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

Tuesday 23 January 2024

Woolmer Green church, Herts


The mighty Great North Road: once the backbone of the nation,  now humiliatingly reduced in rank to the B197 like a disgraced officer having his uniform's buttons sliced off on parade.

Between Welwyn and Knebworth lies Woolmer Green, which began as a rural hamlet much like thousands of others, but, encouraged by the arrival of the railway (which reached Welwyn in 1850), a straggly ribbon development strung itself along this road in the later 19th century. In 1896 the Rev Arthur Cayley Headlam became the vicar of Welwyn, and began a campaign for the residents of what was becoming a small village to have a church of their own. He must have been a man of some energy and forcefulness (he eventually became the Bishop of Gloucester) as in 1899 the foundation stone of what was initially a chapel of ease (ie, not strictly a parish church, which status it didn't attain until as late as 2000). He contributed £100 (about £10,600 today) of his own money to the project.

The architect was the Scottish Robert Weir Schultz (1860-1951), an important figure in the Arts and Crafts movement. This is the only surviving church in the country solely by him, though he did design numerous domestic buildings, and Khartoum Cathedral in Sudan (1906-12). In 1915 he started calling himself R (or Robert) W S Weir so as to hide his German sounding surname (Weir was his mother's maiden name).

Externally the building isn't particularly prepossessing. It's of brick with limestone dressings; the windows are lancets in the shallow polygonal apse but minimally Perpendicular elsewhere, except for the westernmost ones on the north and south of the nave, which are, unusually, mandorla-shaped. These and the 1913 relief sculpture (by Herbert William Palliser (1883-1963)) of St Michael killing a non-threatening-looking dragon (actually a wyvern as it has only two legs) over the north door are the only notable features. A tower over the organ loft (on the north side of the chancel) topped by gables and a Herts spike was planned, but funds ran out.

The interior is dominated by the excellent panelled wooden roof, with very plain and assertive tie beams. The origin of the word 'nave' is of course ultimately the Latin 'navis', meaning 'ship', after the (usually rather fanciful) resemblance between a long roof and an upturned boat, but here for once the similarity is unmistakeable. It almost looks as if it could be lifted off, inverted and lowered into water so you could float away in it. 

The geometry of the apse roof is particularly appealing. The other most striking internal feature is the chancel screen, by Laurence Turner (1864-1957), in which what would be tracery in a Gothic screen has become an intricate filigree of the stems of abundant fruits and flowers. This alone would make a visit worthwhile. The plainer, more rectilinear integral pulpit and lectern are also by Turner. The choir desks (only glimpsed in my photos) are by the great Ernest Gimson (1864-1919), apparently the only example of his work in the county. 

The altar rails were designed by Schultz.

The font was carved by Turner; the local schoolchildren raised £36 4s 3d (about £3,800 today, a highly creditable sum) towards it.

Alec Hamilton's Arts and Crafts Churches (2020) devotes two whole pages to Woolmer Green, more than he allots to the great majority of churches he covers, (though the even better Ayot St Peter and Waterford get a mere line each). As this suggests it is worth seeking out, though it can't be relied on to be open (you might have more luck during school term time than during holidays).