Icknield Indagations

Church architecture in Hertfordshire and elsewhere, art, books, and whatever crosses my path

Tuesday 23 January 2024

Woolmer Green church, Herts


The mighty Great North Road: once the backbone of the nation,  now humiliatingly reduced in rank to the B197 like a disgraced officer having his uniform's buttons sliced off on parade.

Between Welwyn and Knebworth lies Woolmer Green, which began as a rural hamlet much like thousands of others, but, encouraged by the arrival of the railway (which reached Welwyn in 1850), a straggly ribbon development strung itself along this road in the later 19th century. In 1896 the Rev Arthur Cayley Headlam became the vicar of Welwyn, and began a campaign for the residents of what was becoming a small village to have a church of their own. He must have been a man of some energy and forcefulness (he eventually became the Bishop of Gloucester) as in 1899 the foundation stone of what was initially a chapel of ease (ie, not strictly a parish church, which status it didn't attain until as late as 2000). He contributed £100 (about £10,600 today) of his own money to the project.

The architect was the Scottish Robert Weir Schultz (1860-1951), an important figure in the Arts and Crafts movement. This is the only surviving church in the country solely by him, though he did design numerous domestic buildings, and Khartoum Cathedral in Sudan (1906-12). In 1915 he started calling himself R (or Robert) W S Weir so as to hide his German sounding surname (Weir was his mother's maiden name).

Externally the building isn't particularly prepossessing. It's of brick with limestone dressings; the windows are lancets in the shallow polygonal apse but minimally Perpendicular elsewhere, except for the westernmost ones on the north and south of the nave, which are, unusually, mandorla-shaped. These and the 1913 relief sculpture (by Herbert William Palliser (1883-1963)) of St Michael killing a non-threatening-looking dragon (actually a wyvern as it has only two legs) over the north door are the only notable features. A tower over the organ loft (on the north side of the chancel) topped by gables and a Herts spike was planned, but funds ran out.

The interior is dominated by the excellent panelled wooden roof, with very plain and assertive tie beams. The origin of the word 'nave' is of course ultimately the Latin 'navis', meaning 'ship', after the (usually rather fanciful) resemblance between a long roof and an upturned boat, but here for once the similarity is unmistakeable. It almost looks as if it could be lifted off, inverted and lowered into water so you could float away in it. 

The geometry of the apse roof is particularly appealing. The other most striking internal feature is the chancel screen, by Laurence Turner (1864-1957), in which what would be tracery in a Gothic screen has become an intricate filigree of the stems of abundant fruits and flowers. This alone would make a visit worthwhile. The plainer, more rectilinear integral pulpit and lectern are also by Turner. The choir desks (only glimpsed in my photos) are by the great Ernest Gimson (1864-1919), apparently the only example of his work in the county. 

The altar rails were designed by Schultz.

The font was carved by Turner; the local schoolchildren raised £36 4s 3d (about £3,800 today, a highly creditable sum) towards it.

Alec Hamilton's Arts and Crafts Churches (2020) devotes two whole pages to Woolmer Green, more than he allots to the great majority of churches he covers, (though the even better Ayot St Peter and Waterford get a mere line each). As this suggests it is worth seeking out, though it can't be relied on to be open (you might have more luck during school term time than during holidays).

Sunday 10 September 2023

Watford, St Mary, church, Herts

Watford seems to me (a very occasional visitor) to be largely unlovely. Bettley/Pevsner (in The Buildings of England: Hertfordshire) reveal that in 1950 there were 121 buildings of historic interest 
in the town centre, a number that had shrunk by two thirds by 1975, leaving only 40. That's bad enough, but in the last near half-century another thirteen have been demolished. Naturally, we shouldn't assume that old automatically equals 'good' or new 'bad' (of course there are plenty of excellent modern buildings), but, let's face it, in practice we won't often be wrong if we do.

Externally St Mary is virtually all new, or anyway newish compared to its 13th century origins. The knapped flint and Bath stone facing, tower battlements, stair turret and most windows are all the work of John T Christopher (about whom I can find no information) in 1870-1. 

Our first impression on stepping through the west door is that the decorations and fittings are even newer. The entrance is through a glass screen, the walls are uniformly white, the floors level and of white stone or fashionably pale wood, on which stand chairs of wood and metal. This all dates from 2017-19; in order to achieve the new arrangement pews from 1848 by the great George Gilbert Scott were ejected (some of the bench ends were preserved). The changes were objected to by Historic England, the Victorian Society, Watford Borough Council, other heritage organisations (most of which I'm a member of) and individuals. Many people want all (or nearly all) pews preserved.

In the light of my first paragraph I should be objecting too. But I'm in two minds. If Victorian pews were rare I'd disagree with their removal; I'd be against Georgian or earlier pews being ejected for the same reason. However, Victorian pews, unlike their Georgian counterparts, aren't at all rare; in fact they're everybloodywhere. They're dark, bulky, uncomfortable, very hard to move, often ungainly, and less than a couple of centuries old. Chairs are very easy to rearrange so that the spaces they fill can be used for many different purposes and don't dominate visually as much as pews. (Most cathedrals have chairs rather than pews.) I assume that everyone reading this blog agrees that churches should be protected and preserved whenever possible despite all the difficulties currently facing them (rapidly declining congregations being high on the list). The best way of preserving them is to keep them in use for their original purpose, and in order to make them usable for modern congregations we have to accept some compromises. After all, earlier generations had few if any qualms about adapting older churches to suit their needs. On the whole, I'm willing to sacrifice some pews if it means that the churches they're from are more likely to be living buildings, loved and looked after. 

And at least the chairs aren't blue, and the piers don't have screens suspended from them, and the floors are plain and unobtrusive. (Compare Stevenage.)

Having started with the new, let's move on, somewhat illogically, to the old.

The chancel is the oldest part of the church, dating from the early 13th century, as does the south nave arcade. At first glance the latter is the same as the north arcade, but a closer look reveals some differences; the north arcade, tall clerestory, nave roof and tower are all 15th century Perpendicular. 

Much the most interesting part of the church is the north (Essex, formerly Morrison) chapel, built 1595-6. Like many buildings of its date it has a stylistic foot in two camps. There's a window with mullions and a transom (though the arches are round, not pointed), harking back to the medieval Gothic period, but there's also a classical Tuscan column.

The chapel contains several monuments. (Until 1907 there were two more; in that year they were moved to the family mausoleum, the Bedford Chapel in Chenies, Bucks.) The first is that of Lady Dorothy Morrison (d.1618), wife of Sir Charles, routine for its date but highly accomplished.

The next in date is that of her husband, Sir Charles, who died in 1599 but whose monument wasn't made until 1619, that is, after the death of his wife (presumably she left a legacy). It's by Nicholas Stone (1586/7-1647), one of the most prominent sculptors (and architects) of the time, and is, quite simply, superb. Sir Charles, dressed in armour (he he was never a soldier - he was a politician), reclines on one elbow, looking very dashing with his pointed beard and curly moustache. Two figures - their son (who has a Tintin quiff) and daughter - kneel on pedestals flanking the monument proper, beneath baldacchinos of fictive draperies, a contrast with the architecture of the rest.

Opposite them is the monument to the son (also Sir Charles) (d.1628) and his wife Mary, also by Stone. He adopts a pose similar to that of his father, while she is fully recumbent; at least she gets two comfy-looking cushions. At their head is a daughter and their feet two sons, presumably free-standing figures; can these dumpy-looking characters be by Stone, or did he farm out the ancillary portions to his workshop? Like Charles the Elder's monument there are two segmental pediments, but while the father's have a corbel in the middle to make it look supported, the son's looks unsatisfying, as if there should be a central column.

The church has been open when I've visited.

Screen by Scott, 1848

Doors made from 1848 bench ends.

Disused Norman font

Reredos, 1871

West window, The Marriage at Cana, by Heaton, Butler & Bayne, 1863

Pulpit, 1714

King David, by Lavers and Barraud, 1863