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

Saturday 11 December 2021

Lilley church, Herts


Lilley is set in the bosky, bucolic Chiltern Hills, between Luton and Hitchin. The A505, which follows the route of the old Icknield Way, is just to the south, while the new Icknield Way long-distance path is just to the north. 

Preserved in the church are pictures of the old church, which was of 12th century origin; we can see that it had typical late medieval windows and a feeble-looking tower, possibly weather-boarded, and Hertfordshire spike. On the north it had some Early English lancet windows, which are echoed in the new design. It was deemed to be in such bad repair that restoration was impossible. The vicar, the Rev. Arthur Coles Haviland (d.1904), who arrived in the parish in 1868, set about raising the funds for a new one. It probably helped that he was independently wealthy. He raised £3600 (about £438,000 today, which would scarcely buy you a three bed semi there nowadays), and in 1870 commissioned Thomas Jeckyll (1827-81) to build him a new church (and rectory and school). The result was, as often happened (compare Barley and Therfield, for example), something much grander than might be expected in a medium-sized village.

Jeckyll was an important figure in the Aesthetic Movement of the later 19th century; he was responsible (with James McNeill Whistler) for the famous Peacock Room of 1876-77, originally designed for a townhouse in Kensington but now in the Freer Gallery in Washington DC. However, I don't think that anyone who was previously unaware of this connection could possibly deduce it from the church, which is in most respects a fairly standard Gothic Revival church in the Victorians' favourite early Decorated style (i.e. imitating buildings of c.1300).

Not completely standard, though, as there are a number of small eccentricities which mark it out. The tower, instead of being at the west end of the nave, is on the south of the west end, and doubles as a porch. The entrance to south porches is nearly always on the south, but here it's on the east. There's also an east door in the south transept. 

The tower has several subtle design features. On the south side there's a small oculus, a round window, with yin-yang tracery, and a stair turret that starts out square, like a miniature version of the tower itself,  but about half way up becomes octagonal and is topped by a little pepper pot cupola. While built, like the rest of the church, of flint with limestone dressings, the tower's top stage has a greater proportion of ironstone rubble than elsewhere; as a general rule, it's aesthetically satisfying when towers increase in complexity of design as the eye travels upwards. This same rule means that towers shouldn't have an abrupt termination with the sky at the top, but should have crenellations and/or pinnacles. Lilley has neither, but Jeckyll contrives to make this less of a problem by ensuring that the parapet is elaborated by means of chequerwork (tiles laid on edge alternating with stone). 

Stepping into the porch under the tower we find that it's built of brick inside, and that there are several monuments from the old church.

The nave is plain enough, but on the right of the chancel arch there's a doorway and a staircase that might at first be imagined to lead up to a non-existent rood loft.

In fact the stairs lead to the chapel of the Sowerby family on the first floor of the south transept (the ground floor is their burial vault). This is a beautiful, light-filled space, and enables us to look down into the chancel (an unusual vista in a parish church) and have a better view of its ceiling, and of the finely-detailed capitals of the arch communicating between the chapel and chancel - see the little bird in the photo above, for example.

But it's really the chancel itself where most of the interest lies, and in particular the ceiling, which Bettley/Pevsner call 'the glory of the chancel'. The panels depict emblems of St Peter - the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven and the inverted cross on which he was crucified - alternating with fleur-de-lys. The red paint and gold bosses look very splendid together; this is the only part of the church that looks as if it could have been made by the man behind the Peacock Room.

On the north side is the biggest relic of the old church, a reset arch, originally the chancel arch (and which now shelters the organ). This is very plain, without even a chamfer, and made from red tufa; offhand I can't think of anything else in the county made from this material. Tufa is created when spring water bubbles up beneath calcium carbonate-rich limestone; the water absorbs the chemical and then deposits it on the surface, and it over the millennia dries and hardens. The red tinge will be because of iron ore. Presumably the tufa was fairly local; it probably came from the bottom a nearby chalk escarpment where many springs emerge.

The east window, like all the glass in the church, is by the firm Heaton, Butler and Bayne. It dates from 1882 and seems to have been the first stained glass to be installed, so it evidently took the parish more than a decade after the completion of the building for funds to be raised to begin the glazing scheme. This excellent window depicts the Baptism of Christ, the Crucifixion and the Supper at Emmaus. 

According to the notes in the church, crosses on altars were rather frowned on in the 1870s, but the Rev Haviland, being presumably High Church, was determined to have one and that no one would remove it, so he ensured that the cross visible in the photo was made of stone and an integral part of the altar and reredos, so short of being attacked with a chisel it will stay where it is.

The west window, depicting the Ascension, is even better. It's from 1901, by which time much stained glass had descended into insipidity and sentimentality, but fortunately Heaton, Butler and Bayne managed to keep their standards up. 

Altogether Lilley is uncommonly interesting for a church of its date. What's more, despite being in the same benefice as Offley and King's Walden, which are impenetrably locked, it's always been open when I've visited (and the nearby Lilley Arms very welcoming).

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