The following ‘virtual tour’ of our building is largely based on the contents of the booklet “The Parish Church of St. Mary”, written by Philip Leonard-Johnson, Vicar of St. Mary’s from 1982 until 1992. Full of interesting facts, as well as some unsolved architectural conundrums, copies of the 26-page illustrated booklet are available in church to assist visitors in a ‘guided tour’. If you would like a copy please contact the church office.
St. Mary’s is a living church – drawing its life from the living God. People of many centuries have looked to the church as the heart of the community, and each century has left its mark on the building, just as those who worship here today are leaving their own distinctive mark as they draw grace and guidance to live a Christian life in the early 21st century.
The view from outside the main west door reveals over 900 years of history. The Norman arch over the door is the only remaining trace of the first stone church which was built around 1150 to replace an earlier wooden Saxon church.
Steady development followed, and the original doorway was incorporated in around 1325 into the larger structure that forms the basis of our building today. Looking up at the tower you will notice the large west window above the door, with its characteristic 14th Century ornate stonework, pointed arches and elaborate patterns. Compare the massive stone blocks and rough mortar of the 14th Century tower with the neater stonework of the church’s side aisles rebuilt by the Victorians 500 years later.
The local red and grey sandstone is used in a random mixture, the builders resisting the temptation to use alternating layers as in some churches. The battlements were added in the 16th Century and the pinnacles in the 19th.
Robert Clive (of India) reportedly climbed out on to one of the gargoyles when attending the nearby Old Grammar School in the 1730s. Having survived this ordeal he went on to found the Indian Empire, and is buried just a few miles away at Moreton Say.
Entering the church your eye is drawn up the aisle, through the nave, to the high altar in the chancel at the east end of the building. The dramatic stone chancel arch separates the two areas. In the 14th Century the focus was on the holiness and mystery of the Holy Communion. The nave represented earth, while the chancel sanctuary, with the glory of its great east window, and the richness of the high altar with its carving and gilding highlighting scenes from the life of Jesus, represented heaven. Until 1992, when it was moved to the base of the tower arch, a wooden screen ensured that the richness of heaven could not be clearly seen until a worshipper had come right into church.
Traces still remain of ways to access a gallery or roof loft, which would have existed at various points in the building’s history. Here would have stood a large cross, the rood, flanked by figures of St. Mary and St. John. Such a gallery would have been used for reading or for music, and photographs from the period show such a structure in place in the early part of the 20th Century. In the south side of the chancel arch, high above the current lectern, a 16th Century set of spiral stairs appears to go nowhere – these used to provide access on to the roof from the gallery. The clerestory windows, high up in the walls of the chancel and with their distinctive square-headed style, are among the few other 16th Century parts of the church.
With the Georgians came a very different spirituality that brought dramatic changes to the shape and style of the interior of the building. Preaching, singing, order and symmetry were important to them, and the population was growing rapidly. The height of the nave arches and the nave roof were raised to allow the installation of galleries, and the west window was blocked up. Walls were plastered and whitewashed and ceilings and box pews installed, all but masking any trace of the medieval church. A three-decker pulpit was the main focal point, and many of the wall monuments in church date from this period.
By the middle of the Victorian era worshippers were reacting against the Georgian attitudes, and at a time when the building was clearly in need of major repair opened the Restoration Fund to raise the £5,800 required to rediscover and restore the 14th Century coherence and harmony. The work began in the 1880’s, with newspapers recording with excitement the daily discoveries of windows, arches and columns that had lain hidden by the Georgian plaster and galleries. The architects were determined to re-produce authentically the original styles and the completion of the work was celebrated in January 1884 with a great thanksgiving service.
Changes in the following years included the installation of pews, the enrichment of the Resurrection Chapel on the south side with the addition of its carved screen (reredos) and panelling, the replacement of gas lighting with electricity and the alteration of the Buntingsdale Chapel on the north side to form a choir vestry.
20th Century Influence
As the 20th Century unfolded, priest and congregation grew closer. As lay people began to get more involved in services and share more aspects of ministry with the clergy the physical properties of the building were re-shaped to better accommodate this. The removal of the gallery over the chancel screen, and the eventual repositioning of the screen itself to the back of church, thereby revealing the beauty of the east window and the altar, all served to allow the Holy Spirit to flow more freely in our worship.
Into the 21st Century
Continuing the adaptation of the building to meet the changing styles of worship a number of major works have been completed in the last few years:
2004 was the ‘Year of the Roof’. 50 years after the last major repair the chancel and nave roofs were in a sorry state and getting ‘dripped on’ during services was a common event. Buckets and even paddling pools were often used to catch the torrents of water that found their way in when it rained heavily outside.
Personal giving by the congregation was supplemented by a carefully planned series of fundraising events. including concerts, a table-top sale and a variety of sponsored events. A total of over £80,000 was raised to help to pay for a £120,000 upgrade of the roof, including the laying of 17 tons of new lead and a layer of modern insulation material to help reduce condensation and heating bills