Monday, 29 August 2011

St Margaret, Bodelwyddan

St Margaret’s is one of Wales’s outstanding Victorian churches, known locally as ‘The Marble Church’ because of the profusion of marble used in its interior decoration.


The church was built to designs by John Gibson, pupil of Sir Charles Barry, and paid for by Lady Margaret Willoughby de Broke in memory of her husband, Henry Lord Willoughby de Broke. Lady Margaret was the daughter of Sir John Williams, Baronet of Bodelwyddan, and returned to Bodelwyddan after the death of her husband, determined to create a separate parish for Bodelwyddan from neighbouring St Asaph. The cost was the then phenomenal sum of £60,000. The foundation stone was laid on the 24th July 1856; and the new church was consecrated by the Bishop of St. Asaph on the 23rd August 1860.

The church

Executed in a florid Decorated Gothic style, the church is dominated by the spire, which rises over 200ft. The exterior is dazzling white, thanks to the use of the local limestone, and is a familiar landmark alongside the A55, which unfortunately runs all too close by.

Inside, the plan is an aisled nave with a large chancel, the arcade columns composed of the deep red marble which give the church its name. More marble decorates the chancel, which is lined with stalls, as in a cathedral, with heavily decorated canopies with ogee arches. Capital, corbels and arches throughout are elaborately carved, as are the tall oak roofs. The guide book states that fourteen varieties of marble are used in the church.

The furnishings are similarly lavish; the rather intimidating eagle lectern is supported on a thick and heavily carved column, intended to represent a crag; similarly, the pulpit is heavily carved, with images of Christ and the four Gospel Saints. The font in Carrara marble depicts two young sisters holding a shell, and is rather sentimental to modern eyes. The stained glass is by O’Connor and T F Curtis, with a single window attributed to Burne-Jones.

off Rhuddlan Road, Bodelwyddan, Denbighshire, LL18 5UR

St Michael, Caerwys

The ancient village of Caerwys has an attractive church, hidden from the main road, in a large and expansive churchyard. It has some interesting and historic furnishings.


Caerwys was laid out as a planned town by Edward I as part of his policy of embedding his conquest of Wales, receiving a charter in 1290. However, it is evident that there was a church here before then: in 1244 it was nominated as a meeting place between Henry III and Prince David of Gwynedd.

The oldest part of the church is the tower, dating from the late 13th century. Dating the rest of the church is difficult, but the south nave has 14th century elements and the north nave features from the 15th, although it may date from an earlier period. The porch is a 19th century addition. Many of the features were restored in the 19th century.

The church

The church is dominated by its robust west tower, but also has the curious feature of a double nave, a speciality of the Vale of Clwyd area. Inside, the windows date from the 14th to 15th centuries, with some Victorian renewal. There is a two-bay arcade in the chancel leading through into the north nave, now effectively used as an aisle and separate chapel.

The oldest furnishing is a wall tomb in the south chancel wall, with a 14th century cusped arch containing an effigy of earlier date. This is reputed to be of Elizabeth Ferrers (1250-c. 1300), wife of Dafydd, the last independent Prince of Wales. A window above has a small quantity of mostly jumbled late mediaeval glass, although the top light has two angels or saints carrying heads of wheat, surrounded by various floral emblems, including a Tudor rose.

The chancel is screened off with some attractive woodwork panels, dating from the 17th century, and more, and possibly earlier woodwork forms a dado in the north nave. This includes two splendid facing dragons. Panelling from the box pews also lines the walls, one recording that it was the pew of Sir Thomas Mostyn, Baronet.

The font is dated 1661 and is framed by some broken sepulchral panels of 14th century date, and some later tomb slabs. The door into the tower from the north nave is the original ancient main door.

Pen y Cefn Road, Caerwys, Flintshire, Wales CH7 5BH

Thursday, 18 August 2011

St Mary the Virgin, Bletchingley

Bletchingly is a small village on the A25 with an impressively large church, with an unusually rich collection of furnishings.


Bletchingley was one of the original ‘Rotten Boroughs’, and a prominent manor that belonged at various times to the de Clares and later the family of Lord Howard of Effingham, commander of the fleet that defeated the Spanish Armada, who was married in Bletchingley in 1539.

The present church is the result of almost six centuries of continuous building; the east wall of the chancel and the robust west tower with its small round-headed windows are Norman, erected around 1090 and heightened around 1160, with a tower arch added around 1175; the south aisle was added in the 13th century, along with the Lady Chapel (now St Catherine’s chapel); a north transept, known as the Ham Chapel, was added in the 14th century; the 15th added the huge porch, rood stair, and new windows in St Catherine’s Chapel. Somewhat later, the Victorians added a north aisle and rebuilt the East wall of the chancel, and added the present reredos, by G E Street.

The church

From the village, the robust tower, along with the south porch and battlemented south aisle lend the church the appearance of a stately home. Inside, the interior is spacious and the variety of internal detail is immediately apparent: tombs, mediaeval corbels, a rood stair, and a wide variety of furnishings compete with each other for attention.

Of these, pride of place goes to the huge Clayton memorial, which completely dominates St Catherine’s Chapel. Sir Robert Clayton (1629-1707) and his wife. Clayton was a banker, MP and one-time Lord Mayor of London, and the confident and sumptuous baroque memorial has life-size statues of him and his wife in their finery (Clayton himself with gilded badges and chains of office) under a huge pediment supported on Corinthian columns. More poignantly, it also includes a figure of their only child, who died in infancy.

A table tomb between the chapel and chancel is that of Sir Thomas Carwarden (d. 1559), Master of revels to Henry VIII, Edward IV and Queen Mary. A number of unnamed brasses are contained in the Ham Chapel, although the most interesting and impressive is that of Thomas Warde (d. 1541) and his wife, in the floor of the tower. The style suggests the figures may have been pirated from an earlier brass. On the floor of the north side of the altar is brass which may represent Hugh Hextall (d. 1476), the Rector who oversaw the 15th century works.

Other items of interest include the pulpit from 1630, the font from 1450, and the south aisle corbels, two of which depicts green men. The window at the west end of the south aisle is by Kemp, with the other two by Comper in matching style.

St Mary the Virgin, Church Lane, Bletchingley, Redhill, Surrey RH1 4LP

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

St Peter & St Paul, Nutfield

Just a short distance east of Redhill on the A25 is the small village of Nutfield. The village along the A25 is, unsurprisingly, rather busy with traffic, but just a short distance away is as pretty a church as you'll find anywhere, with a delightful churchyard.

Although there was a church here in Saxon times, the present church dates largely from rebuilding in the 13th and 14th centuries: the North aisle was inserted around 1230, and the chancel rebuilt at the same time, and extended early in the 14th century. The south transept and splendid tower are later 15th century work. The south aisle was erected in 1882, to match the north aisle. The interior is whitewashed, but the Victorians scrubbed the chancel back to the stonework: here the 13th century lancets and simple decorated windows with trefoiled heads have survived best.

The furnishings are of interest: the font, although bearing a date of 1665, but the bowl is actually a classic 15th century perpendicular Gothic design, and was rescued and brought back into the church around this time after being thrown out earlier by the Puritans. The chancel screen is particularly fine, with a series of perpendicular arches decorated with trefoils and quaterfoils, and is largely 15th century; also from this century is the piscina in the chancel. Fragments of 15th century glass remain in the north aisle window, including a fine St George killing the dragon. The pulpit incorporates some fine Tudor linen-fold panels.

The south aisle has a number of relocated tomb niches, and in the chancel is the tomb of Sire Thomas de Fulham, the rector who undertook the 14th century expansion. Adjacent is a charming and well preserved 15th century brass to William Grafton and his wife, Joan, in clerical dress, dated 1465. On the north wall of the chancel is a chalk panelled tablet to Charles Gillman, son of Anthony Gillman of Reigate, (d. 13th April 1631), with a shield bearing a leg, booted and spurred.

Finally, the Pre-raphaelite glass in the East Window is worth a special mention: showing the angelic host at worship in Heaven, it was designed by Edward Burne Jones. The dark pink wings of the angels caused a huge furore amongst some of the Victorian congregation, who left in disgust and founded a new church nearby.

St Peter & St Paul, Church Hill, Nutfield, Redhill, Surrey RH1 4JA

Monday, 8 August 2011

St Andrew & St Mary the Virgin, Fletching

Fletching is a pretty village, a few miles north of the A272 between Hayward's Heath and Uckfield. The impressive church dominates the centre of the village and has many historically and interesting fittings.


Although not mentioned in the Domesday book, the details of the tower indicate a date on the cusp of the Saxon-Norman overlap, probably late in the 11th century. The church was enlarged in in the Early English style 1230, but substantially rebuilt in 1340, when it acquired its present dimensions, leaving the tower as the only significant Norman remnant. It was restored by John Oldrid Scott in 1880, who remodelled the chancel into its present form.

It was witness to an important event in English history, when in 1264 Simon de Montfort prayed and attended mass here the night before the Battle of Lewes, where he defeated the forces of Henry III.

The church

The church sits in an expansive churchyard on a mound in the middle of the village, surrounded by mature trees. The most notable feature is the tower with its shingled spire. The bell openings in the tower are early Norman, as is the slim buttress on the north east side. The spire and deep corner buttresses date from around 1340. Entry into the church is via the south porch, built in the 15th century, and through the original 15th century door, which has Perpendicular Gothic decoration.

Inside, the church is dark thanks to the extensive scheme of Victorian stained glass. The plan is cruciform, with an aisled nave and a long chancel, making the church over 140ft long. The nave arcades, transepts and chancel date from the early 13th century. The arcade arches rise as they get nearer to the crossing, and there is a squint from the north transept into the chancel. On the south arcade can be seen remains of early Norman windows; the clerestory windows date from the 1340 rebuilding. The tower door is of Saxon dimensions, but renewed by the Victorians. The East window, although restored in the 19th century, is said to be based on the original late 13th century design.

The fittings are unusually rich, particularly the monuments in the south transept. Pride of place goes to the tomb chest, inlaid with a magnificent and well preserved brass, presumed to be of Sir Walter Dalyngrygge and his wife, c. 1380. He is shown in full armour, his wife in a long mantle, beneath elaborate Gothic canopies. The tomb originally had a vaulted canopy, but this was lost after 1820.

Close by is a humble but unique brass, consisting of a name plate above a pair of gloves, to Peter Denot, a glover. It has been dated to the 1450s. He took part in Jack Cade's Rebellion of 1450 but was pardoned

The largest tomb is that of Richard Leche (d. 1596), High Sheriff of Sussex and Surrey, and his wife Charitye. This is a splendid affair in alabaster, with the effigies of excellent quality (and in a remarkable state of preservation). The charity he established for the poor of the parish is still in operation today. His wife married again, but the second marriage was said to be unhappy, and she chose - unusually - to be included in her first husband's memorial, while she was still alive.

Other items of interest include the Jacobean pulpit; four funeral hatchments to different members of the Sheffield family; funeral armour (helmet, gauntlets, swords and spurs) of members of the Nevill family, the Earls of Abergavenny, dating from around 1720. The East and south transept windows have Victorian glass by Kempe.

An unusual feature is the mausoleum added on to the north side of the north transept for the Earls of Sheffield (who lived at nearby Sheffield Park) in the late 18th century. The mausoleum was also the burial place of Edward Gibbon, author of _The Decline and Fall of The Roman Empire_ and a close friend of the first Earl.

St Andrew & St Mary the Virgin, Church Street, Fletching, near Uckfield, East Sussex TN22 3SS

Saturday, 6 August 2011

St Stephen's, Bristol

This is a large and well preserved 15th century town church, filled with monuments, with an impressive tower, quiet churchyard and a small modern cafe.


Although there has been a church on the site since the 11th century, the present structure dates from a comprehensive rebuilding in the late 15th century. The tower and East window were the gift of John Shipward, Mayor of Bristol (d. 1473). The clerestory was repaired after a storm in 1703, and the aisle and east window repaired in 1873. It now has an active ministry to the City Centre, with innovative, modern forms of worship.

The church

The most impressive external feature is the tower. This is 152ft high, of an elaborate Perpendicular Somerset design, but with a lavish Gloucester style crown with complex open tracery, decorated with pinnacles and gargoyles. The main church has aisles to the nave of seven bays, but no crossing, with large Perpendicular windows in both aisles and clerestory.

The church has many impressive monuments: on the north wall is a tomb chest with effigies and statuettes in ogee niches, to Edmund Blanket (d. 1371), a clothier and wool merchant. Also on the north wall is one to Martin Pring (d. 1627), who explored the coast of what is now Massachusetts, Maine and New Hampshire. This is an elaborate and colourful affair, decorated with allegorical figures, urns, a mermaid and merman, an hour-glass, scythes and anchors.

There is a large collection of monuments and memorials by the door to the cafe at the east end of the south aisle. Two are of particular note: the huge and colourful tomb of Sir George Snygge (d. 1617), complete with life-sized semi-reclining effigy beneath a large strap-work cartouche with columns either side. On the south wall is the rather humbler but attractive memorial to Robert Kitchin (d. 1594) and his wife; in the form of an engraved brass plaque, it shows them facing each other in prayer, attended by their three sons and three daughters, with a delightful poem below:

Robert Kitchin, Alderman, and his wife,
Lieth neere this place, closed in earth and clay,

Their charities alike in death and life,

Who to the poor gave all their goodes away,

Leaving in trust such men to act the same,

Who might with truth perfor(m) their good intent,

So that the poore indeed and (m)eke in name,
To lasting ages in this Citie meant,

And other places of this Kingdom faire,

As Kendall towne and Stuckland Field both have,

With Bathe the native place of her first ayre,

The bountie of their guyftes they to them gave.

St Stephen's, 21 St Stephen's Street, Bristol BS1 1EQ

St Thomas the Martyr, Bristol

Now in the care of the Churches Conservation Trust, St Thomas the Martyr has a particularly attractive 18th century interior and fittings regarded by some as worthy of a London Wren church.


Founded at the end of the 12th century, the church served the population of a new district of Bristol, south of the main bridge. Originally dedicated to St Thomas a Becket, the dedication was changed after the Reformation on orders of Henry VIII (who forbade the veneration of the saint who defied his king).

The church was rebuilt at the same time as St Mary Redcliffe in the 14th and 15th centuries, and was reputedly one of the grandest of Bristol's churches, filled with altars and chantry chapels. However, by the 1780s, the fabric was in such dangerous condition it was decided to build a new church. The architect chosen was James Allen, and the building was built 1789-1796. Allen had intended to alter the west tower to match, but a lack of funds meant that the handsome Perpendicular Gothic tower from the 15th century survives.

The church

Allen's design has a plain classical exterior: only the east end is rendered in stone, as the sides were originally hemmed in by buildings. This has a pretty Venetian motif, with a small circular window of 1879, under a pedimented arch decorated with garlands, and a handsome classical door. At the west end, the handsome 15th century tower dominates the rather soulless modern square.

Inside, the nave has five bays resting on square pillars, with a tunnel vault and clerestory. The aisles have tall arched windows. Allen retained many of the furnishings from the previous church. The reredos of 1716 has fine Corinthian columns and pilasters, decorated with carvings of wheat, vines and flowers of the highest quality. The original panels containing the Lord's Commandment were replaced in 1907 by paintings by Fritz von Kampf of Clifton, depicting biblical scenes. The Communion rails are 18th century, and the carved oak pulpit dates from 1740.

The organ case is by John Harris and dates from 1730, and again has excellent carvings of foliage and cherubs' heads. At the west end, again surviving from the earlier church, is the original organ gallery, with Roman Doric columns. Beneath this are two sculptures of saints taken from the former Long Row almshouses. On the north wall are the Royal Coat of Arms of Charles I, (1637) and on one of the nave columns an elaborate early 17th century sword rest. The late 18th century mahogany font was converted into a lectern in 1878, replaced by a rather cumbersome stone design.

St Thomas the Martyr, St Thomas Street, Bristol BS1 6QR

St John the Baptist, Bristol

Framing the end of Bristol's Broad Street, St John's is a rare surviving mediaeval church gate, complete with an extensive crypt and interesting furnishings. It is now in the care of the Churches Conservation Trust (CCT). Such church gates were used by travellers to pray for safe passage before travelling, and afterwards for thanksgiving for returning safely home.


St John's is the only survivor of the five gate churches that once lined Bristol's inner Saxon town walls. Built originally in the 12th century, there was once another church, dedicated to St Lawrence, on the other side of the tower (which it shared). St Lawrence was deconsecrated and sold in 1580, and demolished by 1824.

The crypt dates from two building phases in the 14th century, and had a separate dedication to the Holy Cross. The second phase, as well as the nave, which also dates from this period, was paid for by William Frampton, (d. 1388). The two-bay chancel was built c. 1480. The church was used for worship until 1984 and was passed to the care of the CCT in 1985.

The church also had an outlet of the St John's Conduit, built in 1267 to supply water to a Carmelite Priory on the site of the present Colston Hall. This originally came to a conduit house inside the gate, but was moved to its present position on the Quay Street side in 1827 and restored in 1866.

The church and crypt

The exterior is dominated by the tower and the gate. The central gateway and tower dates to the 14th century and on the Broad Street side incorporates statues of Brennus and Bellinus, legendary founders of Bristol. The two outer walkways and the present church entrance on Nelson Street are Victorian alterations. The gateway is vaulted and the groove of the portcullis are clearly visible in the main arch. To the East, the tall Perpendicular Gothic windows of the nave characterise the nave and chancel.

The crypt entrance is in Quay Street. The crypt is low, with vaulted ceilings, and the division between the earlier eastern part and the later western part. In the eastern part is a rather defaced but still impressive merchant's tomb with alabaster effigies of him and his wife, with ten kneeling children in panels below. Next, under an ogee arched and crocketed canopy, is the tomb with an incised cross of Thomas White (d. 1542), Mayor of Bristol in 1530, and his wife. A tomb chest in the western part has incised figures of a man and his two wives, next to a damaged piscina.

The church is now entered by a door in Nelson Street, through the Victorian narthex. The nave is a great surprise after the crypt: the six regular tall bays and windows fill the church with light, giving it an unexpectedly spacious feel. The last bay is higher and has two clerestory windows, presumably to light an elaborate rood screen. A tall, sweeping chancel arch leads to the two-bay chancel, which has a peculiar battlemented Tudor screen on the east wall, behind where the reredos once stood. This wall was formed in 1570 to form a vestry behind.

The furnishings are particularly rich. At the West End is a gallery dating from the late 17th century, with square fluted pillars, and paintings of saints in the Dutch style. The screen incorporates two fine 16th century carved doors. Next to this is the elaborate font, dating from 1624, with no fewer than 24 panelled faces, decorated with 16 cherubs and 8 rosettes, standing on four clawed lions' feet. The nave pews date from 1621, but were remodelled by the Victorians. The tall nave windows are clear except for fragments of mediaeval stained glass.

In the chancel are two impressive monuments: that of the donor Walter Frampton (d. 1388) has an excellent life-like effigy with angels and a long-tailed dog. On the opposite wall are well preserved brasses to Thomas Rowley (d. 1478) and his wife. Other items include the fine Communion table (1635), Communion rails (late 17th century), lectern (c. 1690) and an 18th century sword rest.

Before you leave, look down - the chancel has a particularly fine decorated floor of colourful Minton tiles.

St John the Baptist, Broad Street, Bristol, BS1 2EZ

St Mary the Virgin, Isle Abbotts

If ever there was a gem of a parish church, St Mary the Virgin in Isle Abbotts has a strong claim. Set in a small and relatively inaccessible village on the edge of the Somerset Levels, St Mary’s demonstrates the ability of an isolated rural community to furnish us with truly glorious architecture. Its tower is regarded as one of the finest in Somerset, but the interior is also full of fascinating details.


The existence of an earlier church is testified by the well-preserved and unusually decorated Norman font. The present church dates from around 1300, when the nave, chancel and the main structure of the south porch were built. The tower was built between 1510 and 1520, and the splendid north aisle and porch fan vault were also added in the 16th century, although the details of the squint imply an earlier north aisle on the same position. Both the aisle and the vaulting are associated with Lady Margaret Beaufort (1441-1509), mother of Henry VII.

Subsequent periods left the fabric relatively untouched, and Victorian repairs have been thankfully sensitive; although it has lost its original rood screen, the tower niches have retained their statuary. The roofs and bench ends have also survived from the mediaeval period.

The church

The tower faces Church Street and makes an immediate impact: although only 81ft high, the proportions and balance of its decoration are near-perfect. The tower is built of blue lias limestone, balanced by golden Ham stone for the decorative detail. The west side has a large, transomed four light window, with a transomed two-light window above, and twin transomed bell-openings above that, all flanked with pinnacles and niches. More pinnacles adorn the set-back buttresses, and the crown of traceried battlements.

The other sides are simpler, but still with niches and pinnacles, and above ground level the niches retain their original statues – a great rarity in a parish church. These include depictions of Christ steeping from his sarcophagus, St George mounted on his horse, St Clement of Rome and other saints. The crown is adorned with ‘hunky punks’ – Somerset gargoyles, crouching on their haunches. My favourite is that on the north west corner, a man playing a rare double-barrelled bagpipe. Also worth a look is the exterior of the north aisle, again with a traceried pinnacle parapet, with more hunky punks and traditional gargoyles.

Entry is via a lovely porch: the stoup has 14th century detailing, so the splendid fan vault was added later. On my visit, the central pendant provided a home to a nest of martins. Inside, the clear glass makes the most of the architecture, and particularly the beautiful north aisle, with its elegant late Perpendicular arcade, executed in honey-coloured stone, with its panelled Tudor roof.

A large, pillared squint from the north aisle gives a view into the chancel, through the surviving rood staircase – another great rarity. The font has a mixture of Norman motifs of birds and dragons with later motifs of heraldic shields with fleur-de-lis decoration (upside down, so it may have been reversed at some point).

The chancel retains its 14th century windows, with the East window of five stepped lights, the north and south of three stepped lancets with quatrefoils above. These contain fragments of mediaeval stained glass. Below, the large and elaborately panelled piscina is surely worthy of a cathedral, as are the elegantly flowing sedilia of three seats. To the left of the altar are the remains of a large, crude and ancient sarcophagus, found in the churchyard. In contrast, the mediaeval rood screen is rather simple, and may have been moved here from elsewhere in the church.

Finally, the nave has its original mediaeval bench ends, with simple but elegant tracery panel decoration, a Jacobean pulpit, and the original 14th century roof. The west (tower) arch is a suitably grand finish, rising two storeys in height, with a screen made from a Jacobean communion rail. The church is still used every week for services, albeit on a rather irregular pattern.

St Mary the Virgin, Church Street, Isle Abbotts, near Ilminster TA3 6RH

Friday, 5 August 2011

St Mary the Virgin, Bishops Lydeard

Bishops Lydeard (pronounced 'Liddy-ud') is a small village north west of Taunton, today as well as known for anything as the start of the West Somerset Railway. But it has a church, prominently sited in the middle of the village, well worth visiting. I'm biased in this case, as I have family connections with it going back to the 18th century, but I hope the photographs speak from themselves.


There has been a church here since Saxon times, although the earliest part of the present structure, the north arcade, dates from the end of the 13th century. But it was subject to a major rebuilding in the 1450s, when the present tower was erected - one of the famous Perpendicular Gothic Somerset towers. Much of the interior (and the Chancel in particular) was rebuilt by the Victorians, but the rood screen and pew bench ends date from the 16th century and themselves form a rare example of an extensive woodwork scheme from this period. The tower has very recently been restored to its full glory.

The church

From the outside, the tower dominates the expansive churchyard. Of four stages, it is a beautiful composition executed in the local blood-red sandstone, with detailing of golden yellow Ham stone. The windows, bell openings, pinnacles and buttresses are carefully balanced, and filled with delicate Somerset tracery, leading to a crown of pierced battlements. On the south side of the nave aisles is a surviving rood turret.

Inside, the windows and chancel arches were heavily restored by the Victorians, but the furnishings are outstanding. First is the early 16th century Rood Screen, which runs across the nave and both aisles. It is richly carved, with the Apostles Creed (in Latin) running along its length carved in Gothic script. It was recoloured by Comper, who also restored the Rood itself above, the gilded reredos, with its ornate gilded canopy.

Next, and equally impressive, are the bench ends, carved by itinerant Flemish carvers around 1540. The backgrounds are simply coloured to highlight the compositions; these include a charming windmill, with a miller, his horse and three birds; a pelican piercing her beast to feed three hungry chicks (an early Christian motif); a fine sailing ship; frolicking rabbits watched by a donkey; a handsome stag in the forest; a heart pierced with two arrows; a passion; and some fine Green Men (depictions of forest deities with foliage coming from their mouths).

The pulpit is Jacobean and the font Perpendicular, with a panelled stem and complex panelled tracery. Except for a few fragments, the heavy stained glass is entirely Victorian.

St Mary the Virgin, Church Street, Bishops Lydeard, near Taunton, TA4 3AT

Thursday, 4 August 2011

St John, Frome

Frome’s large parish church – fitting for a town that was as large than Bath until 1650 - lies a short distance up a hill from the town centre. From the outside, much of what the visitor sees is Victorian, but inside are substantial elements from a complex mediaeval building.


The church was founded around 685AD by St Aldhelm, Abbot of Malmesbury, and this Saxon building survived until the Norman period. It was replaced late in the late 12th century, and fragments of the new Romanesque church can be found in the present fabric.

Around 1300, the nave was replaced, and the lower stages of the tower were built. The nave was extended late in the 14th century (or early 15th), and the northern transept rebuilt and the tower completed. In addition, chantry chapels added to the east of the tower (around 1412) and to the west of the north transept (1517).

The clerestory was also raised in the 15th century but, like much of the fabric, rebuilt in the 19th century, as it was said to be in very poor condition. These works included rebuilding the chancel (1847-9), the north porch (1862), the north and south aisles (1862-5), and the west front (1865).

The church

The two approaches to the church could not be more different: from the end of King Street and Cheap Street, a series of steep steps rises alongside a stone wall with sculpted stations of the cross, forming a processional way (or Via Crucis) to the North door; to the west a spacious forecourt is closed off from Bath Street by a five arched screen, designed in 1814 by Jeffry Wyatt.

Once inside, one is struck by the scale of the building, and particularly by the long nave. Here, the division between the earlier and later 14th century parts is clear in the design of the arcades. Both the clerestory and the rather intrusive sculpted roundels are Victorian.

The north chantry chapel is entered through a fine panelled arch. This is now a baptistery and, besides the font, contains many wall monuments. An attractive round-arched doorway with continuous mouldings (ie no capitals) from the Norman church opens into the north transept. Another Norman fragment is the round-headed piscina on the north wall of the chancel. Architecturally, the ornate Victorian chancel is less interesting than the south chantry chapel and the room beneath the tower, both of which have elaborate rere arches.

The church has many interesting furnishings. In the baptistery chapel are a 13th font in the shape of a quatrefoil, with four shafts; fragments of 15th century stained glass and an unusual wall monument to Richard Stevens (d. 1796), depicting an urn with two orphan boys on one side and an elderly man the other, with an asylum in the distance.

The north transept has more 18th and 19th century monuments, but more unusual is the large table tomb with a cadaver underneath, to a member of the Leversedge family. The elaborate rood screen is by Kempe, and the reredos in the chancel (of Carrara marble) by the prolific sculptor, James Forsyth (1826-1910), beneath an East Window by Clayton & Bell.

Finally, in the tower room opposite are two fragments of Saxon sculpture, depicting a monster and interlaced carving. The accompanying description postulates that they may have been from a cross, one of several erected where St Aldhelm’s funeral procession stopped as it moved to Malmesbury for burial. It admits there is no evidence for such a claim but says, ‘we at St John’s like to think it is a reasonable assumption’.

St John's Parish Church, Bath Street, Frome BA11 1PL