Tuesday, 13 September 2011

St Michael, Bishop's Stortford, Hertfordshire

Taking advantage of having two students at home, an orthodontist appointment for middle son and the youngest back at school I decided to do a revisit trip and Bishop's Stortford. The planned route was Bishop's Stortford (three churches), and then revisits to Sacombe, Braughing, Ardeley, Willian (which was not a revisit but sat well with the route), Buckland and Wydiall.

I knew when I set off that this would be a bit hit and miss and so it proved.

St Michael in Bishop's Stortford was the first hiccup with a service in progress which was to be followed by a toddlers get together. I've photographed this church before but lost the pictures in a blue screen event shortly afterwards. As the middle son still goes to school in Stortford this is not a disaster.

The exterior is almost impossible to shoot  due to a tight churchyard and intervening trees; I was surprised to learn from Mee that the main body of the church is old - I've always thought that it was a 19th century build but that's only the spire.

UPDATE: I photoed the interior in November 2010 with a Kodak EasyShare camera - essentially a digital disposable camera - having assumed that there would be little of interest within...how wrong I was. I had some pretty poor images of the amazing misericords and knew a revisit with the grown up camera was required - it took me until today (30.01.12) to achieve a successful shoot despite regular visits to Stortford.

ST MICHAEL. A big, low, embattled Perp town church with a W tower and tall spire, prominent for a long distance around, not owing to the early C15 which built it (set-back buttresses, low stair turret) but to the year 1812 when a tall, slim upper stage of light brick was added, with buttresses at the angles and pinnacles above and a lead spire. The contrast between the business-like sturdiness below and the fragility above is that between Gothic and Gothick. The whole church is otherwise of the C15 (except for the C19 N chancel chapel and tall S vestry) with typical Late Perp windows, with depressed segmental or depressed pointed arches (the latter with almost straight sides), with a N porch two bays deep and a S porch. The chancel clerestory and chancel E window belong to the C19. The original E window of three lights is now in the S wall. The interior is big and airy. Tall tower arch on thin responds, six-bay arcade with thin piers (four main shafts and four hollows in the diagonals) and two-centred arches, two-light clerestory windows, lower chancel. The roofs of nave, chancel, and aisles are original. In the nave the arched braces are traceried, and they rest on stone corbels with the figures of the Apostles. In the aisles instead of these there are grotesques and also such genre figures as a gardener with pruning knife, a cook with ladle, a woodman with bill-hook, etc. - FONT. C12, square, of Purbeck marble, with shallow blank arches; on five supports. -ALTAR AND SURROUND. 1885, by Sir A. Blomfield. - PULPIT; Locally made for £5 in 1658, an extremely late date for so purely Elizabethan a piece. The angles have termini pilasters decorated with raised ovals and diamonds. This and the decoration of the main panels with arches in feigned perspective probably comes straight from some pattern book. - SCREEN. C15; big, with two tall four-light sections on each side of the entrance. - CHANCEL STALLS. C15, with poppy-heads at the ends of the front stalls and MISERICORDS for the back seats. They represent inter alia heads of human figures and animals, very well carved, an angel, a swan, an owl, a dragon. - DOORS. Original, both in N and S porches. - STAINED GLASS. Chancel S window, by Powell, 1853 (TK), still in the painting tradition of the C18; not yet medievalizing. - W window, by Kempe, 1877, a very characteristic example of his early manner. - PLATE. Paten, 1563; Chalice, 1597; Chalice, 1683; two Flagons, 1721; Almsdish, 1741. - No monuments of any importance.

St Michael (3)

Bishop’s Stortford. The greatest thing it has done for the world was to give birth to Cecil Rhodes, and we may believe that the time will come when the house in which he was born will be a place of pilgrimage. Yet this small town had its place in history centuries before young Rhodes sat in the pews at St Michael’s listening to his father preach. In the public gardens is a mound on which it is believed a castle stood, Waytemore Castle, the fortress of Bishop Maurice of London, into whose hands the Conqueror entrusted this key position by the ford over the River Stort. The outer works and moats can be traced among the walks and flowerbeds.

The hilly streets of Bishop’s Stortford set off to advantage the fine old buildings among the new, many of them inns from the 16th to I7th centuries with overhanging storeys; the Boar’s Head and the timbered Black Lion still carrying on, the White Horse, with its plastered heraldic front of Italian work, an inn no longer.

Two fine churches, an old one and a new one, look to each other across the roofs of the town, both set on hills. The new church is All Saints, the old one is St Michael’s. The new one, looking out over the town from Hockerill, was designed by Mr Dykes Bower, and is one of the best modern churches we have seen. It has a magnificent rose window in the east with Christ in the centre surrounded by dazzling colours, rings of little suns, flames, and symbols. The west window has three great plain lancets in the tower. There are four high arches on each side of the nave, supported by round columns, the stone roof is spaced out in 125 compartments, and there is a charming oriel in the sanctuary.

But the eye turns first and last in this town to the splendid 500 year-old church shooting up its pinnacled tower and spire from among the houses on the top of the other hill, summoning its worshippers with a peal often bells. The spire was added in 1812. They enter today by the very door people pushed open five centuries ago, and in one spandrel of the doorway is the same strange carving of the All-Seeing Eye, the Angel of the Resurrection sounding his trumpet in the opposite spandrel. The door opens on the six great bays of the spacious nave and aisles, where corbels of angels and apostles and medieval folk turn on us their stony gaze; we noticed a gardener, a cook, and a woodman among them. Save for a few changes and additions the church is wholly medieval, and has a Norman font which has been buried, having probably belonged to the church before this. There are 18 rich choir stalls, making a grand show with their traceried backs and panelled fronts, and misericords crowded with 15th-century faces and fancies, men and animals, one of them a rare early carving of a whale. The fine chancel screen is mainly 15th century, but the vaulting is new. The pulpit and a remarkable chest are Jacobean, the chest having an inside lock of 14 bolts which are as long as the lid. Both the north chapel and south vestry are Victorian.

There is a tablet in this fine church to a man who made the River Stort navigable up to Bishop’s Stortford. He befriended Captain Cook, who showed his gratitude by making him known to navigators all over the world, naming after him Port Jackson in New South Wales and Point Jackson in New Zealand. The man whose name thus lives on the map was born George Jackson at Richmond in Yorkshire, but he died Sir George Duckett; here in the church is his memorial. We find no memorial to a butcher’s son born here in 1813, who did much to help photography by proving the use of collodion in developing films. He was Frederick Scott Archer, and his children were pensioned by the Crown because his invention brought him no profit but yielded vast profits for others.

Much happier in his fortune was the famous physician who lies in the Quaker burial ground; he was Thomas Dimsdale, an Essex man who adopted Hertfordshire as his county, practised as a doctor in the county town, and sat in Parliament for it. He is remembered for his pioneering with inoculation for smallpox, and especially because Catherine of Russia invited him to her capital to inoculate herself and her son. It was in 1768, when the adventure was fraught with some peril, and the empress arranged for relays of horses from the capital to the border to aid the doctor’s escape in case of disaster. Happily all was well, and Dimsdale received £2000 for expenses, a fee of £10,000, and an allowance of £500 a year. He was laid in the burial ground of the Quakers here when he was 89 years old.

One of the windows of St Michael’s is in memory of the old vicar Francis Rhodes, who was laid to rest here eight years after his delicate son had left for South Africa. He lived to hear the good news that his son had found health and strength and was working in the diamond digging, and he saw him home again entering on a graduate’s life at Oxford; but he died in 1878 before Cecil entered the Cape Parliament, and before he had formed his great plan of a British South Africa. In the birthplace we see his portrait looking down from the wall on the bed in which Cecil Rhodes was born.

Bishop’s Stortford has been long in paying homage to its great son, but it has made amends, has bought the house he was born in and the house next door, and is developing both as a Cecil Rhodes Museum. The house is refurnished with pieces that either belonged to the family or belonged to the time, and it is an attractive place for any pilgrim interested in Rhodes of Rhodesia. In addition to the bed he was born in, one of eleven children, there is here the Bible his mother gave him, a fine old clock which was ticking in those days, a picturesque native drum used for communicating signals, a water colour he painted of a windjammer, and the uniforms he wore on ceremonial occasions - and never again.

Cecil Rhodes’s birthplace has all the glamour and fascination that invests the homes of famous men, and it is gratifying to find how much this great empire-builder’s memory is honoured in his native town.

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