added in the 15th century. The chancel was burned down during fighting in the Civil War in 1645, and rebuilt by the Rector, Robert South, at his own expense.

The church suffered from a rather severe restoration in 1861, which swept away many of the fittings of interest, as well as covering up some interesting mediaeval wall paintings. Today, the most interesting items include a 15th century octagonal font, some attractive 18th century memorials and, above the arch containing the painting of St Edward, a death mask reputed to be that of Richard Busby, the headmaster of Westminister School, for whom the Reverend South acted as executor.

Another famous rector was William Buckland (1846-56), the first professor of geology at Oxford, who discovered the fossilised bones of a giant reptile which he named Megalosaurus (“great lizard”) and wrote the first full account of what we now know as a dinosaur. He is buried in the churchyard.

Church Lane, Islip, Kidlington, Oxfordshire OX5 2SD Website

St Thomas of Canterbury, Elsfield

Elsfield is a charming little village just north of Oxford, perhaps best known as the final resting place of John Buchan, former Governor of Canada and author of The 39 Steps, who died in 1940. The village is picture-postcard pretty, and runs along a little lane from the Marston junction on the A40. Quickly, you leave the dual carriageway behind and find yourself in wooded, rolling countryside, with cottages, farms and the odd barn conversion along the way.

The church was built around 1160-80 but rebuilt in the 13th century, when it was dedicated to Thomas a Becket, following his martyrdom in Canterbury Cathedral. A century later, the beautiful east window was inserted, in a delicate and flowing Decorated Gothic style. A chapel was constructed on the north side of the nave around the same period, but nothing of this now survives (traces of filled in arches were visible until 1837). Thereafter, the church remained relatively untouched until a fairly thorough Victorian restoration in the mid 19th century.

Today, the church has an attractive setting, surrounded by cottages and with the handsome old Rectory next door, sitting amidst a well-kept graveyard. After this gentle beginning, the interior comes as something of a shock, owing to the recent installation of a “parish room” at the west end of the nave. This is a clean, bright space, separated by modern glazed wood panels with echoes of a mediaeval rood-screen. Whilst this is an excellent use of the space (and, overall, is to be applauded) the brightness does contrast rather strongly with the rest of the interior.

Turning east, the main architectural feature of the interior is the chancel arch, which retains the bases, pillars and capitals from its original building around 1160-80. This is surmounted by a rather later arch which probably dates from the 13th century rebuilding, around 1250. Inside the chancel, there are fragmentary remains of wall paintings behind the altar, most likely dating from the 15th century. These frame a rather bright mosaic of the Last Supper, installed in 1860 and the work of Antonio Salviati (who also made the reredos at Westminster Abbey). Other furnishings of note include the altar rails (1627), a Jacobean pulpit and the ancient font of c. 1200. This last was one of the reasons for our visit here, as one of my partner’s ancestors was baptised here in 1718.

The graveyard contains some 17th century tombs, but is most visited for the circular memorial of John Buchan, on the upper section, from which there are beautiful views over the surrounding countryside.

Elsfield, Oxford, OX3 9UH Website

St Andrew, Old Headington, Oxford

There is little evidence today that Old Headington was once the site of a great Anglo-Saxon royal manor. It predated Oxford, which was carved out from its lands. Modern Oxford has since bitten back, engulfing the settlement and turning it into a suburb, albeit it one with a charming village centre. But it was a seat of royalty for much of the Anglo-Saxon period and into the Norman era: King Ethelred is though to have been born here, and Henry I resided for a time in the parish.

So it is perhaps appropriate that a charter from Henry I in 1122 is the first record of a church on the site, although it seems likely there was an earlier Anglo-Saxon foundation.

History

The first stone chancel was built around 1140, and a century later the church was enlarged by the addition of a south aisle, with an arcade of two bays, along with the ground stage of the south tower. The chancel was rebuilt at the end of the 14th century, and around 1500 the upper perpendicular stages of the tower were added (rebuilt in 1679). The south porch was built in 1598. Two stages of building in the late 19th century added additional bays to the nave and the rather severe north aisle.

The church

The church now sits in an idyllic churchyard, full of 17th and 18th century tombs, many in a fine state of preservation, and a 15th century cross, much restored. On entering, you are immediately struck by the spaciousness of the church, largely thanks to the Victorian additions. There is little of interest in the north aisle, but the 13th century Lady Chapel in the south aisle has attractive lancet windows.

The piece de resistance is, however, the original chancel arch: a confident Norman work from the original building around 1140, it has abundant zig-zag carving on the arch, the shafts decorated with studded trellis and spiral patterns, below cushion capitals. Rather oddly, it sits beneath the outline of a pointed arch, thought to date from the 13th century rebuilding. Through this arch is the 14th century chancel, where the eye should be drawn up: the roof corbels have wonderful carvings of a bishop, two angels and a heavily bearded man.

The only fitting of real interest is a lamp, bestowed by Sir Hugh Pluggenait in 1142, and still burning today (albeit powered by electricity). Outside, many of the tombs are worth a look, but the most interesting is that of one John Young, who died, aged 100, in 1688. His grave has both a headstone and footstone, in the manner of a bed, both surmounted by skulls. The footstone bears the inscription:

Here lyeth John
Who to ye King did belong
He liv’d to be old
And yet dyed young

The church today is carefully looked after by its congregation, with worship following the Anglo-catholic tradition.

St Andrew's Road, Old Headington, OX3 9DL

St Giles, Noke, Oxfordshire

Noke is a little cul-de-sac of a village on the edge of Otmoor, north of Oxford. Recorded in the Domesday Book, it is named after the area’s oak trees – Noke means ‘by the Oak’. It is a quiet and peaceful place, strung out along its single lane and surrounded by rich farmland.

St Giles' church stands at the centre of the village, and is said to date from before Domesday, although the present building dates from around 1270; the list of rectors begins in 1272. The building consists of a small nave and chancel, and is essentially in the Early English Gothic style, but like so many small churches bears witness to repairs and alterations through the years.

The interior is absolutely charming: 'rustic and homely' is how Pevsner describes it, and I see no point in trying to better his description. The small nave has a heavily braced roof, probably rebuilt in Elizabethan times, and 14th century niches either side of the wide, low chancel arch, which, along with most of the rest of the fabric, is probably mid-13th century. There is a colourful painted organ at the west end, next to which is the font, which is said to have been given as a gift by Princess Gundreda, youngest daughter of William the Conqueror. Its lead lining is dated 1773. The single lancet west window contains attractive modern glass, depicting three poppies, commemorating the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II. At the chancel end, is a dark wood Jacobean pulpit, beneath an hour-glass stand – doubtless to time the length of sermons!

The chancel contains a brass dedicated to Joan Bradshaw, (d. 1598/9), depicting herself, her two husbands and eight children. There are also memorials to her grandson Benedict Winchcombe (d. 1623) and the remains of an effigy, originally part of Benedict’s monument, erected by his nephew, Benedict Hall. This stood in a mortuary chapel on the north side; allowed by Benedict Hall’s descendants to fall into disrepair, the chapel was pulled down in 1745 to prevent it endangering the chancel. Although the brass and memorial tablets were saved, the monument was not: the remains of his Uncle’s effigy (in Jacobean costume) was allegedly used by local children for target practice, throwing stones! It now sits in the niche formed by the former chapel door.

The church has services twice a month, and an excellent website giving more details of the church, as well as on-line access to its parish registers from 1574 – a much valued resource for family historians.

Noke, Oxfordshire, OX3 9TU

Friday, 27 March 2009

St Botolph's, Iken, Suffolk

Iken is on the way to nowhere. On the opposite bank of the River Alde from Aldeburgh itself, this small hamlet is set in quiet marshland, and seems almost lost in its solitude.

But it was once a buzzing place: in 654AD the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle tells us that St Botolph founded his Minster here. He came to be one of the most venerated saints in mediaeval England and Denmark, a local patron saint of travellers as well as an important figure in the conversion of eastern England to Christianity. Many churches still bear his dedication.

Unfortunately, nothing remains of St Botolph's foundation, but the church on the site dedicated to him is a delight: unusually, the Norman nave, built in the late 1100's, is still thatched rather than tiled. It has a robust tower dating from the mid 15th century, made of Suffolk flint, and an odd flint and brick porch of uncertain date. The chancel is Victorian, replacing one which became ruinous in the 18th century.

The interior is rather spartan, with scrubbed walls and red floor tiles. But it has an excellent 15th century font, with handsome, robust carvings of angels and the evangelists. More interesting still are the substantial remains of a Saxon cross, dating from the 9th century, with vigorous swirling patterns and zoomorphic elements of dogs or wolves, and what may be a serpent.

After a walk around the church, go back outside to enjoy the tranquil setting. There are some lovely walks in the surrounding area.

Church Lane, Iken near, Aldeburgh, Suffolk IP12 2ES

St Mary Magdalene, Newark

Newark is a lovely market town in eastern Nottinghamshire, located on the navigable section of the River Trent. Despite its history, castle and church, it is often by-passed by visitors rushing northwards to Yorkshire and Scotland. This is a pity, because it is a lovely town, and one not over-run by tourists.

The church of St Mary Magdalene is one of the most imposing parish churches in England, reflecting Newark's importance in mediaeval times. It's spire, at 236ft (72m) is the fifth highest for a parish church in England, and is visible for miles around.

Little remains of the original Saxon foundation, and only the crypt and the crossing piers survive from the Norman church of 1180. It was much rebuilt in the later middle ages: the lower part of the tower dates from 1220, and the spire and south aisle were added in the early 1300's, in the decorated gothic style.

The remainder of the church is an elegant composition in the 15th Century perpendicular style. The wide aisles combine with delicate arcade columns and a high clerestory to give a wonderful sense of height and space.

The fittings are also of interest: the Holy Spirit Chapel has a window of 14th-15th century glass; the 16th century choir stalls have carved misericords and 17th century graffiti; the striking 20th century gilded reredos behind the high altar by Comper is regarded as one his best; a fine 14th century brass of a wool merchant; and a rare mediaeval 'Dance of Death' wall painting is located next to the south chantry chapel.

The church is tucked away in the centre of town, surrounded by alleyways which reflect the mediaeval street plan . There are some fine pubs in the surrounding streets, but on a fine day, why not consider a picnic on the banks of the nearby River Trent, with its narrow-boats and pleasure craft?

Church Walk
, Newark, Nottinghamshire NG24 1JS

Selby Abbey

Many of the abbeys made redundant after the dissolution became cathedrals (if they were in the right place) or were pulled down (if they were not). Selby Abbey survived as the town's parish church - thus endowing this modest, Yorkshire market town with one of the largest and most splendid parish churches in the UK.

Built on the scale of a cathedral, the church was begun shortly after the Norman conquest, and much of the present interior dates from this period. The nave arcade piers are pure Norman romanesque, the style derived from those in Durham Cathedral. The nave was completed in the Early English Gothic style, but the chancel dates from the Decorated style of Gothic, in the late 13th and early 14th centuries, and is a particularly rich example of this period.

The great East Window is also in the Decorated style, and contains its original mediaeval glass, depicting a tree of Jesse. More 14th century glass contains the coat of arms of the Washington family - stars and stripes - later used as the model for the US flag.

From the outside, the church is beautifully composed, set amongst lawns and trees, with its strict cruciform plan and high central tower complimented by twin west towers. The whole setting is delightful.

The Crescent, Selby, North Yorkshire YO8 4PU

www.selbyabbey.org.uk

Kingston St Mary, Somerset

OK, I'll come clean right away. This church is special to me for its family connections - my Great-great-great-great-Grandfather was married here in 1793, and three generations of ancestors lived here until mid-1850's.

So, lucky for me that the church is worth a visit in its own right, for both the setting - Kingston St Mary is a lovely village 3 miles north of Taunton, nestled in the foothills of the Quantocks - and because it possesses one of the best of the Perpendicular 'Somerset Towers' in the County, and the most complete set of 16th-century bench-ends in the UK.

The church itself dates largely from the Early English Gothic period around 1225, but it was extensively remodelled in the late 1400s. This rebuilding provided a new chancel (1490-1520), a new porch (1520) with a splendid fan-vault, and its magnificent tower.

The tower deserves more explanation. A rash of church re-building in Somerset in the 1400s, largely funded by the wealth from wool, resulted in a crop of new, larger towers in the Perpendicular style, with successive towns and villages competing with each other in size and decoration. Kingston belongs to the so-called 'Taunton group', where the emphasis is horizontal rather than the 'Wells Group', which emphasise verticality in their design. Pevsner's Buildings of England: South and West Somerset has a detailed, illustrated description of the different styles.

Dating from 1490, the design places creamy Ham stone dressings on the rich red local sandstone. The tower rises in three stages: at each level, delicate stone tracery fills the windows and bell openings, and eight tall decorated pinnacles thrust up from the tower battlements (decorated with yet more tracery). The corner pinnacles each have four decorated flying buttresses. The tower is also decorated with 'hunky punks', squatting gargoyle-like statues, one of which depicts a woman giving birth to a huge baby. All in all, it is an astonishing architectural legacy for a small rural village.

Back inside, the bench ends, dating from 1522, are carved in oak. Each panel depicts a different motif, including oak leaves, rosaries, potted plants, oxen and yokes. A weaver's shuttle indicated the source of the wealth that allowed all this rebuilding. Also of interest is the tomb of John de la Warre, who fought at Poitiers in 1356, and took the sword from the captured King John of France.

Finish a visit with a stroll around this delightful village - and, of course, a pint of ale or two in the Swan pub.

Kingston St Mary near, Taunton, Somerset TA2 8HU

St Botolph's Aldgate, London

This City church is dedicated to Botolph, an East Anglian Anglo-Saxon saint, regarded during the Middle Ages as a sort of 'English St Christopher'. The church was adjacent to the old (Ald) gate of London, and travellers stopped here to pray for a safe onward journey, or to give thanks for a safe arrival.

First referred to in 1125, although doubtless of older origin, the original church survived the great fire of London in 1666 but became unsafe and was demolished and rebuilt in 1744.

The architect was George Dance the Elder, who designed the Mansion House. He chose a severe classical style, with tall columns supporting a flat roof, and the altar unusally placed at the North End. From the front, the church looks as if it has dropped in from New England, with a central classical tower and spire. The Victorians added a frieze of life-sized angels over the cornice, which rather clashes with the original scheme.

Although the exterior is somewhat spoiled by the traffic, the interior is calm and ordered, helped by the beige and white walls and ceiling, offset with delicate gilding. The stained glass reflects the large number of London's Livery Companies which worship here, and there are some interesting funerary memorials.

But the prize is the organ, dating from 1676 (and thus pre-dating the current church). Recently restored, it is London's oldest working organ and delivers a fine sound. There's a wonderful plaque from the original church, recording that: 'This organ is the gift of Mr Thomas Whiting to the hole parrish 1676'. Spelling was clearly more flexible then!

Regular concerts and art exhibitions are held, and the church has an active bell-ringing group. Services are modern, middle-of-the-road Anglican, with inclusive liturgy. St Botolph's is renowned for its inclusivity, welcoming people from different backgrounds, and especially the gay community.

Aldgate High Street, Aldgate, London EC3N 1AB www.stbotolphs.org.uk

Exeter Cathedral

Although not as well known as Salisbury or Canterbury, Exeter has one of the loveliest cathedrals in England.

Dedicated to St Peter, the cathedral is built on an ancient Christian site: St Boniface, the Patron Saint of Germany, was educated at a monastery close to the present location in 690. The history of the Cathedral itself dates from 1050, when the bishopric was moved here from nearby Crediton.

The Normans rebuilt the church in 1114, although only the towers and some foundations remain from this period. Most of the present building dates from the rebuilding in the decorated gothic style, begun by Bishop Bronescombe in 1270, and completed over a century later. The result is a glorious harmony of late mediaeval gothic architecture, set in a tranquil green oasis just minutes from the bustle of Exeter city centre.

Notable features of the interior include the minstrels' gallery (1350), with statues of musicans playing different mediaeval instruments, and the ceiling bosses, one of which depicts the murder of Thomas à Becket.

Because there is no central tower, Exeter Cathedral has the longest uninterrupted gothic vault in the world. Another feature is its astronomical clock (1480). There are also tombs of bishops and knights, and a startling Bishop's Throne dating from 1312, the canopy of which soars almost 18 metres high.

Guided tours are available (daily - times vary). The Cathedral also has a shop and a cosy refectory, which serves light meals and snacks.

Also well worth a visit is the adjacent Cathedral Library, which houses a number of manuscripts dating back to Saxon times. Its treasure is the 'Codex Exoniensis': written between 950 and 1000, this priceless work contains the most extensive single source of Old English poetry from the Anglo-Saxon period in existence.

Cathedral Close, Exeter, Devon EX1 1HT www.exeter-cathedral.org.uk

Salisbury Cathedral

Salisbury's Cathedral is hardly a well-kept secret, but both the building and setting are stunning all the same. It celebrated the 750th anniversary of its completion in 2008, as befits the finest 13th century Cathedral in the UK. The list of superlatives for Salisbury is truly impressive: At 404ft (123m) it has Britain's tallest spire, Europe's oldest working clock (1386), the best preserved copy of Magna Carta (1215), the largest Cathedral Close, the largest Cloisters...

Unusually built 'all in one go' between 1220 and 1258, it is a classic of the Early English Gothic style. And the setting - famously painted by Constable - is incomparable (and thankfully now preserved from intrusive development). But as well as the grandeur of the building, it also has a very fine collection of monuments, to both secular and ecclesiastical worthies, as well as some original mediaeval glass.

Like all Cathedrals, it's more than just a building, and one should not forget the music and worship. I would strongly recommend you try to attend a service or concert: the acoustics are superb, the organ is recognised as one of England's finest, as is its 750-year old Choir School. Whether you are religious or not, you'd be hard pressed not to be moved by the haunting impact of its music.

Truly magnificent.

Thursday, 26 March 2009

Wells Cathedral

Wells is England's smallest city, with a population of around 10,000, but at its heart contains one of the best preserved collections of mediaeval ecclesiastical buildings in Europe. It's close enough to Bath to make an easy day out.

The centrepiece of the city is the Cathedral itself. Although there has been a church here since 705, the present building was begun in 1180 as an abbey church, with an associated monastic community. It was the first church in England to use the then-new pointed gothic arch throughout. Like many cathedrals, it was built over several hundred years, and the architectural styles reflect this, with a transition from Early English Gothic through to Perpendicular.

The bulk of the building - nave, west front and the crossing - was completed by 1245, and the amazing Chapter House by 1306. The central tower was enlarged and the eight-sided Lady Chapel at the East End completed by 1326. The most dramatic feature of the interior is a pair of inverted 'scissor arches' underneath the main arch of the nave at the crossing, inserted around 1340 to prevent the enlarged tower collapsing. They've done their job well, as the tower is still standing, albeit without its spire, which burned down in the 15th Century.

As ever, it is the detail which provides the delight: the carving at the top of the main nave columns depict birds and animals, mythical beasts and ordinary men and women going about their everyday lives in the 1200s. The stonemasons had a sense of humour too - they included a man suffering toothache and a fox running off with a goose. The East Window contains a Jesse Tree, dated at 1340; and the Chapter House, with its central column and elaborate fan-vault, is truly sublime. And like many English cathedrals, it still has its original astronomical clock, dating from 1390.

But many regard the glory of Wells to be its West Front, built between 1209 and 1250. With the two towers, it is 100 feet high and 150 feet wide - twice the width of the Nave behind. This was essentially designed as a huge sculpture gallery, with niches for over 500 figures. The West Front is unique in retaining over 300 of its original medieval statues - claimed to be the largest single collection of original mediaeval statuary, in situ, in Europe. An added delight is that the Cathedral Green is still preserved in front of the West front, affording a splendid picture-postcard view.

Nearby, other buildings worth visiting are the remains of the moated 14th century Bishop's Palace; the Vicar's Close - a whole street of 14th century houses and an early example of mediaeval town planning; the four 15th Century entrance gates which guard the Cathedral precinct; and the impressive 15th century parish church of St Cuthbert, with its fine Perpendicular tower.

Finally, don't miss the wells that give Wells its name: these natural springs, attractively modelled into a water garden, produce thousands of gallons of water an hour, which flows into the moat and then via special gutters along Wells' main streets.

Cathedral Green, Wells, Somerset BA5 2UE www.wellscathedral.org.uk

Llandaff Cathedral / Eglwys Gadeiriol Llandaf, Cardiff

Tucked away in the suburbs of western Cardiff is the ancient cathedral seat of Llandaff. Easily overlooked, it’s a charming, quiet spot, with a village-like feel and, unlike many cathedral towns, is not over-run by tourists. The cathedral itself is smaller and more intimate than many of its English equivalents.

Until the late 19th century a small town in its own right, Llandaff is one of the oldest Christian sites in the UK, with a colony founded by St Dyfrig in the 6th Century. His leadership was followed by St Teilo and St Euddogwy (great names, these Welsh saints..) and these three now form part of the Cathedral’s dedication, along with St Peter and St Paul.

The present building was begun in 1107 after the Norman conquest, to replace the earlier church, of which only a stone cross survives. The Norman church was itself rebuilt in the early 13th century, and the bulk of the fabric dates from this period: the Nave and West Front were completed by 1220. The Lady Chapel was added in 1287 and the outer aisle walls rebuilt, and the square Jasper Tower completed in 1485. After the reformation, the church fell into ruin as the income from pilgrims to the shrine of St Teilo dried up. After a partial (and rather unsympathetic) restoration in the 18th century, a more complete restoration in the 19th century delivered much of what can be seen to-day, as well as its pre-Raphaelite furnishings, most notably a triptych by D G Rossetti and a ceramic reredos by Burne-Jones.

Unfortunately, the cathedral was brought to almost complete ruin again in January 1941, when it received a direct hit during a bombing raid. The subsequent rebuilding largely restored the earlier fabric, but with one spectacular addition: a new organ case built on a concrete arch in the centre of the nave, surmounted with a huge aluminium statue of ‘Christ in Majesty’ by Sir Jacob Epstein. Love it or hate it (and I think I’m in the latter camp), it now defines the interior cathedral space, and it certainly unique and dramatic. And the effect when it is played is equally astonishing - like many cathedrals, Llandaff is best experienced with music, and there is an active programme both of sung services and concerts - see web-site for details.

Although there is a small shop, there are no catering facilities, but there are a few cafes in the surrounding streets: why not treat yourself to a traditional Welsh tea after a visit?

Cathedral Green, Cardiff CF5 2YF www.llandaffcathedral.org.uk

Edington: The Priory Church of Saint Mary, Saint Katharine and All Saints

Tucked away in rural Wiltshire, half an hour’s drive from Bath, Edington is one of those villages that makes you realise that the fabric of English history is not just to be found in its cities, but in its villages as well.

The village has two claims to fame. First, as the place where the young King Alfred the Great defeated the Danes in 878, safeguarding both the Anglo-Saxon heritage in England, and forcing the Danes’ subsequent conversion to Christianity.

The second claim to fame of Edington is unquestionably its church, dedicated to St Mary, Katherine and All Saints. Formerly a Priory, it was founded around 1351, and built in ten years – an amazing speed for the time. The church architecture portrays the transition from the Decorated Gothic to the English Perpendicular style, particularly in its fine set of windows. But is also notable for the impressive roof, decorated in red and white, which dates from 1663.

There are also some notable tombs, dating from the 15th-17th centuries, with superb, delicate carving. After the reformation, the Priory became the parish church, which explains why such a small village possesses such an amazing building. It is now looked after lovingly with an active 'Friends' group, and is beautifully maintained.

Over the years, Edington has become famous for its August festival of ecclesiastical music, which celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2005. Regularly featured on BBC Radio 3, there are up to four choral services a day, with choirs visiting from churches and cathedrals all around the UK.

After visiting church, I’d recommend going around the corner to the Lamb Inn – a lovely 400-year-old pub with real ales and an impressive food menu.

Monastery Road, Westbury, Wiltshire BA13 4QJ Website

Wednesday, 25 March 2009

The Brompton Oratory, Kensington

Until the completion of Westminster Cathedral, the Oratory of St Philip Neri was the premier Roman Catholic church in London.

Built between 1878 and 1896 in the Italian baroque style, the Oratory is like a little piece of Rome dropped into London. The interior has a completed decorative scheme of the sort rarely seen in the UK, with extensive use of marble, stucco and mosaics. The church also contains an important collection of Italian statuary: the most notable are the huge statues of the apostles by Giuseppe Mazzuoli (1644-1725), from the Cathedral in Siena, dated about 1680-85. The highly decorated Lady Chapel altar and reredos came from the Chapel of the Rosary in San Domenico, Brescia, and dates from 1693.

The church is open every day for visitors (06:30-20:00), and there is also an extensive range of high Catholic services. It's a short walk from either Knightsbridge or the Victoria & Albert museum next door, and from South Kensington.

Brompton Road
, London SW7 2RP
www.bromptonoratory.com

St Mary de Haura, Shoreham

Shoreham has two churches, both ancient. New Shoreham, as its name implies, is the younger of the two. But the moniker 'New’ belies the fact that the church is over 900 years old, founded in 1103 by a Knight returning to England from the first crusade. Unusually dedicated to 'St Mary de Haura’ (St Mary of the harbour), this is a landmark church: from a distance, it looks like a Cathedral, its tower rising confidently above the town's rooftops.

Closer inspection reveals that half the church has disappeared, however: the original Nave became a ruin when New Shoreham’s economy declined, and was demolished in the 17th century. What is left is the crossing and chancel, but this is still impressive.

The lower part of the tower and transepts date from the original church, and are formed in true Norman (Romanesque) style. The Chancel was rebuilt around 1180, and demonstrates beautifully the transition from Romanesque to Gothic: the north aisle columns are rounded and octagonal in the Norman style, supporting arches with the slightest of points. In contrast, the south aisle is fully formed Early Gothic. For such a small town, this is an exceptional piece of architecture. Other items of interest include the original Norman font, two lovely 15th century floor brasses and - just to demonstrate that it’s not a new problem - a quantity of 17th century graffiti carved into the stone-work.

The church is a venue for regular choir concerts and for events during the Adur festival, including an impressive flower festival. There is more information on the church’s excellent web-site.

Church Street, Shoreham-by-Sea, West Sussex BN43 5DQ www.stmarydehaura.org.uk

St John the Baptist, Clayton, West Sussex

Just off the busy main road between Brighton and Hassocks lies the little village of Clayton. Nestling at the foot of the South Downs, it is a quiet spot, known locally for its two windmills, called Jack and Jill, after the English nursery rhyme.

Most visitors are ramblers, walking the South Downs long-distance footpath. And most probably overlook the small, squat church, with its wooden shingle turret, which seems to tuck itself into the hillside.

But go inside..

The interior immediately gives away its antiquity. It is mentioned in the Domesday Book. The nave is Saxon, pre-dating the Norman conquest of 1066, with an ancient Romanesque arch separating it from the chancel. Other elements suggest Norman and later Gothic additions.

But what draws the eye are the frescoes, which adorn the nave walls: here is one of England's most complete set of early mediaeval church wall-paintings. Although the age is disputed, the consensus is that they are late 11th or early 12th century, although some believe that they may pre-date the Norman conquest.

The theme is judgement. Above the chancel arch is Christ seated in glory, attended either side by the apostles. To the left, on the north wall, a great procession of clergy, kings and lay-people walk towards the chancel and a depiction of Jerusalem, to be met by St Peter: above the door, the Antichrist (dressed as a king) is shown being cast down by an angel. A similar procession occurs on the south (right-hand) wall. The western part of this frieze is missing, but there is enough to suggest this was the depiction of hell: there is a wonderful rendition of a beast being ridden by a devil, trampling one of the damned under foot. A series of framed drawings of the frescoes is provided at ground to aid their interpretation.

Elsewhere, on the south wall of the chancel is a small memorial brass, commemorating a 16th century Rector. Although depicted in his vestments (how little they have changed!), the memorial is in surprisingly modern English. It reads: 'Of ye charite pray for the soule of Mayst: Richard Idon, pson of Clayton and Pykecu, whiche decessed the VI day of January the yere of our Lord M V and XXIII on whose soule Jhu have mercy amen.'

The building has a few other items of interest, notably a Kempe window and a weather vane from 1781. In summer, it hosts a delightful flower festival.

Underhill Lane, Clayton
, Hassocks, West Sussex BN6 9PJ

St Mary, Sompting


The church of St Mary, Sompting, is well known as one of the best-preserved Anglo-Saxon churches in England.

Thought to date from about 960 AD, it is also mentioned in the Domesday book. The principal - and most distinctive - feature is the Anglo-Saxon tower, capped by a diamond-shaped roof, known as a 'Rhenish Helm' or 'Rhineland Helmet'. This is the only one of its type remaining in Britain, and makes a striking sight across the fields from the nearby A27. The lower stage may date from before 1000AD, and may have been the west part of the nave. The second stage added some time around 1050. Inside, the base of the tower contains an Anglo-Saxon arch, with interestingly carved capitals, decorated with a primitive form of scroll and leaf motif, showing classical influences.

The remainder of the church dates from a rebuilding some time after 1154, when it was given to the Knight's Templars. The style is late Norman (Romanesque) and appears to have been based on the original Anglo-Saxon plan, with the addition of the present north and south transepts. The capitals of the columns under the later arches are interesting in themselves, demonstrating different sculptural motifs from the 12th century. There are also some interesting fragments of relief carving, dated to around the same period, one of which shows a cleric reading from a book, with oddly stylised facial features.

Access to Church Lane from the A27 is restricted to the eastbound-carriageway only, but this busy dual-carriageway is all too close and mars what would otherwise be a lovely place.

Church Lane, Sompting, Lancing, West Sussex BN15 www.somptingparish.org.uk

St Andrew, Steyning, Sussex

Steyning is a lovely village to visit, if you are in this part of West Sussex, with an interesting historic core of buildings, which also extends to nearby Bramber.

The origins of Steyning's church are somewhat vague: it was founded around the 8th or 9th centuries, supposedly by St Cuthman. But it is clear that during the 9th century there was a flourishing Minster church here, dedicated to its presumed founder. Ethelwulf, King of Wessex and the father of Alfred the Great, was buried here in 858 (though his body was later moved to Winchester Cathedral.) An ancient gravestone in the porch purports to be from his tomb.

Unfortunately, nothing else recognisably survives from the Saxon period: after the Norman conquest, the church came into the care of the monks of Fecamp Abbey in France, who rebuilt the church in Romanesque style between the late 11th and mid 12th centuries. The porch was added in the 15th century and the tower in the 16th, but after the dissolution, the Norman chancel decayed and the present chancel is a Victorian addition.

The nave remains the best reason for a visit: it is a Norman building of very high quality, which makes a strong, even dramatic impression as you enter. The arcades and clerestory are richly carved, with the typical Norman decorations across the arches and columns of ziz-zag and dogtooth carving, with additional human and animal motifs. The whole scheme is a delight, and is preserved in excellent condition. It also has an interesting furnishing, in the form of the reredos behind the altar: this is a handsome piece of Tudor woodwork, brought from a house in the parish.

Also in Steyning are some lovely half-timbered houses and a small museum. After a visit to Steyning, cross the busy A283 to the ruined Bramber Castle. Situated at the entrance to the equally delightful village of Bramber, it makes a perfect spot for a summer picnic.

St Andrew's Church, Vicarage Lane, Steyning, BN44 3YQ Tel: 01903 813276

Winchester Cathedral

Winchester is one of my favourite places to take foreign visitors. It’s easily accessible and makes a perfect day out from London in summer.

It’s a historic place: it was the capital of Wessex and subsequently England until the Norman Conquest in 1066. Not surprising then, that a large cathedral was built here around 648 AD. All that remains of this is its foundations, clearly marked next to the present building.

And what a building that is. At 556ft (170m) the longest mediaeval cathedral in Europe, it illustrates perfectly the developments in mediaeval architecture from the Norman Romanesque of its initial building in 1079, through Early English and Decorated (High) Gothic to the Perpendicular of the rebuilt west front and nave of 1400. There are several impressive chantry chapels and a beautiful 13th century retro choir. Richard I was crowned here in 1194, and Henry IV (1401) and Queen Mary (1554) were both married here.

But it is also full of other points of interest: the graves of Jane Austen, William II, and the Saxon kings Egbert, Ethelwulf and the Danish Canute; mediaeval stained glass and frescoes; pre-Raphaelite glass from Burne-Jones; and in the ancient library, the Winchester Bible, one of the pre-eminent mediaeval illuminated books in Europe.

The area around the cathedral is also delightful for a walk, and the award-winning refectory is a good place to eat. My favourite iwalk is along the lovely River Itchen to the church of Saint Cross (see separate blog). On a high summer’s day, it’s a perfect way to spend an afternoon.

The Close, Winchester, Winchester, Hampshire SO23 9LS www.winchester-cathedral.org.uk

St Cross Church and Almshouses, Winchester


A lovely twenty minute walk along the water meadows by the River Itchen, going south from the centre of Winchester, brings you to the Almshouse and church of Saint Cross.

The Almshouse, founded in 1132, is the oldest and best preserved example of its kind in Britain, and is England's oldest charitable institution. Founded to take care of thirteen frail men and to feed a hundred poor men a day, it was extended in the fifteenth century. To-day it includes twenty five brothers, all pensioners (although they are not actually monks - they're all lay brothers). They wear the mediaeval style of robes of two orders which date to the founding in 1132 or the extension of 1445.

The Almshouse still provides the 'Wayfarer's Dole' to visitors, if you ask for it: a horn of beer and a morsel of bread. The Almshouse also has a lovely garden, open to visitors.

As well as the Almshouse itself, the adjacent church is a magnificent example of late Norman Transitional, on a grand scale, with later Gothic additions. Begun in 1135, it contains both classically Romanesque rounded arches, with all the decorative motifs one might expect of Norman work - lozenges, dog-tooth and zig-zag - with gentler Transitional arches with barely a whisper of a point, to more solidly Gothic work. Building continued until the 15th century. The church has good furnishings, including Tudor screens and an Elizabethan altar rail in the Lady Chapel, fragments of wall paintings and a triptych by Jan de Mabuse dating from around 1500, depicting the Nativity, St Barbara and St Catherine, complete with wheel.

Saint Cross Road, Winchester, Hampshire SO23 9SD www.stcross.f2s.com

Bristol Cathedral


For much of England's history, Bristol was the second city after London, and despite extensive bomb damage in 1940-41, traces still remain of its mediaeval past.

One of the best surviving buildings is its Cathedral. Once an Augustinian Abbey, the Cathedral is an excellent example of a former abbey church given a new use after the reformation. Its location - despite being fairly central - gives it a tranquil, undiscovered quality: a meditative calm, with few tourists to disturb the peace.

The building itself was founded in 1140. The Chapter House, which dates from 1165, is the main survivor of this period, and this superb, richly decorated room is one of most important pieces of Norman architecture in England. Most of the rest of the church dates from a programme of rebuilding begun in 1298 and completed in the 1480s.

This rebuilding introduced some important architectural innovations. The first is the nave itself: the aisles are the same height as the nave, effectively creating a large pillared hall. This design, now known as a 'hall church', became the prototype for many similar buildings in mainland Europe.

In 1330, work on the Choir was begun, and here another innovation can be seen: the arches of the aisles have no capitals, and so sweep uninterrupted from floor to the apex of ceiling vault. The effect is to give an unusual feeling of space and gracefulness.

The Abbey was dissolved in 1539, and it became the city's cathedral in 1542. Much of the original nave was damaged at this time, and it had to wait for a Victorian restoration in 1877 and the completion of the west towers in 1888 for the building to attain its present shape.

The cathedral has a number of items of interest besides its architecture: there is a rare Saxon sculpture depicting Christ in the Harrowing of Hell (when the newly risen Christ descends to hell to assert his victory over evil, and release the souls of those who have not heard the Gospel), mediaeval glass in the Lady Chapel windows, interesting carved misericords (choir seats) from 1520, and an extensive set of tombs, including some spectacular ones of former Bishops.

After visiting the Cathedral, it's a pleasant walk around the harbour to the church of St Mary, Redcliffe, one of England's finest and most famous late mediaeval buildings.

College Green, Bristol BS1 5TJ Web: www.bristol-cathedral.co.uk

St Mary, Redcliffe, Bristol


In 1574, no less a person than Queen Elizabeth I is reputed to have declared this church to be the "fairest, goodliest and most famous parish church in England." Who can argue with that?

St Mary's owes its existence to the merchants who made Bristol a major mediaeval trading centre. Here, wines from France, sherry from Spain and port from Portugal were imported. Later, it was a major port for the New world, with tobacco and - less happily - the slave trade adding to its wealth.

Although begun in the 12th century, the merchants paid for the church to be rebuilt in the Perpendicular Gothic style in the 15th century, delivering a series of lofty stone vaults, filled with light from huge panel windows. Even the transepts have vaulted aisles. The result is a church of larger and more impressive proportions than many a cathedral.

Seen from outside, the tower (at 292ft, the second highest parish tower in England) soars among the modern offices that surround it. The double porch, dating from the mid-14th century, is a marvel of Decorated Gothic architecture. The outer porch, with its seven-pointed arch, has a distinctly Moorish feel, doubtless reflecting the travels of its benefactors abroad.

Besides the architecture, the interior also has much of interest, particularly the various tombs, brasses and memorials. These include a number connected with the New World: Sir William Penn, father of the founder of Pennsylvania is buried here; and a whalebone, presented by John Cabot, after returning from his voyage to Newfoundland in 1497, hangs on a wall. Part of its glory is found by looking upwards: the roof contains over 1,200 decorated bosses where the ribs cross and intersect.

The church has a cafe in the crypt, open 10am-4pm, serving snacks and lunches. Music is also important to the church, whose impressive choir produces its own CDs. The website has German, French and Dutch language versions.

Redcliffe Way, Bristol BS1 6RA www.stmaryredcliffe.co.uk

St Michael & All Angels, Brighton


St Michael's is a surprise: tucked away amongst the terraces in the fashionable Clifton area of Brighton, this large church seems almost out of place, its gothic red-brick contrasting with its white-stuccoed neighbours. It has earned it the epithet 'The Cathedral of the Back Streets'.

It is only by looking up that you begin to realise just how big a building this is. That's partly because it is actually two churches in one, both built by renowned Victorian architects. The first was built by G F Bodley in 1861-62, and now forms the south aisle of the church. The interior features painted ceilings, tiled floors and polychromatic brick decoration. But the real joy of this part of the church is its Pre-raphaelite stained glass windows, by Burne-Jones, Webb, Maddox-Brown, Gabriel Rossetti and William Morris. A stronger artistic pedigree from the 19th century would be hard to find.

In 1893, work began on an extension by William Burges, with sculpture by Thomas Nicholls, which dwarfed the earlier building and became the main body of the church. This is in the French gothic style, on a cathedral-like scale, with an interior in stone rather than brick. The windows here are by Kempe, and there are other furnishings by Burges and Nicholls. But it is the sheer scale that makes this part special.

The church is well worth a detour from the bustle of Brighton, in the streets below. As well as for services, the church can accommodate small groups for tours (arranged in advance). The church has recently become accessible for wheel-chair users.

Victoria Road, Brighton BN1, just off Montpelier Road. www.saintmichaelsbrighton.org

St Paul's, Brighton


Although St Paul's is at the very centre of Brighton, next to the conference centre and Churchill Shopping centre, and a stone's throw from the sea, the church is often overlooked by locals. In spite of its size, and its distinctive tower, it almost hides itself among the adjacent office blocks and the Churchill Square shopping centre.

At night, and especially at week-ends, the area is packed with people visiting the numerous bars in the area, who probably don't give a second thought to the church in their midst. But they are missing a gem - a beautiful church with a colourful history, and a haven of peace and tranquillity in the heart of the City Centre.

St Paul's was essentially the vision of one man, Rev. Henry Michell Wagner, vicar of Brighton for forty-six years from 1824 - 1870. He was a wealthy man, and saw the need to build a church to minister to the poor living in the fishing quarter to the west of the church (where the Churchill Centre now stands). He was also a proponent of the Tractarian movement, which advocated a return to more traditional liturgy and ceremonial in the Catholic style. The church has remained a beacon of High Anglo-Catholicism ever since.

Completed in 1848, the church was one of the first designed in the Gothic Revival style, by the architect Richard Cromwell Carpenter. Saint Paul’s was built with newly researched gothic proportions, structures and symbolism, and won immediate acclaim, with its inspiring furnishings and fine stained glass. The glass in particular, is a notable feature, designed by Augustus Pugin (1812-1852), who designed much of the interior of the Houses of Parliament. The windows represent the most complete cycle of Pugin glass in any Anglican church, and are quite exceptional in their colour and detail.

It was Wagner's son, Arthur Douglas Wagner, who became the Vicar when he was ordained in 1850, and he remained here until his death in 1902. The traditional style of service, with its pre-reformation elements, attracted both a large congregation and considerable controversy. The ceremonial was mocked as 'the Sunday Opera at St. Paul's', and Wagner’s uncompromising teaching on the sacraments evoked anti-papist politics, which eventually broke out into open violence.

In 1865, Wagner had refused to give evidence from the confessional at the trial of a woman who had murdered her half-brother. This led to outrage and questions in Parliament about the nature of the confessional at St Paul's. The scandal deepened when it emerged she had offered him £1,000, even though he had not accepted it. Wagner himself was assaulted, and worshippers pelted with stones.

Things are, thankfully, much quieter to-day. The church itself is accessed either via the long (and slightly dingy) cloister from West Street, or the old main entrance in Russell Place. It is a grade II* listed building. The exterior has walls of Sussex flint with Caen stone dressings. The tower, originally rather shorter, was extended upwards with a large wooden octagon in 1873. This amazing structure, restored by English heritage, gives the church a slightly foreign appearance, more akin perhaps to the imaginary towers of some Transylvanian castle than a Sussex church.

Once inside, the church has a generous Narthex, adjacent to which is the Fishermen's Vestry. This fine Baronial-style Hall, now used for meetings, was once used by the fishermen as a place to mend their nets - hence the name.

Turning right from the Narthex, you are hit by the full theatre of the main worship space: a large and beautifully proportioned nave in the Decorated Gothic style, with generous aisles, leads to an elaborately decorated chancel. The rood screen in front was designed by Carpenter himself, though the cross and figures above were designed by G F Bodley, another great neo-gothicist.

As well as the glass and chancel, the church has rich furnishings, in particular its font, pulpit and elaborate four-pillared lectern, designed specifically for the church. All this comes alive during special services, when the church is lit largely by candle-light and is the stage for the whole panoply of High Anglican ritual: whatever your feelings about this style of worship, it's a magical experience.

To-day, the church has a busy life, with regular week-day services, as well as being a home for music recitals (including during the Brighton Festival) and art exhibitions in the Narthex.

Address: West Street, Brighton, BN1 2RG Web: www.stpaulschurch.org.uk

Tuesday, 24 March 2009

St Mary the Virgin, Sidlesham


The old village of Sidlesham, almost by-passed by the B2145 from Chichester to Selsey, is a perfect picture postcard: a clutch of old thatched cottages along small lanes, clustering around their mediaeval church.

The church itself is picturesque enough, but merits a visit on the strength of its jumble of contrasting, almost clashing architectural styles, providing a fascinating challenge for the would-be architectural detective. Here are elements of Early English and Decorated Gothic, Tudor, Georgian and Victorian, its walls (inside and out) peppered with blocked-up windows, doors and arcades, old stone mixed with bricks and plastered walls.

A look at the church plan provides a clue to this complexity: the earliest elements of the church are the transepts, built around 1200, with tall and narrow Early English single-lancet windows to the north and south. The aisled nave was added about 1220, again in a simple early gothic style. Research has shown that there was once a large chancel, probably built at the same time, with either aisles or chantry chapels. These were demolished in mediaeval times, leaving the outline of the arcades in the new walls. A 14th century window survives in the south aisle, but is empty of its tracery. In the 15th century the tower was added – possibly using the stones form the demolished chancel – and contains two bells, one dated 1390.

The habit of rebuilding seems to have carried on unabated. The Tudors and Victorians both added large windows, the Tudors through the walls, the Victorians in the roof for a now-lost gallery. The 18th century brought a rustic brick porch, and a vestry off the north transept, now demolished. Yet the biggest change came in 1820, when for some reason the chancel arch was removed, bringing the nave and sanctuary together in a single, large (and architecturally, not entirely successful) space. Modern times have given the church a new East window, in a rather severe Perpendicular.

The church also has some furnishings of interest: the font dates back to the original building, and adjacent is an ancient ecclesiastical tombstone on which can be seen a faint outline of a cross. Another rare survivor is a wooden memorial cross to Thomas Greenwood (d. 1658). This survived after having been used by some enterprising carpenter as a door lintel in a nearby cottage, before being rescued and thoughtfully being brought back into the church. On the south wall are the traces of a mediaeval mass sun-dial. But most puzzling is a marble memorial to Rebecka Taylor (d. 1631), which depicts her facing her husband, yet the space for his name is empty: did he desert the village after her death?

Address: Church Lane, Sidlesham, Chichester, West Sussex PO20 7RE