A back to front church

JUST TWO AND a half miles north of Heathrow Airport and one mile north of Harmondsworth lies the former village of West Drayton, formerly known simply as ‘Drayton’, now part of the London Borough of Hillingdon.

Both the mainline railway and the Grand Union Canal run through West Drayton. During the second half of the 19th century, this settlement in middle of flat agricultural land was also home to grain mills, brickworks, ropemaking, and docks connected with activities on the canal. There is still some industry in the area, but now it is mainly residential.

Tudor gateway and St Martins Church at West Drayton

West Drayton’s parish church of St Martin was first mentioned in writing in 1181. The present building, with a flint covered exterior and a bell tower topped with a small cupola, mainly dates from the 15th century. Whereas most of the building is 15th century, at least one part of it, a two-arched piscina in the southeast corner, is 13th century. Currently, the church is entered through a modern doorway at the east end of the south wall instead of the older south entrance near the west end of the southern wall. On entering the church, I felt immediately disoriented. This is because, as I realised quickly, the church is arranged back to front. The high altar is at the west end of the church almost at the base of the bell tower and the pews face in that direction. Some years ago, the altar was moved from the chancel, where it had been for many centuries, to the western end of the nave. The reason for this, the vicar and her husband told me, was that it was done so that nobody in the congregation would have a restricted view of the altar during services. However, the attractively carved 15th century stone font stands where it was before the position of the altar was reversed: in the southwest corner of the nave. Another curiosity in the church is the hanging pyx suspended above the high altar. This gothic revival style container (based on the appearance of a mediaeval pyx in a church in Suffolk), which holds the sacrament and can be lowered during services, was designed by Andrew Low, manufactured at Pinewood (film) Studios, and placed in St Martins in 1975.

This oddly arranged church contains several carved stone memorials on its interior walls. Many of them commemorate members of the De Burgh family. Their bodies and those of the Paget family are sealed in a vault below what was originally the chancel.

With only a brief interruption during the 17th century, the manor and estate of West Drayton was owned by the Paget family between 1546 and 1786. In 1786, Henry Paget (1744–1812), 1st Earl of Uxbridge, sold the manor to a London merchant Fysh Coppinger (died 1800), who changed his surname to De Burgh, that of his wife. His memorial is in the church. Henry Paget’s eldest son, Henry William Paget, 1st Marquess of Anglesey (1768-1854), lost his right leg during the Battle of Waterloo (1815). It was replaced by a wooden prosthesis. His amputated leg was buried in Belgium, whereas the rest of his body was interred in Lichfield Cathedral.

The church and its small cemetery are enclosed within an old wall with Tudor brickwork. This is part of a large wall, which once enclosed private grounds. Following the passing of an Act of Parliament, Sir William Paget (1506-1563), at one time secretary to Jane Seymour (c1508-1537), one of the wives of King Henry VIII, enclosed his grounds with a brick wall in the 1550s. The Act stipulated free public access to the church.  Parts of this wall can be seen around the churchyard and alongside Church Road. The Paget family built a mansion on the land that had been enclosed. This building, West Drayton Manor House, was demolished in 1750 by the then Earl of Uxbridge. Although the spacious brick mansion, where the Paget family once lived, is no longer, the red brick gatehouse to the grounds still stands. According to Bob Speel (www.speel.me.uk), this Tudor grand entrance with two octagonal turrets was built in the 16th century. Close to the old gatehouse, there is a newish housing estate, a small enclave called Beaudesert Mews, which was built on land on which at least a part of the long-since demolished manor house might have stood.  The name ‘Beaudesert’ relates to the above-mentioned Sir William Paget, who had the title ‘1st Baron Paget de Beaudesert’.  

By the 19th century, the De Burgh family were living in Drayton Hall, an early 19th century building, which now serves as Council Offices and is surrounded by Drayton Park, near the church. A new building attached to it contains offices of at least one commercial enterprise. West Drayton retains a rectangular grassy space, The Green, once the village green. Several of the buildings around it look as if they were present well before the area was engulfed by London’s western spread. Unlike nearby Harmondsworth and Longford, West Drayton is not under threat of suffering demolition if or when Heathrow Airport is expanded.

Two colourful churches

THE SUNDAY MORNING SERVICE at the parish church, St Mary the Virgin, in Haverhill in Suffolk had just ended when we entered the building. My wife chatted with a priest, who said he knew little about this church’s history. She asked him if there were any other churches in the district worth a visit. He mentioned two across the county border in Cambridgeshire, at the villages of Bartlow and at Hildersham. The two churches have something of interest in common: unusual colourful paintings.

Bartlow’s St Mary’s church has a distinctive round bell tower. But this is not the only thing that is remarkable about it. It was built in the 11th or 12th century and modified gradually during the following centuries. A real treat greets the visitor on entering the building: some colourful 15th century wall paintings, two on the south wall and one on the north. They depict St George’s dragon (north wall), and opposite this on the south wall: St Michael weighing the souls on The Day of Judgement, and east of it another shows a portrait of St Christopher carrying the Christ Child. The paintings existed long before the Civil War. On the 20th of March 1644, they were covered up with paint by Oliver Cromwell’s men under the command of William Dowsing (1596-1668), a fanatic iconoclast, also known as ‘Smasher Dowsing’. The frescos began to become uncovered in the 19th century, but it was only in 2014 that serious conservation work was undertaken on them.

St Christopher painting at Bartlow

The artists who created the wall paintings at Bartlow have been long forgotten, but this is not the case for the creators of the colourful chancel at Holy Trinity Church in nearby Hildersham. In 1806, the Reverend Charles Goodwin was appointed Rector of Hildersham. Ten years later, his son Robert was born. He studied at Clare College in Cambridge and whilst a student he joined The Cambridge Camden Society, whose aims were to promote the study of Gothic architecture and ‘ecclesiastical antiques’. This society grew to be a great influence on the design of Victorian churches.

In 1847, following the death of his father, Robert became Rector of Hildersham’s church. Soon, he began to consider how to ‘restore’ his church in accordance with gothic revival ideals. Amongst these ‘improvements’ was the painting of frescos on the walls of the chancel. These were executed using a novel technique known as ‘spirit fresco’, which made use of a complex mixture of beeswax, oil of spike lavender, spirits of turpentine, elemi resin, and copal varnish. This technique, invented by Thomas Gambier Parry (1816-1888), produced durable images that were easier to produce than the traditional fresco technique used, for example, in renaissance Italy. The chancel at Hildersham was painted using the new technique by Alfred Bell, John Clayton, and Stacy Marks. They and many assistants produced a magnificent display of saints and religious scenes, all from The New Testament. They were painted in 1890 and are in wonderful condition. The two churches are just under 4 miles apart and both are well worth visiting. And, when you do go to these buildings, you will find light switches near their entrance doors. We might never have seen them had it not been for my wife engaging in friendly conversation with the priest at Haverhill.