Exploring Churches in the Welsh Marches

Where it all started – St Michael, Sittingbourne, Kent
Photograph by John Salmon from Geograph 326739

Historic buildings have been a huge part of my life since childhood. My late mother told a story about pushing me at a very tender age past St Michael’s  churchyard wall on Watling Street in Sittingbourne, Kent.  I pointed to the wall and said  ‘Roman’, which was hopelessly inaccurate for a wall erected in the  mid-nineteenth century, although it contains much reused material, in all probability some of it Roman.

For my 12th birthday the star present was the Kent volume of Arthur Mee’s King’s England, followed soon after by a handsome racing bike.  The bike is long gone, but the battered Mee volume survives, bearing the scars of having travelled from church to church along the highways and dusty byways of North Kent. While the nation was excitedly watching Princess Margaret on television as she married  Anthony Armstrong-Jones in May 1960, I was finding excitement at  the deliciously unrestored  All Saints, Graveney on the marshes,with its wealth of ancient timber, its screens and box pews and the fabulous 14th century brasses of Justice Martyn and his wife.  Over the next few years every church within 30 miles of my Sittingbourne home had been ticked off, plus a brace of cathedrals, a number of ruined monasteries and the odd castle or two.

No Victorian restorer found work here – All Saints, Graveney, Kent
Photograph copyright Paul Anthony Moore

Several decades on and after a varied career spent in London, East Anglia, Birmingham, Yorkshire, Bristol and the Cotswolds, retirement sees me settled with my wife in a hamlet close to Weobley in Herefordshire, a blissful county of rolling hills on the border with Wales with more than its fair share of interesting churches, some of national importance. Many, however are virtually unknown outside the county.

In this site I share my thoughts on a varied selection, ranging from the few grand town churches to the many more humble buildings, some of which are in remote and romantic locations. Grand architecture is in short supply and the evidence of medieval prosperity to be seen in nearby Gloucestershire, Wiltshire and Somerset is in almost all cases absent from the churches of Herefordshire and the Marches. However, there was an extraordinary period in the 12th century when the architecture and sculpture produced in Herefordshire was at least the equal of anything elsewhere. Happily, much of it survives. It is all the more remarkable that the work of the Herefordshire School of Romanesque Sculpture was produced against a background of almost continuous civil war, firstly the great Anarchy of 1135-54 caused by the lengthy war between King Stephen and his cousin Matilda, followed soon after by the struggle between Henry II and his sons in 1173 and 1174.

Chancel arch capitals at St Peter and St Paul, Rock in Worcestershire – products of the famed Herefordshire School of Romanesque Sculpture

There is little in Herefordshire that pre-dates the Norman Conquest but many churches clearly show their Norman origins. There was much activity in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries but little newly built in the 15th and 16th centuries. The seventeenth century is best represented by the Laudian restoration of Dore Abbey after 1633, complete with superb woodwork by John Abell, all financed by John, Viscount Scudamore. Nineteenth century ‘restorations’ are widespread and many are acceptable to twenty first century eyes. The earliest years of the twentieth century saw the completion of W.R. Lethaby’s masterpiece All Saints, Brockhampton, ‘one of the most convincing and impressive churches of its date in any country’ in Nikolaus Pevsner’s opinion.

All Saints, Brockhampton-by-Ross. W.R.Lethaby’s arts and crafts masterpiece.

The present century has seen the reordering of churches and the installation of facilities that enable the buildings to be used for secular and community purposes. There are examples in the county of both how it should be done and how it should not. What ever one’s view, these changes are just as much a part of a building’s history as any addition, alteration or ‘restoration’ of earlier times.

The term Welsh Marches is presently accepted to mean the counties that lie on either side of the current Welsh border. It is as area of largely rural tranquility that belies its turbulent past. Although the churches explored here are in the main Herefordian, there will be forays into other counties, both English and Welsh.

The Old Church, Penallt, Monmouthshire. High on a cliff overlooking the peerless Wye valley. Undedicated and remote in the extreme, but well worth seeking out. The view of the Wye from the churchyard is sensational.

I would hope to be able to shine a small light on some of the lesser known churches in the Marches while not overlooking the undoubted stars of the show. Our much-wounded cathedral in Hereford will not feature, purely on the grounds of space, not merit.

Unless otherwise credited, all photographs are my own.


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