Surrey's historic churches tour
- Credit: Various
Here in Surrey, we are blessed with some fine historic churches, and this month there’s a chance to join a special tour of a few with the Churches Conservation Trust. Jack Watkins gets a sneak preview...
Sir John Betjeman, best-loved of British Poet Laureates, was such a confirmed church crawler that he’d draw howls of protest from his children on family summer holidays by insisting on stopping the car to look at each one they passed en route to their final destination.
But Betjeman was saved from becoming a church bore of the first order, to the wider public at least, because although he had antiquarian interests, he understood “old things” only mattered to people if you could relate their human interest.
He would, no doubt, have approved most heartily then of the ‘Lords and Gentry’ Historic Church Tour of Surrey that is taking place later this month. Organised by the Churches Conservation Trust (CCT), the tour will include four of our county’s most important historic churches, bringing them to life with stories of the families that shaped them. Saxon stonework One of the most interesting on the tour is the old parish church of St Peter and St Paul in Albury Park; in fact, it’s easy to imagine Betjeman waxing lyrical about this one. The setting is serene, not far from the slow-flowing River Tillingbourne, about four miles east of Guildford. Furthermore, the flint-walled building is so old there is Saxon stonework in the tower, which also has a quaint little 19th century cupola on top, but it is the character associations that add extra layers of appeal.
You can’t go far in reading about old churches without coming across the resoundingly named Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin. Betjeman once narrated a TV documentary about him. A prodigious talent, he blazed a comet-like trail across the mid-19th century architectural scene, preaching with messianic zeal the glories of medieval Gothic architecture, which he played a major role in reviving. In fact, his most famous work can be seen at the Palace of Westminster.
Early on in his career though, Pugin was commissioned to work on the mansion at Albury Park, coming up with a typically eccentric design that included 63 decorative chimneys of all shapes and sizes. The owner, Henry Drummond MP, also tasked him with repairing the Church of St Peter and St Paul, which stood nearby, as well as turning the south transept into a family mortuary chapel. This was duly decorated in his characteristically vibrant style, with painted walls and ceiling, ornate woodwork and a dazzling tiled floor.
On another point of interest, during this time, a notable feature of the nave was also rediscovered, in the form of a 15th-century wall painting of Saint Christopher. One former vicar, William Oughtred, who served there for 50 years, invented the slide rule and corresponded with Sir Christopher Wren on mathematics, had been alert to the threat to its safety in the image-smashing years of Oliver Cromwell and covered it up. It was subsequently restored and is now a major feature of the lime-washed nave.
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The reality, however, is that at that stage the building’s future was far from certain. Once surrounded by the homes of the estate workers, by the time Pugin arrived, these had been gradually moved away to the present parish village of Albury. Also, a new church was being built up on the hill overlooking the village, not to mention a second one for the Catholic Apostolics (see details of that far right) and soon, controversially, the old church was closed.
Such has been the fate of many places of worship over the years, of course, and St Peter and St Paul may have been lost entirely had it not been for the CCT. When the charity took over the care of the church in 1974, it was roofless and the organisation has since spent £200,000 on its repair, including providing a new roof and repairing the chancel walls. The tower’s timber frame and cupola have been repaired too, and work carried out to consolidate the tower masonry.
Now, thanks also to a local volunteer group, the Friends of Albury Church, it’s open daily to the curious visitor and was even used as a location as the ‘Scottish church’ in the film comedy Four Weddings and a Funeral.
10th century chapel
Among the other churches in the tour is Lumley Chapel, the oldest building in Cheam, and all that is left of the original 10th century church of St Dunstan, which was demolished in 1864, after its replacement with a larger church nearby.
Remodelled in the 16th century by John Lord Lumley as a burial place for himself and both his wives, the chapel still bears his name today. An Elizabethan courtier, Lumley was one of the judges at the trial of Mary Queen of Scots. He also developed the celebrated garden at Nonsuch Palace, near Ewell, and was an art collector too, whose personal library was later acquired by King James I and incorporated within the Royal Library, which, in turn, became the basis of the British Library.
Like the Drummonds at Albury, Lumley saw this atmospheric place as a chance to create a memorial chapel for his own family in the 1590s, and the stone monuments and tombs are as richly carved as you’d expect.
Most village churches date back to medieval times, but St George’s, the former parish church of Esher up to 1854, jumps you forward a couple of centuries and is a relative stylistic rarity. Its design imprint comes from the Tudor, Stuart and Hanoverian periods, having been one of the first churches to have been built after the Reformation.
The work of another big name architect can be seen here too. Sir John Vanbrugh, the creative genius behind Blenheim Palace and Castle Howard, had sold his property Claremont House (associated with Claremont Landscape Garden, now in the hands of the National Trust) to Thomas, Duke of Newcastle and Prime Minster, in 1714, and then helped him enlarge it. So it was fitting that the latter also had him design the family chamber pew in St George’s, fronted by an imposing line of Corinthian columns.
Princess Charlotte, only child of the future king George IV and heiress to the throne, and Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, were among later worshippers at the church to sit in the pew. The church fell on hard times after 1854, but the local community got behind its restoration in the mid-1960s, with the formation of a Friends group, and the CCT taking it into its care.
The final church on this month’s tour, St Mary’s at Stoke D’Abernon, is a still functioning place of worship with regular services, and therefore, not within the aegis of the CCT. It fully merits a place on the schedule, however, being so old there are fragments in the south wall dating back to the 7th and 8th century, not long after the arrival of St Augustine’s Christian missionaries from Rome. And, as with the aforementioned churches, it’s one that was built on private land and in which, therefore, the local gentry retained a proprietary interest through much of its history. There is also a fine collection of brass memorials, which are believed to be the oldest military brasses in England, and an immense 17th century pulpit.
Of course, there’s nothing to stop you doing an investigation of these churches on your own, but remember to check the CCT website on opening times or how to obtain access. What is more, these fascinating tours, which include a light lunch and travel to and from the pick-up point at Esher railway station, offer a gentle introduction, and are tailored to appeal to wider lovers of culture and the simple joys of a walk in the English countryside.
If he were still around today, Sir John Betjeman, arch deacon of the philosophy of being “interested in everything”, would almost certainly have been among those present.
A few others worth a visit…
Betchworth: St Michael’s,
Church Street RH3 7DN
Best known for its appearance in the 1995 film Four Weddings and a Funeral, it’s been some unexpected finds that have caused a stir in recent years. In 2013, while replacing the church organ, 500-year-old vaults containing human remains were discovered.
Blackheath: St Martin’s, Blackheath Lane GU4 8RA
The highly unusual St Martin’s owes its existence to metallurgist, Sir William Roberts-Austin. What makes it so unusual? Its low-roofed structure is modelled after an Italian wayside chapel, inspired by his travels.
Bletchingley: St Mary’s, Church Lane RH1 4PD Look out for the plaque to Commander Wilfred Dunderale, a naval officer who played a leading role in capturing a German Enigma machine in World War Two and was an inspiration for James Bond. Near the pulpit you’ll find a portrait of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, a curate here from 1965 to 1967.
Chilworth: St Martha on the Hill,
Halfpenny Lane GU4 8PY Perched 573 feet up on the top of a hill and only accessible by foot, St Martha’s Church must boast one of the best views of any church locally. The actress Yvonne Arnaud, after whom Guildford’s theatre is named, is buried in the churchyard.
Reigate: St Mary’s, Church Lane RH2 7RN Above the vestry, you’ll find The Cranston Library (open on select days), which is said to be the first public lending library in England, founded in 1701. The nearby Reigate Heath is also home to what is believed to be the only windmill in England consecrated as a church.
Shere: St James, The Square GU5 9HG Found in the picturesque village of Shere, St James is approached though a lychgate designed by Edwin Lutyens in 1902. Also look out for the cell of the Anchoress of Shere – a young lady who chose to be locked away, receiving food through a grate in the wall.
Sherbourne: Catholic Apostolic Church,
near Albury GU5 9BJ
In 1839, Henry Drummond MP of Albury Park began to build two new churches to replace the Old Parish Church (see left). As well as the new St Peter and St Paul, the other was the Catholic Apostolic Church, an example of the Gothic revival style that was to play such a significant part in English church architecture.
Wotton: St John’s, Church Road RH5 6QQ While the tower and chancel are Norman, the rest of St John’s is 13th century – with one notable exception. The red-brick Evelyn Chapel is where the renowned diarist John Evelyn is buried.
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