Approaching Digswell church via the road gives the impression that it is completely encircled by the housing estates of Welwyn Garden City, of which Digswell is now a suburb. But walking along the paths to the east immediately reveals that this is misleading. Open wooded parkland gently dips down (and across the A1000) to the leafy Mimram valley, crossed by the forty herculean brick arches of Joseph Cubitt's railway viaduct (1848-50), which still carries the main London-Edinburgh line despite being only two tracks wide.
Long before metalled roads and iron railways and garden cities were thought of, before the Conquest, Digswell was part of the estate of the intriguingly named Ansgar the Staller (who derived his name from his delaying William the Bastard's appropriation of London for more than a month after the Battle of Hastings). The land went through numerous owners before and after 1414, when it was conveyed to John Perient, whose descendants feature in the story of the church.
In 1771-3 Lancelot 'Capability' Brown (1716-83) landscaped the extensive grounds* of Digswell House.** Traces of his work survive, though much of it has been lost, initially in the early 19th century when a new owner, the 3rd Earl Cowper, decided to update his surroundings according to the rather more naturalistic style of Humphry Repton (1752-1818), and later by the demands of the Garden City, founded in 1920.
The church too amalgamates old and new, from the 12th century through to the 1960s. No architectural details from the earlier period survive, though the walls of the chancel and nave probably date from then; the oldest surviving recognisable feature is the very simple arch, with just a single chamfer, between the nave and north chapel, which was built on the cusp between the 12th and 13th centuries (and is probably one of the first pointed arches in the county). The screen is early 16th century.
The double piscina is 13th century; it currently dispenses hand sanitiser rather than disposing of leftover communion wine: a sign of the times.
Another juxtaposition of differing periods, and of the mundane with the out of the ordinary, is found in the north aisle. It's probably part of an original rood screen, which became a tower screen, and is now a door leading from the kitchen which occupies the aisle. I love its curly ogee top. It dates from c.1540, and according to Bettley/Pevsner the carved frieze at the top is 'the earliest example in Herts of the new Renaissance fashion of ornamentation', though details in the new style had been appearing in English churches in some other places for a couple of decades by then.
* He was paid £1100 for this work, the equivalent of about £179,000 today. (This otherwise useful website gets its decimal points in a twist and claims that it equates to £1,800,000.)
** Though the building we see today, next to the church and now divided into flats, was built in 1804-7 on the site of the previous house, by Samuel Wyatt.
*** The north chancel window of Dorchester Abbey, Oxon, is the only one that springs to mind.
**** A Dictionary of British Sculptors 1660-1851 and Sculpture in Britain 1530-1830 respectively.
|A half-size reproduction of a ceramic candlestick made for Coventry cathedral|