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

Thursday 24 September 2020

Stevenage church, Herts

 The church of St Nicholas stands on the edge of what is usually called 'Old Stevenage'; surely the post-war new town should be called 'New Stevenage' and the original settlement, which existed for a millennium before its upstart neighbour was thought of, declared an epithet-free zone and have the sole right to the title 'Stevenage'.

The view from the south-west is particularly appealing; the multiple embattlements create a touch of grandeur silhouetted against the sky. Moving from left to right in the photo at the top of the page we have firstly the south transept, built by Thomas Smith* of Hertford in 1840-2. Next is what was originally an organ chamber, built in 1914-16 by Sir Charles Nicholson, 2nd Baronet, and Hubert Corlette. Behind this are the upper stages of the tower and the recessed spire** built (on a Norman lower stage) in the 15th century. The next projection is the 14th century south chapel, and then the chancel from the same century terminates the vista. 

The visible history of the church begins in the earlier 12th century, when the lower stage of the tower was built. The west door and tower arch both have simple early Norman mouldings; the latter also has comically buttoned-up heads on the capitals. The second of the two above in particular looks as if he's primly pretending not to see some activity he regards as disreputable.

Looking east
Looking east
Looking west

The rest of the Norman church must have been considered inadequate for the parish's needs, because it was at least mostly replaced in the 13th century. The chancel, aisles and chapels were then in turn demolished or entirely rebuilt in the 14th century; the arches of the nave were replaced in the following century, and the clerestory added, but the 13th century nave columns were allowed to remain. Most of the roofs are also 15th century.

The oldest artefact in the church is the early 13th century font, which is plain and stands on four shafts with simply moulded capitals and bases. The 15th century wooden cover is much more elaborate.

Currently lying on blankets on the floor of the north aisle - presumably waiting for a more permanent position within the church - is this much damaged late 13th century effigy of a lady. Attendant figures - apparently an angel on her right (our left) and a priest on her left - support her by the elbows. 

Currently at the west end of the north aisle are these stalls with 14th century misericords, probably not made for the church (parish churches having little or no need for misericords) but brought from somewhere else, presumably post-Reformation. The first and third photos show misericords carved with oak leaves; the second a rather nightmarish, clown-like, boggle-eyed and monobrowed foliate head (apparently a later addition of c.1500); the fourth an angel with arms upraised in blessing. The fifth one is a poor quality photo; I tried to lift the seat to see what lay beneath, but it felt that if I exerted any force I'd break something, and not being keen to smash up an ancient and beautiful artefact I desisted. I put my camera on the ground and just hoped for the best, which turns out to be only minimally adequate. But you can at least see that the carving is of vine leaves, with some grapes.

The stairs under the tower leading up to the ringing chamber have been tree-ring-dated to 1360-82. Even allowing for how worn they are, they're astonishingly primitive. They comprise simply two long beams on which are rudely fixed (I don't know if they're nailed or pegged) equally rude very roughly shaped steps; there don't seem to be any joints anywhere. You can hardly call it carpentry. I must say I don't fancy risking my neck on them. Bell-ringing is notorious for working up a thirst; let's hope that the ringers wait until they're safely at ground level before quenching it. 

14th and 15th century screens

This niche for an image in the north chapel is also 14th or 15th century

Fragments of 15th century glass, inc. a monk

There are numerous examples of graffiti on various nave pillars, most of it probably medieval. How much of it was intended to have a significance and how much is just aimless doodling is anyone's guess. As in many churches, a lot of it seems to be the result of someone who's got hold of a pair of compasses for the first time and is delighting in the patterns that can be constructed.

Above the tower arch are two wooden charity bequest boards, the one on the left dated 1705 recording various sums of money donated to a variety of worth causes, and on the right, dated 1641, the founding of a  free school in the town.

There are some reasonably interesting Victorian stained glass windows:

The east window, by William Wailes, 1842. The four Evangelists

The chancel south window, also by Wailes, 1850. Noli Me Tangere

East window, south chapel (now the organ loft, making a good photo very hard), by F C Eden 1912. Te Deum

East window, north chapel, attributed to Clayton and Bell, 1858. The Agony in the Garden; the Betrayal; Ecce Homo; Christ Bearing the Cross

Two plaques in the south chapel (now organ chamber) tell an unbearably tragic story. The first records the death of Midshipman (that is, a young officer trainee) Ivon Fellowes in 1915, aged just 17. He was learning his trade on HMS Irresistible, which had been built in 1898 and thus was the same age as him. 

HMS Irresistible sinking, from Wikipedia, which has much more information

The ship was opposing the Turkish forces in the Dardanelles, but struck a mine and drifted into easy range of the enemy guns. Most of her 780 crew were rescued, but about 150 were killed, young Ivon among them.

In August 1918 his elder brother, Captain Rupert Fellowes of the Coldstream Guards, was killed leading his company into battle, aged 24. He died less than three months before the end of the war, having presumably survived some considerable time before then. Two brothers, two sons were lost. The futility, stupidity and catastrophic nature of the First World War in particular and war in general are brought home. Two further observations: the plaques take pains to thank God, and although the sons' father (a Rear Admiral) is prominently mentioned, nowhere is their mother thought worthy of inclusion. 

St Nicholas' church is generally locked; I was lucky enough to arrive on spec on what turned out to be an open day held to celebrate a recent refurbishment, which had cost a little over a million pounds (see here). As you'd expect given the money spent on it, some radical changes have been made. It's in the nature of such things that some will disapprove, virtually regardless of the actual alterations, and want things to stay the same. (The refurbishment wasn't my top priority when I was looking around: I was more interested in the historical features, so any opinions I express here are provisional.)

Some churches become museums; Caldecote which I wrote about recently is an example. Clearly any alterations there (unless they were absolutely necessary to stop it falling down) would be wrong. But most are living buildings, in frequent use for their original main purpose. I'm a non-believer, but nevertheless I'd like as many churches as possible to remain open for worship. (This is partly for selfish reasons - I like visiting churches, and if I can get other people to look after them so I can enjoy them, so much the better - but also because I recognise how much comfort, support and inspiration many people derive from their faith.) There's always going to be some tension between the desire to preserve churches as historical artefacts, and the need to make them suitable for 21st century practicalities. 

The main alterations seem to be that the floor, which was previously uneven and breaking up in places, has been dug up and completely relaid, with underfloor heating; a mezzanine floor has been added in the south transept (the kitchen there, which I think partly occupies the original organ chamber, was I believe the result of a previous updating); the lighting has been renewed; six audio-visual screens have been attached to the pillars; most of the internal stonework has been given a lick of paint (leaving the stones with graffiti unpainted).

There was a survey made of the floor before it was destroyed, and an archaeological record was kept while work was in progress; some interesting discoveries were made, and some ledger stones have been preserved. Underfloor heating is very welcome, meaning that clumsy radiators aren't needed. A level floor is a major advantage for disabled people, but nevertheless inevitably some historical material would have been destroyed. The new floor, of Purbeck marble in various shades and sizes, would probably look fabulous in the kitchen of a newly built house; how suitable it is for a church I'm not sure. I think this will be the thing that neophobes will mostly focus on. I do think that it goes quite well with the set of 1964 benches by the Robert Thompson workshop (he is known as the Mouseman as he signed his work with a little mouse, 12 of which can be found in the church if you look carefully. I'm told that his benches are much more ergonomic and therefore more comfortable than standard pews). But I have a feeling that the coloured marbles will look horribly dated in a few decades; ideally, I'd have preferred the old floor to have been patched up rather than reduced to rubble and dumped.

The audio-visual screens are an intrusion (some will no doubt find them shocking), and I can hardly believe they're necessary; are the members of the congregation really going to be glued to their close-up detail rather than watching the slightly more distant reality? But at least they could presumably be taken down in an hour or so without much difficulty. The other changes seem to me to be a successful compromise, preserving most of the old and catering for the new. If the church is going to continue to be a living building - and, as I say, I hope it is - we have to accept that some new features will be introduced, which will sometimes mean the removal of older features. Churches have always worked like this, and will continue to do so until they become museums.

I've left possibly my favourite feature of the church till last. If there's anyone who has so much time to fill that they're regular readers of this blog they'll know already of my fondness for label stops and corbels. These are small, generally unregarded little carvings that, perhaps, were left to the whim of the masons - certainly, they rarely have any obvious religious significance. St Nicholas Stevenage has a fine set of label stops, though none of the authorities mention them, even in passing. Not Pevsner/Bettley, not the statutory listing, not the Victoria County History, not the Royal Commission on Historical Monuments, not even the church guide book. They must date from the building of the arches over the 13th century pillars, that is, the 15th century (though it's possible that some have been recut). 

The range from the cute - the very modern-looking rabbit - through the comic - the snaggle-toothed, handlebar-moustached Terry-Thomas figure - to the imposing - the long-haired man wearing a badged hat and the ?woman with a ruff and what seems to be a jewelled headdress. A whole gallery of late medieval personages.

* I've written approvingly about Thomas Smith before; see my discussion of his work at Weston, for example.

** The base of a recessed spire is smaller than the tower top on which it stands, leaving an area which you could walk round should you choose.

Norman west doorway

Norman window in tower


  1. Hi, I'm trying to find out where the published report on the floor is, or who did it, as I'm working on medieval cross slabs and coffins of the county. I have tried contacting Dave the rector.
    Gary Moyle

    1. Hello Gary. The report is on the church's website (though it takes a bit of not particularly obvious clicks to find it):
      Best wishes, David