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

Thursday, 28 March 2019

The Ten Best Hertfordshire Churches


Compiling this list is presumptuous and premature. Presumptuous because who am I to proclaim the ten 'best' Herts churches (or the ten 'best' anything)? By 'best' of course I really mean my ten favourites at this moment in March 2019. Ask me next month and no doubt I'll give you a different list. Premature because I shouldn't have the cheek to compile this list until I've written about a lot more than the twenty-five or so Herts churches that I've so far got round to covering on this blog, so my choices would be more fully considered and better justified.

My list includes only Church of England parish churches that I’ve been inside. This means that Ayot St Peter is excluded because I’ve never found it open; its inclusion by Surman and Jenkins suggests that it would be a strong candidate if it were open more often.

For comparison, and for your interest, I've appended five other lists of Herts' best churches (two of which, Surman and Jenkins, admit for consideration Roman Catholic churches).

Enough waffle. Here's my list of the ten best Hertfordshire churches:

Little Hormead
Offley
Sawbridgeworth
Waterford
Wheathampstead


Anstey from the south
Anstey appears on all the lists except Budden’s below, so I'm on safe ground with this one. The mermen font, the Norman crossing, the EE transepts and chancel, the misericords and the Patrick Reyntiens window combine to make this unmissable. (Open during the day.)

Ayot St Lawrence from the (ritual) west
Ayot St Lawrence (which features on three of the lists below), built 1778-9 and mostly unaltered since then, is a mixture of Greek Revival and Palladian. It scores extra points for rarity, but even if the county and country were dotted with other examples it would still be worth visiting. (Open during the day.)

Little Hormead, north door. Photo taken from the Herts volume of the Royal Commission on Historical Monuments, published 1912. 
Little Hormead features on two of the lists below. It has only one outstanding feature: but what a feature. This is the Norman north door, with its entrancing ironwork. However, a visit to see the door will also be rewarded by a good 14th cen font and 1660 royal coat of arms, plus the pastoral setting. (In the care of the Churches Conservation Trust, but, unlike nearly all their other churches, is currently closed, and has been for some years, while the door awaits conservation. See their website to arrange access.)

Meesden, the mosaic tile pavement
Meesden doesn't appear on any of the other lists. The fact that it's overlooked is one of the things I like about it. Like Little Hormead, it has one exciting and rare feature which is alone worth a visit. This is the 14th century mosaic tile pavement around the altar. The Tudor brick porch, and secretive sylvan setting on the edge of a wood, are additional attractions. (Open during the day.)

Offley from the south-west
Offley has been difficult to get inside for several decades. I last saw the interior in the 90s. (Kings Walden, in the same benefice, is similarly denied to interested visitors.) The EE nave has alarmingly unvertical columns with richly carved stiffleaf capitals, but it's the 17th and 18th century monuments, concentrated in the c.1777 chancel, that make this church special. (Locked. No keyholder.)

St Albans (St Michael), figure from the Doom painting
St Albans (St Michael) features in two lists; it's not as beautiful as some of my other choices, but it's unusually interesting in displaying examples of all five major English medieval building styles: Saxon, Norman, EE, Dec and Perp. Plus there's the Bacon monument and the substantial remains of a Doom. (Usually open, but sometimes locked, especially in winter.)

 St Paul's Walden, chancel screen
Perhaps I've allowed sentimentality to influence me in including St Paul's Walden as it's the church I've visited over the years more often than any other, but it features on three other lists, so I'm far from alone in loving it. 14th century stained glass and the Georgian baroque chancel screen are the highlights, but I also like the Victorian painted ceilings. (Always open during the day.)

Sawbridgeworth from the south-west
Sawbridgeworth (on three other lists) is architecturally not particularly distinguished, but makes my list for its proliferation of monuments, dating from late medieval to Victorian, my favourite being that to Sir Walter Hewyt (d.1637) and his wife (d.1646). (To the best of my knowledge, always open during the day.)

Waterford, window by Douglas Strachan
Waterford, the sole entirely Victorian (and later) church I've chosen, is on only one other list, but most certainly should be more widely known and celebrated. It was built by Henry Woodyer, 1871-2, but again it's the contents that enthuse me, in particular the stained glass. There are numerous Pre-Raphaelite windows, and some early 20th century ones that don't suffer by comparison. Mosaics and fittings combine with the glass to create a simply unforgettable interior. (Locked, but keyholder listed.)

Wheathampstead, Garrard monument
Wheathampstead (on three other lists) is a big church that's full of interest. Dec is my favourite architectural style, and Wheathampstead is the county's chief example. As a bonus, it has an eccentric Victorian spire, numerous monuments, and a window by Douglas Strachan. (Open during the day.)

 
Here are ten more churches that are near-misses and that, in a different mood, I could easily have included: Bengeo, Benington, Berkhamstead, Flamstead, Hatfield, Hemel Hempstead, Hunsdon, Little Gaddesden, , Knebworth (St Mary and St Thomas), Wyddial.

Ashwell appears in all the lists below except Budden’s and yet doesn’t make my top twenty (not this time, anyway; as I’ve said, no doubt I’ll change my mind). Ashwell is grand and impressive, but, in my view, isn’t as atmospheric or as loveable as some much less grand churches, such as Meesden. (The same applies to Hitchin, which features on all the lists except that of Clifton-Taylor.)

There are several other lists of the best churches in the county (all of which are part of a wider survey of the best churches in the country). English Gothic Churches by Charles W Budden, published in 1927, contains the earliest of which I’m aware. Although the book is not far off a century old, it’s still a very useful primer. Budden’s list of the best churches embraces cathedrals; he includes about four hundred and fifty parish churches, but only five in Herts (plus St Albans cathedral). He makes it clear that ‘the fabric only is considered, not the furnishings’, which doesn’t apply to any of the other lists, and certainly not to mine.

Budden:

Broxbourne
Berkhampstead
Hemel Hempstead
Hitchin
Sawbridgeworth

Collins Guide to English Parish Churches, edited by John Betjeman, was first published in 1958, and as a two volume (North and South) Pocket Guide in 1968. (This version is still the most useful church handbook.) About 4,500 churches are included, 53 of them in Herts. Each county’s list was chosen by a different compiler or compilers; Hertfordshire’s was made by H. Gordon Slade. An asterisk marks an ‘exceptionally attractive church’; there are eleven of these in the county.


Betjeman/Slade:

Abbots Langley
Aldbury
Aldenham
Anstey*
Ardeley
Ashwell*
Ayot St Lawrence*
Baldock
Bengeo
Benington
Berkhamsted
Bishop's Stortford*
Broxbourne*
Buntingford
Bushey
Essendon
Flamstead
Flaunden (old church, ruin)
Flaunden
Gilston
Great Amwell
Great Gaddesden*
Harpenden
Hatfield*
Hemel Hempstead*
Hertford (All Saints)
Hertingfordbury
Hitchin*
King's Langley
Knebworth (St Mary and St Thomas)
Langleybury
Little Gaddesden
Little Hormead
Much Hadham
North Mimms
Offley
Oxhey chapel
Redbourne
Rickmansworth
Royston
St Albans (St Michael)
St Albans (St Stephen)
St Paul's Walden
Sandridge
Sarratt
Sawbridgeworth
Stanstead Abbots*
Stevenage (St Nicholas)
Tring
Ware*
Watford (St Mary)*
Wheathampstead



In 1974 Alec Clifton-Taylor published English Parish Churches as Works of Art, an often illuminating but sometimes irritating study. In an appendix he lists his choice of the country’s best, running to a total of about six hundred. Only seven Herts churches make the grade. (He awards an asterisk to ‘churches which are artistically quite outstanding, and [and which are] on no account to be missed by the amateur of churches’; however, no Herts church is thus rewarded.)

Clifton-Taylor:

Anstey
Ashwell
Barkway
Hemel Hempstead
St Paul's Walden
Stanstead Abbots
Wheathampstead

Simon Jenkins’ 1999 England’s Thousand Best Churches seems to have become the standard guidebook. It’s very attractively produced, and Jenkins’ mini-essays on each church are often thoughtful and deeply appreciative. Certainly it’s the one most often clutched by fellow aficionados when you bump into them amidst the pews and piscinas. It’s almost acquired the status of Holy Writ. I’ve met people in (Jenkins approved) churches who tell me that they’re ‘doing Jenkins’, which means that they’re probably overlooking the very interesting church just down the road. This isn’t Jenkins’ fault, but England’s Thousand Best Churches seems to me to encourage a tick-list approach.

He gives each church a mark out of five in the form of star ratings. He includes eleven Herts churches.


Jenkins:

Anstey**
Ashwell*
Ayot St Lawrence**
Ayot St Peter**
Hatfield***
Hitchin**
Knebworth (St Martin)*
Knebworth (St Mary and St Thomas)***
South Mimms*
Stanstead Abbots*
Watford (Holy Rood RC)**


Betjeman’s Guide was revised in 1980 and 1993. I haven’t consulted the lists from these editions. In 2011 it was given a major rewrite by Richard Surman, becoming Betjeman’s Best British Churches. It’s not become as ubiquitous as Jenkins, despite being as well illustrated and much more comprehensive. It includes about 2.500 churches (a bit more than half the number in the earlier editions), including Welsh and Scottish examples, and features 32 from the county. Some churches are singled out by one or two star ratings; six Herts churches are awarded two stars, and a further twelve get one.

Surman:

Anstey*
Ashwell**
Ayot St Lawrence**
Ayot St Peter**
Bengeo
Benington
Bishop's Stortford*
Broxbourne*
Flamstead
Great Amwell
Great Gaddesden*
Hatfield**
Hemel Hempstead*
Hitchin*
Knebworth (St Martin)*
Knebworth (St Mary and St Thomas)**
Little Hormead
Much Hadham
Offley
Redbourn
Sawbridgeworth
South Mimms*
St Albans (St Michael)*
St Paul's Walden
Stanstead Abbots
Tring
Ware*
Waterford*
Watford (St Mary)*
Watford (Holy Rood RC)**
Wheathampstead
Woolmer Green

No comments:

Post a Comment