Two similar churches, one in Kensington and the other in Wiltshire

ENNISMORE GARDENS MEWS IS about 380 yards west of Exhibition Road near South Kensington. It is the site of a church with an Italianate façade, now the Russian Orthodox Cathedral of the Dormition of the Mother of God and All Saints. A tall bell tower stands to the right of the façade as you look at it from the street. Pevsner described the style of the façade as “Lombardic Romanesque”. He noted:

“The Early Christian/Italian-Romanesque style was a speciality of the 1840s…”

Russian Orthodox church in Kensington, London

Although many of the fittings in the church are typical of Russian Orthodox places of worship (e.g., iconostasis and icons), the interior is not typical of edifices built specifically for the Orthodox church. The coloured panels above the arches (supported by iron pillars) lining the nave are not typical of the kinds of images usually associated with the Orthodox Church. They have captions in both English and Latin, but not in Cyrillic. The church was designed as the Anglican Church of All Saints in 1848-1849 by Lewis Vulliamy (1791-1871). The tower was constructed in 1871. Most of the decoration within the building is in the late 19th century Arts and Crafts style.

The Anglican parish, which was based in the former All Saints, merged with another in 1955. Then the church was let to the Russian Orthodox faith and its name changed to its present one. In 1978, the Sourozh Diocese purchased the edifice. The Sourozh is under the control of the Patriarchate of Moscow. The church in Ennismore Gardens Mews has a multi-national Orthodox congregation.  I asked a bearded priest how the cathedral differed from the Russian church in Harvard Road, Chiswick. He replied:

“We are the Orthodox Church based in Moscow, but the other one in Chiswick is the Orthodox Church based outside Russia … it is very complicated.”

Wilton in Wiltshire is almost 80 miles southwest of the Russian church in Ennismore Gardens Mews. Famed for its fine carpet manufacturing, the town has a church, St Mary and St Nicholas, whose façade looks not too different from that of South Kensington’s Russian Orthodox Cathedral. The Wilton church has a similar bell tower, but it placed on the left side of the façade. The church was commissioned by Sidney Herbert, 1st Baron Herbert of Lea (1810-1861), a close ally and supporter of Florence Nightingale of Crimean War fame. Sidney was a son of George Herbert, 11th Earl of Pembroke and his Russian spouse Catherine (née Yekaterina Semyonovna Vorontsova). The church, completed in 1845, was designed by Thomas Henry Wyatt (1807-1880) and his assistant David Brandon (1813-1897).

With many features borrowed from Italian Romanesque architecture, and some from Byzantine designs, the edifice at Wilton, despite being an Anglican parish church, felt to me slightly more like an Orthodox church than the converted ex-Anglican, now Orthodox, church in Ennismore Gardens Mews. However, the interior fittings in the church in Wilton borrow from what can be found in traditional Italian churches rather than in typical eastern Orthodox churches. But, the mosaic covered cupola over the chancel in Wilton’s Anglican church, with its depiction of Christ with two saints resembling what is often found in Byzantine churches, contrasts with the undecorated cupola over the chancel in what has now become the Russian Orthodox Cathedral in Kensington.

Placed side by side, many differences could be discerned between the church in south Kensington and that in Wilton. But it is the similarities between two churches designed by different architects that are remarkable.

Just around the corner … in South Kensington

PEOPLE USUALLY ASSOCIATE South Kensington with its magnificent set of museums. However, there is far more than that in the district, and within a few yards of the museums. Here are a few places of interest near to the Victoria and Albert Museum (the ‘V&A’).

The V&A stands on the northeast corner of Exhibition Road and Cromwell Gardens (a short stretch of the A4) and faces the Ismaili Centre on the southeast corner. This attractive building built for the religious community that is led by the Aga Khan was designed by the Casson Conder Partnership and completed in 1985. According to the website of the Ismailis, https://the.ismaili, the building’s pleasing exterior:

“… has used materials and colours which are compatible with those of the surrounding buildings while at the same time in keeping with the traditional Islamic idiom and its colours of whites, light greys and blues.”

Monument in he Yalta Memorial Garden

An open space, The Yalta Memorial Garden, on the east side of the centre contains a monument to remember “… the countless men, women, and children, from the Soviet Union and other East European states, who were imprisoned and died at the hands of Communist governments after being repatriated at the conclusion of the Second World War…” The memorial consists of a column on the top of which there is a sculpture by Angela Conner (born 1935) depicting 12 faces of men, women, and children. Nearby, a house on the northeast corner of Thurloe Square and facing the V&A, bears a plaque informing that the museum’s first Director Henry Cole (1808-1882) lived there.

The Brompton Oratory, or to give its full name, the Church of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, is a huge Roman Catholic church with a neoclassical façade and a dome. It stands east of the V&A. It was designed by the architect Herbert Gribble (1846-1894), a convert to Roman Catholicism, and constructed between 1880 and 1884. The architectural style is mainly Roman Baroque. This enormous edifice was the largest Roman Catholic church in London until Westminster Cathedral was constructed in the first decade of the 20th century.

Cottage Place runs along the east side of the Oratory towards the Holy Trinity Brompton church north of it. A building that looks like many of the older Underground station entrances on the Place has a façade decorated with blood-red glazed terracotta tiles. Between 1906 and 1934, when it was closed, it was the entrance to Brompton Road station on the Piccadilly Line. It was a stop between the still functioning Knightsbridge and South Kensington stations. It was closed because it was hardly ever used by passengers.  An article in the Guardian newspaper, published in February 2014, related that during WW2, the disused station was used as a command centre for anti-aircraft batteries. It also suggested that the Nazi Rudolf Hess (1894-1987) was interrogated here. Between the station’s closure and about 2014, the building was owned and used by the Ministry of Defence.

The Holy Trinity Brompton Church, a gothic revival structure, was designed by Thomas Leverton Donaldson (1795-1885), and completed in 1829. It was established to accommodate the growing population of this part of Kensington, which until then had to worship in the church of St Mary Abbots in Kensington, almost one mile away. In 1852, a part of the church’s land was sold for building the Oratory upon it. The large grassy space north of Holy Trinity, now a park, was formerly the church’s graveyard.

Although none of the places I have described rival the splendour of the V&A and especially its fantastic collection of artefacts, they are worth exploring if you happen to be in the neighbourhood. A problem in London is that there are so many places of the greatest interests to visitors, which often means they have so little time to explore the lesser-known curiosities that form part of the rich tapestry of London’s past and present.

Annigoni under the flight path to Heathrow

HAYES IN THE London Borough of Hillingdon is not on the itineraries of most tourists, although many of them fly over the area when landing at nearby Heathrow Airport. In addition to the venerable old (late mediaeval) parish church of St Mary, there is a lovely park and another church worth seeing in the area.

Painting in Hayes by Pietro Annigoni

St Mary’s church stands at the northeast corner of Barra Hall Park, the grounds of Barra Hall. The park was opened to the public in 1923. Largely on level ground, it has lawns, flower beds, and plenty of old trees. There is a bandstand whose roof is supported by metal pillars with curly decorative features. Nearby, there is an open-air theatre whose stage is under four enormous rectangular metal plates, that act as shades. Each of them has been bent into a slight curve. Its auditorium consists of circular concrete steps, which can accommodate an audience of 180.

The Barra Hall, which stands within the park, was originally a manor house, once known as ‘Grove House’. In the late 18th century, it was home to Alderman Harvey Christian Combe (1752-1818), who became Lord Mayor of London in 1799. In 1871, it passed into the hands of Robert Reid, an auctioneer and surveyor. Reid claimed to be descended from the Reids of Barra. He enlarged and modified the building in various ways and renamed it Barra Hall in 1875. In 1924, the house became the Hayes and Harlington town hall. When Hayes became part of the Borough of Hillingdon, the Hall ceased being used as a town hall. In 2005, after renovation, the large house became used as a children’s centre. The building is Victorian in appearance with a mixture of neo-Jacobean and neo-gothic decorative features.

The Hall and its park are less than a mile north of the Lidl supermarket in the Botwell Green area of Hayes. Opposite the supermarket, stands the Roman Catholic church of the Immaculate Heart of Mary. This basilica-style church was designed by Burles, Newton, and Partners and completed in 1961. It has a tall brick bell tower. In front of its vast west window, there is a fine statue of the Virgin by Michael Clark. This window, along with those beneath the tall ceiling above the wide nave, fills the spacious church with light. The nave is flanked by north and south aisles beneath lower ceilings. The walls of these aisles contain attractive stained-glass, both abstract compositions and depictions of biblical scenes. These windows were designed by Goddard and Gibbs. High above the altar, hanging on the east wall of the chancel, there is a lovely painting of the Virgin and Child by Pietro Annigoni (1910-1988). At the east end of the north aisle, there is a painting of St Jude by Daniel O’Connell.

Before the church was built, the local congregation of the parish, which was created in 1912. worshipped in a chapel created in Botwell House, an early 19th century building, which still stands in the grounds of the church. Both this church and the much older one near Barra Hall Park provide welcome, peaceful oases, which allow one to temporarily escape from the bustle and stresses of modern life.

Catching the wind

Cambridge, UK

LOOK UP AND if your eyesight is reasonably up to scratch, you might well be lucky enough to see a weathervane on top of a church steeple or some other high point on a building. The ‘vane’ in weathervane is derived from an Old English word, ‘fana’, meaning flag (in German the word ‘Fahn’ means flag). Weathervanes are simple gadgets that indicate the direction of the wind. They usually consist of an arrow attached by a horizontal straight rod to a flat surface that catches the wind. The rod is mounted on a vertical support in such away that it can rotate as the wind catches the flat surface. The horizontal rod with the arrow rotates so that it offers the least resistance to the prevailing wind. Beneath the rotating arrow are often indicators that are labelled with letters denoting the four points of the compass. If, for example, the wind begins to blow from east to west, the horizontal rod will rotate so that the arrow is above the ‘E’ denoting east. Some weathervanes substitute the horizontal rod with a single flat asymmetric object that can catch the wind and rotate. Often the object seen above churches is a cock or other bird, whose beak will indicate the direction of the wind. I suppose that for birds wind direction is quite important.

The weathervane is not a recent invention. It was invented in the 2nd century BC both by the Greeks and the Chinese but separately. Some of the oldest Chinese weathervanes were shaped as birds and later, at least by the end of the 9th century AD, bird shaped vanes became used in Europe. Although avian weathervanes are still very common, a wide variety of other shapes have been used. Sundials, weathervanes, now archaic, only give an approximate indication of time and wind direction respectively. However, unlike sundials, which do not work when the sun is not shining, weathervanes work in all weather conditions and in day and night, although they are somewhat difficult to see at night-time. Despite their relative inaccuracy compared with modern instruments for measurements of  wind, weathervanes are attractive adornments to buildings both old and new.

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.

An unusual feature

AN ELDERLY LADY WALKING with the help of a walking frame beckoned to us just after we had  walked around the Church of St Mary in the village of Guilden Morden near Royston in Cambridgeshire.  As with so many country churches we have visited since the onset of the covid19 pandemic, we had found that the church was locked up. However, the lady, who had called us over, was holding a large old-fashioned key and asked us whether we would like to see inside the church. I am so glad that we accepted her offer because she pointed out something that is very rarely found in English churches: a double rood screen.

A rood screen is often found in late mediaeval churches. Commonly made of wood and often ornate, the screens separate the nave where the congregation assembles from the chancel where the choir sings and the clergy officiate near to the high altar. The rood screen at St Mary’s in Guilden Morden, whose construction began in the 12th or 13th centuries, consists of two parallel screens on either side of a central passage leading between the chancel and the nave. It is decorated with some paintings of saints and on each side of the passage, there are small enclosures large enough for several congregants to sit during a service.

The lady, who pointed out the special nature of the rood screen, told us that in the past, the lord of one manor sat with family members in the ‘cubicle’ on one side of the central passageway and the lord of another manor sat in the cubicle on the other side. She told us that when she was a small child in the village, she had seen the local aristocrats occupying the rather cramped-looking booths between the parallel screens.

The website www.english-church-architecture.net doubts the church’s claim  that the double-rood screen is an original feature of the church. It quotes the architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner, who:

“… declared it to be reassembled from the original rood screen and one or more parclose screens, to form “a double rood-screen, i.e. with a kind of pew left and right of a central passageway.  Three designs are represented, two very similar and clearly not too late in the fourteenth century, the third, early Perp.”  In fact, the early Perpendicular work forms the back of the screen and the re-used sections of parclose screens, if that is what they are, appear to have been built up against it on the side towards the nave.”

Whatever its history, neither my wife nor I had ever seen anything quite like that in British churches … and we have visited quite a few of them.

Before leaving the church and the kind old lady, I spotted the baptismal font that looks far older than the church. Our new friend thought it predated the present church. According http://www.british-history.ac.uk, the font’s basin is 12th century and the pillars supporting it are later.

Before we left the church and the lady locked it up, I asked her about the name Guilden Morden. She believed that it might mean something like ‘golden moor’. She was not far off the truth, which is that the name is derived from the Old English ‘Gylden More Dun’, meaning ‘Golden’ (rich or productive) ‘Moor Hill’.

Once again, a trip out of London into the countryside has proved to be not only refreshing but also enjoyable. England, from which we have always travelled abroad during the years before the current pandemic, is proving to be at least as interesting as the many far more exotic destinations we have been enjoying over the years.

All that remains is …

OUR GOOD FRIENDS IN HERTFORDSHIRE always take us out into the countryside for a walk with their two friendly dogs. Invariably, we visit countryside that is both beautiful and contains something of interest. This time, we parked in the small hamlet of Thundridge (in Hertfordshire), which is located on what was once the Roman road, Ermine Street (from the Old English ‘Earninga Straete’). This thoroughfare linked London with York. We set off by walking along a small road named Old Church Lane. This soon becomes a footpath that runs alongside the River Rib, a tributary of the River Lea, which in turn is a tributary of the River Thames. The Rib merges with the Lea in the town of Hertford.

We walked past a vast field in which some grassy crop was growing. Far across the field there was a small wood. A church tower could be seen rising from amongst the trees. We followed another path towards the clump of trees and soon arrived at the tower. This tower and a graveyard is all that remains of the church of St Mary and All Saints (some call it ‘All Hallows and Little St. Mary’ and others ‘Thundridge Old Church’), which was demolished (apart from the tower) in 1853, when a new church was built in Wadesmill. The tower was constructed of flint and mortar in the 15th century. The rest of the church, now demolished, was built in the 11th to 12th centuries. A Romanesque archway now set into the eastern wall of the tower is the only visible remains of that former church.  Although this ruined tower might well appeal to those who find ruins romantic, it is in a bad condition with some of the structure covered with corrugated iron sheeting and other parts with graffiti. There are some plans to conserve it and others to demolish it to make room for new housing.

The reason that the old church was demolished was that the old manor house, which was close to the old church, was demolished in the 19th century. Consequently, the population of Thundridge moved nearer to the new manor house that was built where the church built in 1853 now stands.

Just before we reached the old church tower, we passed a field which had a long grass-covered trench running along it. This is the remains of a moat built long ago when Thundridge village was located near to the the old, now demolished church. The banks of the moat were liberally studded with mole hills. This moat is believed to have been dug in mediaeval times. What remains of it is ‘D’ shaped and encloses an area bounded by sides of approximately 660 feet north to south and by the same east to west. The moat enclosed the site of the former manor house.

Having seen all that remains of Thudridge Old Church, we retraced our steps to Ermine Street, crossed the fast-flowing River Rib, and then ate an enormous roast lunch in the garden of the nearby Feathers pub in Wadesmill, which is about two minutes’ walk from Thundridge.

Onion on top

ONION DOME SMALL

This piece, which is about onion shaped domes on some churches, was inspired by a chance discovery of a photograph of a church (see illustration) that I took somewhere in Slovenia about twenty years ago.

In the summer of 1975, I accompanied my PhD supervisor, Robert Harkness, and his wife, Margaret, both now no longer living, on their annual drive from Buckinghamshire in the UK to Platamon on the Aegean coast of northern Greece. It took about nine days in their Land Rover, which was towing a caravan that was to become their home in Greece for up to two months. Robert, a well-regarded physiologist, was also a keen naturalist as well as being interested in many other things. This excerpt from an unfinished biography of the Harkness’s that I began writing over a decade ago illustrate one of the varied interests that kept Robert happy.

Soon after we left our camping site on the following morning, we crossed the River Rhine and entered West Germany, where we began driving along its Autobahns. After some hours, we spotted the first of the many onion-domed church towers typical of southern Germany.

Robert speculated that there must be a line of places north and west of which it is almost impossible to find onion domed church towers. This idea made him think that there must also be an olive line north of which no olive trees grew, and a ‘karpousi’ (καρπούζι: Greek for watermelon) line below which watermelons grew. Original as this might seem, Robert’s concept of boundaries based on the presence of this or that particular item was apparently proposed earlier by a French author – it might have been Stendhal – who was writing about those nations whose inhabitants favour eating Brussels sprouts.

Arab or Norman, Hindu or Muslim…

The Normans took over Sicily from its Arab rulers. The early mediaeval church architecture adopted by the Norman builders shows the influence of Arab design.

In Gujarat (India), the Muslim invaders began building mosques in the style of local Hindu temples, just as the Normans built in the way that they found when they arrived in Sicily.