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

Sunday 26 April 2020

High Wych church, Herts - 'perversely ugly'?

High Wych church, built 1860-61, is undoubtedly one of the most individual in the county. The nave and south aisle, under one big, broad, steep roof (with a kink in the slope on the south), are conventional enough, with Early English-style lancet windows mostly in pairs. The dark knapped flint walls contrast nicely with the pale stone dressings and the neat bands of red brick. The east end, however, is a different matter, with not one apse but two, one nestling into the other like a child being cuddled by their mother. The larger one is of course the chancel; the smaller one, on the south, you'd expect to be a chapel, but is actually the vestry - a surprise, as vestries are usually tucked away relatively out of sight on the  sunless north. The view from the south-east is very pleasing. (In addition to the two eastern apses the south porch has a strange low demi-apse on its west side.)

But the most arresting external feature is the unusually slender round steeple, which protrudes from the west wall of the nave. It starts as circular (or semi-circular, as its other half is notionally embedded in the nave); when it nears the height of the nave roof it becomes a truncated cone, on which sits the octagonal belfry. The whole composition is topped by a shingled spire. It's hard not to compare it to a two-stage rocket on its launch pad. It's almost elegant, but on its south is a clock under a large gable, which strikes me as gawky and an unfortunate visual distraction.

In 1953, in the Hertfordshire volume of the Buildings of England series, Pevsner called the church 'perversely ugly'.* A peculiar judgement, I think; there are surely quite a few churches of its period that are arguably more deserving of that label which escape without a Pevsnerian admonition. I'm not sure I'd have the courage to go so far as to say that the exterior of the church is actually beautiful - that clock is far too intrusive - but 'perversely ugly'? Got to disagree with you there, Sir Nik.

It's by G[eorge] E[dward] Pritchett (1824-1912); he had an architectural practice in Bishops Stortford from 1849, and also in London from 1856. He became a Fellow of the Royal Institute of British architects in 1861, and was fairly prolific (yet, unlike most Victorian architects, he has no Wikipedia entry). He did quite a bit of restoration work in Hertfordshire and also built some churches to his own designs; Therfield is the most notable example, apart from High Wych. His buildings tend to be idiosyncratic and unstereotypical; perhaps not always entirely successful but certainly never run of the mill. Pevsner's comment quoted in the previous paragraph was followed by a proviso: 'but as original in its handling of Gothic forms as anything in the Art Nouveau of forty years later.' I'm with him on this point.

The church was estimated to cost £2000 (which is equivalent to about £245,000 today, which doesn't sound much). The picture above seems to reveal that that frightful clock wasn't part of Pritchett's original plan; maybe it was imposed on him and the steeple. He also built the complementary school next door (estimated to cost £1500), which I failed to photograph (yet another task for when the lockdown is sent packing). (I don't think the projected fleche was ever built.)


The interior is impressive, particularly the roof with its numerous trusses, but rather dim (the windows are quite small and full of stained glass). The south arcade has big square capitals carved with not very attractive leaf forms, atop alarmingly spindly columns. There's some dogtooth ornamentation. The walls are all of white brick** with a band of red (corresponding to that visible outside) and alternating voussoirs of red and white in all the arches, creating many very attractive patterns.

The main attraction is without doubt the chancel, retaining all its original decoration in an unrestored state and mostly well-preserved.*** It's even dimmer than the nave and however bright it is outside you need the lights on to see the detail, so it's worth fumbling around to find the switches (it took me ages; they're behind a curtain on the south (right) side). The polychromatic brickwork (some of the bricks are shaped)  is more extensive than in the nave, and every foot of the walls and vaulted roof is covered in painted and/or stencilled decoration, abstract patterns mixing harmoniously with symbolism and texts. It's an exhilarating, almost overwhelming, sight. Was Pritchett responsible for it? I like R M Healey's comment in the Shell Guide to Hertfordshire: 'an apse aflame with the ox-blood scribblings of some manic proto Art Nouveauish decorator working c. 1861', (though 'scribblings' shows prejudice of almost Pevsnerian proportions).

As well as the decorations the chancel seems to have retained its original fixtures and fittings, presumably a delight for historians of the liturgy.

What's more, the church has a set of contemporary windows by the firm Ward and Hughes, all dating from the period 1860-71. Two of them are signed by Henry Hughes (1822-83) himself. Ward and Hughes must have been much in demand at the time; in 1855 they'd made the glass for the great east window in Lincoln cathedral, which had been widely acclaimed. The High Wych windows are colourful - the reds and blues are particularly strong - and impress en masse, but aren't really worth examining individually. The best ones are probably those in the apse (the last two of the photos above). 

Despite the slightly disappointing glass High Wych is one of the most rewarding Victorian churches in the county. Perversely ugly? Revolting and hideous (see the notes below)? Full of scribblings? Go and see for yourself.

High Wych (incidentally, the vowel is pronounced the same in both words, that is, the 'y' in 'Wych' is pronounced as in 'byte') is open 9-4 Tuesday-Friday during term time. 

* Pevsner's distaste for the church is even more evident in the introduction, where he goes out of his way to damn it: 'Pritchett's High Wych of 1861 deserves to be specially mentioned as an eminently typical example of High Victorian design at its most revolting.' Pevsner certainly didn't have a blanket dislike of all Victorian architecture; he was among those few in the mid-20th century who could appreciate its merits, and was a founding member of the Victorian society, dedicated to celebrating and conserving the buildings of that era, in 1958. It's hard now to see quite why he had such a bee in his bonnet about this particular church. I suspect that most people today would be able to see it without experiencing his visceral reaction, and even appreciate its merits. (Though the anonymous website Hertfordshire Churches - posted by 'churchaholic' - in 2011 called it 'peculiar' and 'hideous' and comments 'I had a look inside and ran away without bothering to record it'.) 

The 2019 updated edition of Pevsner, rewritten by James Bettley, correctly excises Pevsner's disparagement from the main text, but equally correctly preserves it in a footnote. 

** White bricks, like white pepper, aren't really white at all. But they're always pale, often, as here, pale yellowish.

*** Victorian painted decorations are very vulnerable to changing fashion; see Hemel Hempstead, for example, where Bodley's 1880 painted decorative scheme in the chancel was obliterated by whitewash in 1979.


  1. Since I live next door to it, I'm rather moved to regard it as "perversely charming." In fact, I like it!