Thursday, 2 November 2017

St Mary, Merton Park

Who would have thought that, tucked away in a quiet corner of suburban south west London, was a picturesque mediaeval church, with connections to Nelson and Captain Cook?

But St Mary's is that church: recorded in the Domesday Book, the original Saxon church was replaced by a Norman church, built in stone, around 1115 by Gilbert, Sheriff of Surrey and the founder of nearby Merton Priory. The chancel was rebuilt in the early 13th century, and a fine timber porch added in the 15th century. The Victorians added the south aisle in 1856, and the north aisle in 1866. Nelson (who lived at nearby Merton Place) worshipped here from 1801 to 1805, and his pew (at the front) still survives.

The Norman nave arcade has alternating octagonal and round piers, supporting a roof which dates from the 13th century - the tie beams were a gift from Henry III. They lead to the chancel, with its four bays of blank arcades, supporting a no-less impressive hammer-beam roof from c. 1400. The north door also dates from the 12th century, and is decorated with zig-zag to the arch; the door beneath has mediaeval iron-work.

The chancel contains a handsome Renaissance wall monument to Gregory Lovell (d. 1597), Elizabeth I's Treasurer, who purchased Merton Priory after the dissolution. He is shown with his two wives and children. The fine memorial to Rear Admiral Isaac Smith (d. 1831), the first European to step onto Australian soil, was paid for by Elizabeth, Captain Cook's widow. Nearby are memorial hatchments to both Nelson (including a jolly sailor) and that of Sir William Hamilton, husband of Emma, Nelson's lover. Less profane is a fragment of 14th century stained glass in the south-east window of the chancel, depicting Christ's head.

Outside the church to the west is an elaborate doorway from 1175, presumably rescued from Merton Priory.

The church is the centre of a busy parish life, which include a regular sung Evensong.

St Mary, Merton: Church Path, Merton Park, London SW19 3HJ

Sunday, 30 July 2017

Derby Cathedral

Derby has (apparently) the smallest Cathedral in the Church of England. But what it lacks in size, it makes up for in charm and interest, as this former parish church has plenty to see.

For most of its 1,000 year life, All Saints has been the main parish church of the city. Although the first on the site was founded by King Edmund in 943 AD as a royal collegiate church, nothing remains from this period, and it is unclear whether it was this or a later church which was rebuilt in the 14th century.

This mediaeval church was roughly the same size as the present building. It had a square West Tower, which was pulled down and rebuilt between 1510-30 in the Perpendicular Gothic style, and which has been a distinctive landmark ever since. At nearly 200ft tall, until elevated to cathedral status it was the second highest parish church tower after that in Boston, Lincolnshire. It contains ten bells, all over 300 years old and one over 500 years old.

It is clear that this mediaeval church was richly endowed, but at the Reformation the College was dissolved and the church became the responsibility of the town. But from the middle of the 17th century the church slowly fell into decline until, in 1723, the Vicar, one Dr Michael Hutchison, took matters into his own hands and began its demolition one night! Thus forced, the town accepted its responsibilities and work on a new church, to the plans of James Gibbs (designer of St Martin-in-the-Fields) began.

Gibbs delivered a large and airy church of classical design, with a nave and matching wide aisles under a arched roof supported on classical columns. The 16th century tower and porch were incorporated into the design, and numerous furnishings and memorials were restored from the earlier building. One of the most notable new fittings, however, was a very fine wrought-iron screen, partly gilded, across the full width of the church, by a local iron-smith, Robert Bakewell.

This the church continued its life as a parish church until, in 1884, Derbyshire became (with Nottinghamshire) part of the new Diocese of Southwell, to take account of the growing industrial population of the area. In 1889 a suffragan Bishop was appointed as Bishop of Derby, which was elevated to a full diocese in its own right in 1927, with All Saints as the Cathedral. To cope with its new role, plans were made to extend the church to the east, although this was not completed until 1965, to the designs of Sebastian Comper, son of the famous Sir Ninian Comper.

Today, one enters via the west porch under the old tower, which provides a fine landmark for this part of the city centre. Immediately you are struck by the spaciousness and light of the church, which is painted entirely in white inside. The two other features that catch the eye are the huge classical baldicchino over the altar (also dating from 1965), and the startlingly vivid blue and yellow stained glass in the only two coloured windows, in the north and south aisles. These are by Ceri Richards, and depict in abstract fashion the themes of All Saints and All Souls.

The monuments are splendid: in the south aisle is an unusual wooden effigy of a cleric, possibly Robert Johnson, who was Sub-dean in 1527. Beyond this is the most famous monument, to Elizabeth Talbot, Countess of Shrewsbury (1527-1608), better known as Bess of Hardwick. It is a huge classical edifice in black and white marble, with a coloured life-sized effigy of Bess herself (she is buried in a vault beneath). This astonishing woman began her career as a gentlewoman servant, but through four successive marriages became one of the wealthiest (and most respected) women in England.

Her life is the subject of a small exhibition adjacent to her memorial. She was responsible, amongst other things, for the great stately homes at Hardwick Hall and Chatsworth House, and her six surviving children became the forbears of the distinguished Cavendish family. Many of these are buried in the vault below. They include Henry Cavendish (1731-1810), who discovered hydrogen and calculated the weight of the earth to within 1% of the figure accepted today. An astounding scientist by any measure, he was also renowned as being painfully shy - as a result of which, many of his discoveries were unrecognised until the late 19th century.

Across the nave in the north aisle is a very fine alabaster monument to John Lawe, another Sub Dean of the 15th century (we don't know when he died, as they omitted to include the date in the space provided for it!). Other items of interest include a Consistory Court, dating from 1643 a canopied chair from which the Archdeacon would conduct ecclesiastical legal affairs. The Chancel is relatively unadorned beyond the altar and canopy, but is flooded with light.

The cathedral has a coffee shop and gift shop opposite in Iron Gate.

Derby Cathedral, 18 Iron Gate, Derby, DE1 3GP

St Philip's, Salford

Residents of fashionable Marylebone could be forgiven for doing a double-take driving east out of Manchester when, tucked away close to the Roman Catholic Cathedral and the University of Salford, they see the double of their own church of St Mary's, Wyndham Place.

They will not, however, have teleported home. The church they see is in fact St Philip's Chapel Street, in Salford. Both were Commissioner's churches, both built around 1822-24, and both were given the same design by Sir Robert Smirke, in a flagrant example of intellectual recycling.

The design is Greek Revival: an impressively handsome semi-circular portico of Ionic columns is surmounted by a classic 'pepper-pot' bell tower. Behind, the church has a conventional rectangular plan, with tall round headed windows above a row of smaller straight-headed windows. It is a wonderful addition to the local streetscape, and a Grade II* listed building.

Inside, the church was designed as a classic preaching box: large galleries on three sides would have allowed seating for a congregation of 1,000. However, the interior was re-ordered in 1895 by J Medland Taylor, to provide a larger square sanctuary, to provide for more ritualised worship (although the galleries survived). An interesting feature is that it retains it original organ, made by Renn & Boston in 1829.

The church is now home to a new partnership, with a 'plant' from the New Wine network of churches, with a charge to reinvigorate the mission of the church in the area for the 21st Century. The church provides services in both traditional and more lively charismatic evangelical styles.

Saint Philips Chapel Street, Wilton Place, Salford, M3 6FR

St Edmund, Castleton

St Vedast, London

Ely Cathedral, Ely

Christ Church, Worthing

St Peter, Titchfield

St James, Southwick

St Cadog, Llancarfan

St Nicholas, Boarhunt

St Paul's Cathedral, London