Thursday, 30 June 2011

Bell's Guide to Beverley Minster

Beverley Minster is considered one of our greatest ecclesiastical buildings. Especially when you consider it is basically just a parish church. Yet it is lucky enough to have its own volume in George Bell & Sons series on cathedrals and churches.

These books are no doubt familiar to those who spend time rummaging around in the Architecture sections of second-hand bookshops. With their beautiful flowing front covers designs, black on dulled-down vividly coloured cloth. Red, Greed, Blue &c. They are under appreciated, because what they teach us is not just about a building, but about the attitude generations had towards these buildings.

The inside front cover of my Beverley edition has, in hand written ink, Amy K Salby Xmas 1907. Hard back, yellowing pages, black and white photos that seem familiar to us in the form of postcards by Tucks or Bamford.

The tone of the writing is serious, deferential, informative. Charles Hiatt, the author, is just plain rude about Beverley, calling the town "singularly unattractive", but acknowledges its good fortune to have two such wonderful churches (The Minster and St Mary's). The books date from the 1890s to1900s, an era when travel was still a novelty, but becoming cheaper and more widely available. The Gothic Revival was still, just about going on. Photography was the preserve of the rich, and printing photographs was in its infancy, yet 43 photographs and engraving enrich the 136 pages.

They sit in a position between architectural study and travel guide, but show serious and often academic manner in which the ordinary person was beginning to view architecture. The author's view is very much that architecture is about a few great and ancient buildings with illustrious histories. Our cathedrals and great churches seem to have been so over studied and photographed, but we need to stop and think about what these building meant to Victorians and Edwardians. God was mighty. This was the evidence.

Thursday, 16 June 2011

Possibly A Church... St Stephen's, Brighton

This was once a ballroom in the middle of Brighton town centre. Today it is a homeless shelter in a polite regency suburb. Confusing!

Brighton in the 1740s was a small fishing village. Then, a doctor from nearby Lewes started promoting seawater as a cure for all manner of ills. This quickly became very popular with the upper classes, and Brighton became the hedonistic paradise we know today. The Castle Inn, on The Steine, was one of the most fashionable places to be seen in Brighton's regency glory days. Right next to the Prince's fashionable residence, and with an enormous ballroom built in 1766.
But, all good things must come to an end. By the 19th century it was a bit old fashioned. The napoleonic wars had reduced the nation's wealth and people's leisure time. Brighton started to decline. The Prince bought the Castle Inn, and demolished most of it. But he saved the ballroom to become his private chapel within the Royal Pavilion. It was consecrated on 1st January 1822. To this day, Brighton has a "Castle Square" where the Inn stood, not a mediaeval fortress.

However, when Victoria came to the throne, she was not a fan of Brighton. She preferred the sedate Isle of Wight, or Balmoral. She sold the Pavilion to the Town Commissioners, and it was expected to be demolished. So the Diocese of Chichester had the chapel demolished brick-by-brick, and reassembled in the suburb of Montpelier, close the the border with Hove. In 1851, with a striking new facade, it reopened as St Stephens.


The decision to move it raises the question of why? Was it a cheaper alternative than building a whole new church? Was it considered, even then, to be part of Brighton's heritage? 

It was already in need of restoration, possibly due to the move, in 1908, and it was closed by 1939. Since then, it spent 40 years serving the deaf, and now 30 years serving the homeless. It was looking a bit tatty, but it was recently renovated, and looking lovely again.

Let's start with the exterior. It's stark classicism, to say the least. In the 1860s, a porch was added, and it finally had some windows. The enormous cream pilasters which face Montpelier Terrace suggest nonconformism, at best. Not 19th century anglicanism! 

The main interior space, a miraculous survival, is beautiful. I've only peered in through building work, or seen photos, but it is the epitome of restrained. What struck me was the light. Despite having no south facing windows, the cool, and somewhat overshadowed east and west windows let light fill the gentle vaulted ceiling. This building is not OTT, ornate plasterwork, gaudy detailing of 1820s Brighton- this is 1760s Bath-style, Jane Austin elegance.

In many ways, this is a fall from grace. Aristocrats, monarchs, centre of the most exciting place to be in early 19th century England. Lavish balls, God and Jesus. Today, relegated to a back street homeless centre. 

Well, that's not how I see it. This room has gone from being about showing off wealth, to offering genuine succour. It shows a remarkably enlightened attitude to both building preservation and reuse. Each incarnation it has fulfilled a need by one section of society, but always retained its interior. When so many old buildings have been reduced to facades or fragments, it is great to see the interior as the feature that lives on. But is it really a church?

Sunday, 5 June 2011

Temple Normanton- The Fibreglass Wonder!

Close your eyes and imagine what you think The Church of St James The Apostle, Church Lane, Temple Normanton, Derbyshire might look like. It looks nothing like that.

England has thousands of brick and stone churches; hundreds of concrete churches; quite a few 'tin tabernacles', but as far as I am aware, only one orange fibreglass church.

St James the Apostle is a church I stumbled across a couple of times whilst driving in north Derbyshire. Not far from Chesterfield's iconic crooked spire, this village church is far more striking and eccentric. It sits strangely surrounded by a rather traditional looking graveyard, with a local stone wall, mature trees and victorian and edwardian era gravestones. It's even located on the rather bucolic sounding 'Church Lane'.  Yet this church seems more like the product of an outer-space oversized baked bean invasion than a little slice of heaven on earth. If this is what god's house really looks like then god must be a 1980s photocopier salesman that took a wrong turn on the A617 and accidentally ingested a Ginsters pasty laced with acid.

This is not the first church in Temple Normanton. Originally there stood an ancient little church, which the zealous victorians replaced by a larger and more imposing edifice. The local coal mining industry caused subsidence, a fate many fantastic buildings have suffered, and so it was demolished and replaced by a temporary timber structure which apparently blew away (unverified, but I like to think it's true).

The current church, built in 1986, is half buried, with a semi-circular roof of fibreglass. It's form is strangely reminiscent of primitive celtic churches such as Gallarus Oratory in Kerry, Ireland or a Hebridean black house with its deeply recessed door. But rather than hewn from the land, it seems to have landed from above. Like the landing craft of an alien invasion (all good churches should seem to be other worldly, of course). Like Ely Cathedral, the haunting behemoth of the misty fens, must have seemed to the mediaeval traveller. The uPVC double-glazed windows may not be particularly elegant, yet somehow they suit, just like Ely's oversized cast iron radiators, standing sentinel in the aisles. The stark cross in the graveyard surrounded by what looks to be a bin is the only vertical element, and the only obvious sign that this is in fact a church, and not a scout hut. Next to the main door sits a little potted leylandii. As suburban and domestic as one could ever hope to see. Superb juxtaposition. As if this little terracotta clad tree, two-foot tall, could soften and tame the alien spacecraft.

The whole composition is somewhere between sublime and ridiculous. Off-the-shelf B&Q fittings? The sea of block paving? Some kind of twisted joke by the architect, surely?

It's not ostentatious or overpriced. It probably won't last forever. Most parishioners probably wish they still had a nice little gothic stone box with a quaint little tower. Be grateful. Your church is amazing.


I love church architecture in all its many weird and wonderful forms. In this blog I'll be sharing with you some of the more lovely, loathsome and exciting examples of mostly English churches.