Cherish the Chapel

by Huw Edwards, journalist and broadcaster
Published in 2012 in The National Churches Trust Annual Review

Huw Edwards

Huw Edwards

The chapels of Wales need friends.

The past half-century, a period of base neglect, has seen hundreds of cherished buildings flattened without heed.

There is a bitter twist at work here. Wales has suffered a campaign of cultural sacking approved by elected and unelected officials; but many of those responsible have had little understanding of the scale of the loss.

In Wales today, those tokens of Plantagenet savagery, the medieval castles, are cared for with a vigilance approaching the fetishistic. We willingly revere these symbols of our oppression. And it follows that our national authorities accord them maximum listed protection.

Chapel

Chapel

In this same Wales, those heroic symbols of our Nonconformist freedom, the chapels, are neglected, disdained and spurned. They lie rotting and decomposed in town centres, casually vandalised. They are invisible and irrelevant. They seldom pierce the people’s awareness, but when they do, they provoke repugnance and scorn.

The popular memory is pitifully short. Even those who vilify religion praise the chapels for enriching the lives of hundreds of thousands of people. These places of worship gave essential literacy and numeracy skills to children and adults; they provided the poor with food and clothing; and they operated an effective welfare system while state and parish dodged their duties.

In rejecting the state religion of England, the Nonconformist movement offered a new definition of Welshness. It really is no exaggeration to say that the spirit of the chapels shaped modern Wales.

But modern Wales doesn’t want to know.

These days, the fact of that transformative contribution is an irritant. The chapels are unsettling reminders of a very different past. To acknowledge the greatness of their contribution is to invite inescapable questions about their present lot. And that is acutely wearisome for a generation whose rejection of the chapel is absolute and final.

The official guardian of our built heritage of Wales is CADW. Unlike Historic Scotland, CADW does not appear to offer a website with a searchable database of listed buildings. What it does provide is an interactive map which locates countless castles, fortresses and monuments of importance.

Try locating Maesyronnen chapel, one of the earliest Nonconformist places of worship. It should be immediately visible as one of the prime religious sites of Wales. It is not. This lack of prominence is even more shocking for a building listed Grade I by CADW.

Rather more bewildering is the knowledge that of the 30,000 buildings listed by CADW following the national survey completed in 2005, very few chapels were accorded the integral protection afforded by Grade I status.

Chapel

Chapel

CADW’s own listing criteria are clear. Buildings of ‘architectural interest… which illustrate important aspects of the nation’s social, economic, cultural or military history’ are worthy of listed status. So are buildings with ‘close historical associations with people or events of importance to Wales’. The majority ‘of special interest’ are in Grade II. A much smaller number of particularly important buildings are listed Grade II*. Buildings of exceptional interest (around 2 per cent of the total) are in Grade I.

Nonconformist Wales

A visit to my home town of Llanelli, one of the strongholds of Nonconformist Wales, will reveal the folly and injustice of the listing process.

The only Grade I listed building is Llanelly House, a particularly fine Georgian town house now being restored in an impressive £6 million scheme. It certainly deserves its full-scale protection. Across the road lies St Elli’s Church, listed Grade II* thanks to its medieval west tower and fifteenth-century chancel. A short walk away we find Tabernacl Chapel, one of the most impressive chapel buildings in Wales, also ranked Grade II*. Tabernacl was designed by John Humphrey, whose much bigger Tabernacl in Morriston is listed Grade I.

So far, so good. But a longer walk around the town centre raises some unsettling questions which also apply to many other parts of Wales.

Capel Als, the oldest Nonconformist cause in Llanelli, is given the minimal protection of Grade II listing, despite an opulent interior rightly regarded as one of the finest chapel designs anywhere in the United Kingdom. It was designed by Owen Morris Roberts who also rebuilt Llanelli’s Capel Newydd. Here, too, he delivered an exquisite interior considered to be one of the best examples of Edwardian chapel design and craftsmanship.

For reasons which are difficult to fathom, both Capel Als and Capel Newydd are lumped together with the majority of chapel buildings in Llanelli in the basic Grade II band, a category which also includes some decidedly mediocre buildings and monuments. The historically significant Adulam Baptist Chapel in nearby Felin-foel, the oldest Nonconformist cause in this part of Carmarthenshire, is also considered worthy of a basic Grade II.

A real problem

This lack of consistency is a real problem. In Carmarthen, George Morgan’s Baptist Chapel in Lammas Street is Grade II*. His equally glorious Dinas Noddfa, Landore, inanely accorded Grade II status, is heading for the same fate as his Calfaria, Llanelli, a rotting mass on the steep slope of Bigyn Hill for the past decade.

This is plainly unjust. But the evident inadequacies of listed protection predate CADW, it must be said, and start with the implementation of the Town and Country Planning Act of 1947. It is clear that successive generations of officials have either failed or refused to acknowledge the architectural and cultural importance of Nonconformist chapels in Wales.

Llanelli does, however, offer some hope for the future. It once boasted 22 chapels in a compact town centre, several of which have been acceptably converted. Glenalla is one of the best examples: here we have a solid Edwardian chapel reborn in 1987 as a community centre and concert hall. A decade earlier, Siloh was the first Llanelli chapel to be refurbished, as a sports and social centre. It has proved to be a popular and valuable local asset. Zion, an elegant chapel design by Henry Rogers, is now part of a major theatre complex which involved one of the best heritage protection schemes in Wales.

It can be done.

The chapels of Wales, those distinctive emblems of Welshness, need many more friends. From the unadorned charm of Soar-y-mynydd, in the depths of Cardiganshire, to the flamboyant grandeur of Bethesda, Ton Pentre, in the heart of the industrial Rhondda. They all deserve protection and preservation. They are all part of the story of Wales.

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Search is on for the UK’s Best Modern Churches

24 churches have been shortlisted for the Best Modern Churches architecture competition being run by the National Churches Trust, The Ecclesiastical Architects and Surveyors Association and the 20th Century Society.

A special website give details of all the shortlisted churches www.bestmodernchurches.org.uk  and the churches and chapels are listed at the bottom of this page.

St Francis Xavier, Falkir

St Francis Xavier, Falkir

From the shortlist of 24, judges will announce a Top 10 Best Modern Churches and award a ‘National Churches Trust Diamond Jubilee Architecture’ prize to the three places of worship judged to be the best sacred spaces built in the last 60 years at a ceremony to be held at Lambeth Palace on 7  November 2013.  The awards will be presented by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby.

Over 200 churches were nominated for the competition by members of the public, churches and heritage organisations, Church buildings or significant extensions to an existing building of any Christian denomination in the United Kingdom which opened for worship after 1st January 1953 are eligible for the competition.

Claire Walker, Chief Executive of the National Churches Trust said: “As a nation we are rightly proud of our magnificent heritage of historic churches. But there are also many exciting churches which have been built in the last 60 years designed for the changing nature of religious liturgy and practice which reflect modern architecture and design. The challenge of helping people catch a glimpse of heaven has always produced highly creative and imaginative architecture. This competition will  help discover some of  the best examples of modern church architecture and allow us to honour those responsible.”

The Best Modern Churches competition is being held to mark the 60th anniversary of the National Churches Trust. Since 1953 the Trust has provided over 12,000 grants and loans worth £85 million to help fund the repair and modernisation of Christian places of worship.

Judges for the awards are:  Sherry Bates, President Ecclesiastical Architects and Surveyors Association, Richard Carr-Archer, Trustee of the National Churches Trust, Catherine Croft, Director of the 20th Century Society, Jonathan Glancey, writer and architecture critic.

Churches and chapels nominated can be found below. together with the name of the architect year of construction.

  • Our Lady and St Columba RC Church, Wallsend    Vincente Stienlet    1957
  • English Martyrs RC Church, Wallasey    F X Velarde    1953
  • St Mary’s RC Church, Leyland    Jerzy Faczynski (Weightman and Bullen)    1964
  • Scargill Chapel, Skipton    George Pace    1960
  • St Mark’s Church, Broomhill, Sheffield    George Pace    1963
  • St John the Baptist Church, Lincoln    Sam Scorer    1963
  • St Joseph’s RC Church, Leicester    T E Wilson    1968
  • St Paul’s Church, Harlow    Derrick Humphreys    1959
  • St Paul’s Church, Bow Common    Maguire & Murray    1960
  • Lumen United Reformed Church, Tavistock Place, London WC1     Thies & Kahn    2008
  • St Paul the Apostle, Harringay    Inskip & Jenkins    1991
  • All Saints Church, Croydon    Curtis Green    1956
  • SS Mary & Joseph RC Church, Poplar    Adrian Gilbert Scott    1954
  • London     Church of the Ascension, Wembley Park     J Harold Gibbons     1957
  • Abbey Church, Douai Abbey, Woolhampton    Michael Blee     1993
  • West of England    Church of the Ascension, Crownhill, Plymouth    Potter & Hare    1958
  • Bishop Edward King Chapel, Ripon College Cuddesdon    Niall McLaughlin Architects    2013
  • RC Chapel of St Albert the Great, Edinburgh University    Stuart Allan, Simpson & Brown    2012
  • Brucefield Church of Scotland, Whitburn, East Lothian    Row and Anderson Kininmonth and Paul    1965 – 1966
  • St Francis Xavier RC Church, Falkirk    A R Conlin    1961
  • St Bride’s RC Church, East Kilbride    Isi Metzstein and Andy MacMillan (Gillespie, Kidd & Coia)    1964
  • Kildrum Parish Church, Cumbernauld       Reiach & Hall     1965
  • Our Lady of Lourdes RC Church, Steelstown     Liam McCormick     1975
  • St Molua’s Church, Upper Newtownards Road, Belfast Denis O’D Hanna 1963

Timothy Betjeman at All Saints, Margaret Street

In a guest post, artist Timothy Betjeman writes about his new paintings of All Saints Church, Margaret Street in London’ s West End.

I was born and lived most of my life in America, so I have come to know England, and especially London, where I now live, through painting parts of it over the last seven years. 

Timothy Betjeman All Saints Margaret Street

Timothy Betjeman All Saints Margaret Street

It is a frequent occurrence for me, as a primarily ‘plein air’ painter, to be working in a place that has caught my interest for whatever reason, and to discover that its history at some point entwined with that of my grandfather, Sir John Betjeman, especially if the place happens to be a church.  All Saints , Margaret Street was no exception.  When I began painting at All Saints, I was quickly informed by a parishioner who took note of my surname that he had enthused about the church in a series on Victorian Architecture for the BBC in 1970.

I somewhat wished I’d discovered it myself—and it really does feel like a discovery, hidden like a treasure between tall buildings, invisible save for its spire until one is practically in its courtyard.  But my jealousy soon gave way to a comforting thought, that this building, designed for a purpose by William Butterfield in 1850, and still used for that purpose today, could attract our mutual admiration.

I was very young when my grandfather died, so I never really knew him.  When I come upon buildings like All Saints, that I know he touched, or was touched by, and if I feel the same thing, there is a sense of knowing him through that.  I think that my engagement with these places develops in a different way than it did for him, but the initial attraction to great architecture and the atmosphere it affords is a major source for me as an artist as it was for him.

I liked the ritual of working in the church

My introduction to All Saints Margaret Street was in 2012 by my friend Alistair Fletcher who brought me to a service there, promising it had a very good choir (it did), and urged me to do a painting of its eccentric interior.  After the service I spoke to the vicar, Alan Moses, and he was enthusiastic about the idea, so I started showing up 3 or 4 times a week.  I would set up my easel in the morning near the back of the church and work through the 1:10 Mass, and pack up when the electric lights came on just before Evening Prayer.  I liked the ritual of working in the church so much that I ended up doing ten paintings instead of one, and a series of etchings as well; so I spoke to the vicar again at the end of it all, and we decided to do a show.

Timothy Betjeman, All Saints Margaret Street

Timothy Betjeman, All Saints Margaret Street

I’m accustomed to painting on the street, where people are moving about me very quickly and their movement must be integrated with the relative stillness of the architectural forms.  Painting at All Saints was unique in that the dynamic was reversed.  The people (and usually there were one or two, even between Masses) stayed perfectly still while the wild zigzags and gilded decoration on the walls and floor seemed to turn on and off and shift with the light as it came in sudden streaks through the high chancel windows.  I spent a long time studying the way natural light came in and competed with the invented light of the designs covering the inside of the church.  There was a kind of weather system to the place that related to but was wholly different from the one outside.  One feels this as soon as one enters the dark quiet of the church and inhales.

In the course of the 6 months or so that I spent painting at All Saints, and the time I have spent there since, I am very thankful for how kindly I was received by the priests, wardens and all of the parishioners.  It is a rare place, and truly a living church.

Timothy Betjeman At All Saints’  exhibition, will be open daily (12 – 6pm) from  22 – 27 October at 7 Margaret Street, London W1W 8JG.   A portion of the sales will benefit All Saints Church

More information about the exhibition 

More about All Saints,  Margaret Street

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