Monday, 29 April 2013

Christ Church, Ware, Hertfordshire

A funeral service was under way when I passed Christ Church which slightly inhibited me for interiors but I don't think I missed much.

Built in 1858 and designed by Nehemiah Edward Stevens of Kentish ragstone in EE style - its a pretty poor example of Victoriana.

Christ Church

Ware. It was known to the Danes, who are said to have brought their ships up the River Lea, and to John Gilpin on his famous ride, and was important enough 600 years ago for the county town to be referred to as Hertford-by-Ware. Long associated with malting, its aspect has been spoiled by the cone shaped cowls of many kilns, but there are quaint survivals of old Ware, looking its best as we come from Hertford and see its clustering red roofs and the fine grey church with a tiny spire. There is a pleasant tree-lined walk along the towpath on this side of the town, and the gardens of the houses have quaint gazebos along the north bank. George Stephenson’s iron bridge over the River Lea was cased by a concrete bridge early in our century.

The church stands finely at a corner which is like a paved garden, with a sundial among the flowers. In the narrow streets about it is a sprinkling of old houses, some with overhanging storeys. Facing the church is a big house with creepered walls and a roof of mellow tiles; known as the Priory, it has been much altered since it was built from the remains of a Franciscan friary founded in 1338 by the lord of the manor, Thomas Wake. It has some medieval windows, and in the entrance hall is an arch resting on corbels crudely carved with the heads of men. Here, too, is a 14th-century refectory table of oak and ash and poplar, said to be unique for its time in England. The house and its gardens were given to the town in 1920 by Annie Elizabeth Croft - the gardens small but charming with lawns and flowers, fine trees, and the river flowing through, a weeping willow making an arbour near the bridge to a tree-shaded island. Gilpin House in High Street, 17th century, keeps green the association of Cowper’s John Gilpin with the town. The Bluecoat House, built in 1686 by the Governors of Christ’s Hospital, served as a school till the children were removed to Hertford in 1760, and has since been a private house. An 18th—century house in the London Road, home of the Quaker poet, John Scott, became part of the grammar school for girls opened in our own time. A curious transformation has taken place at 65 High Street, where the timbered fronts of two 15th-century houses (which once faced each other across an alley) now form the walls of a coal cellar. One of the fronts has its original window frame and oak doorway, the curved arches above them having pierced spandrels.

Unspoiled by time or trade, the spacious cross-shaped church of St Mary is a grand tribute to its medieval builders, and to the restorers since the middle of last century, who have made the embattled exterior, including most of the windows, look rather new. Most of the old work is 14th and 15th century, but the chancel (said to have been completed by the mother of Henry VII, Margaret Beaufort) has 13th-century masonry and a fragment of an original window. The chancel arch is 15th century. Opening to the lady chapel is a rare 14th-century round-headed archway divided into two pointed bays, with straight mullions in the spandrel. The chapel has a sedila and piscina 600 years old, 17th-century panelling with a fine border of pierced carving, 15th century screenwork dividing it from the south transept, and a panelled and traceried roof in red and gold, with floral bosses. The 500-year-old doorway to the vestry has slender shafts, and a draped head and the head of a demon peeping from hollow moulding; it frames an old oak door. The 17th-century altar rails now enclosing the children’s corner were cast out of the church last century and served for a time as a garden fence before being brought back a few years ago.

The nave and aisles are from the end of the 14th century, and the tower with double buttresses is a little older. The graceful arches of the arcades, and the big windows of the clerestory (which are partly medieval) carry the eye to the splendid 15th-century nave roof, with stout tie beams and bosses of flowers, shields, and quaint heads, supported by modern stone corbels of saints and apostles. Good heads of medieval folk are between the arches of the arcades. The north transept has two 15th century recesses, and two brass portraits of the same century, showing a woman in flowing robes and ornamented headdress, and Elen Coke of 1454 wearing draped head-dress and wide sleeves. There is a remarkable brass in the south transept with 23 people on it - fine small figures of William Pyrey of 1470 in a belted gown, his two wives in horned headdress, and charming groups of 20 children, each wife having given him five sons and five daughters.

The font is magnificent with its vigorous carving of figures under leafy arches round the bowl. We see Gabriel and Mary, St Margaret slaying the dragon, St Christopher carrying the Holy Child over the stream, St Catherine with her wheel, St James with his pilgrim’s staff, St john the Baptist, and a bearded St George in armour, slaying the dragon. It is this armour of St George which enables us to date the lovely font at about 1380, for it closely resembles that of the Black Prince in Canterbury. At the corners of the font are angels with musical instruments and Passion symbols; the stem, only a little narrower than the bowl, is carved with quatrefoils, and round the base is a wreath of branchwork and flowers. The traceried and pinnacled cover is modern.

Sir Richard Fanshawe’s descendants have restored his marble monument in the south transept. Son of Sir Henry Fanshawe, who was a horticulturist and an Italian scholar, Sir Richard was born in 1608 at Ware Park, a domain of over 200 acres west of the town, partly encircled by the River Lea and the River Rib. He was a famous ambassador of Charles I, and his son was taken prisoner at Worcester, and became Latin secretary to Prince Charles at the Hague. Returning at the Restoration, he became a Privy councillor and in 1664 was English ambassador at Madrid, where he died in 1666. His body was brought home and buried here.

The church of the Sacred Heart, built in 1939, is the most attractive modern place of worship in the town, with its clear glass and comely fittings. It was designed by the late Geoffrey Webb.

Ware Park is now a sanatorium. One of its rooms is said to have been the original home of a piece of furniture that lives in Shakespeare, the Great Bed of Ware, which has lately been bought for the Victoria and Albert Museum. For nearly four centuries this wonderful oak bedstead, nearly 11 feet square and over 7 feet high, has been a byword with English people. It has often been mentioned in literature. Shakespeare makes an amusing allusion to it in Twelfth Night, when Sir Toby gives advice on courtship to Sir Andrew Aguecheek, telling him to write to Olivia, assuring her of his valour, "as many lies as will lie in thy sheet of paper, although the sheet were big enough for the Bed of Ware in England." Early in the 18th century it was in the Crown Inn at Ware, and in 1764 was moved to the Saracen’s Head near by. Last century it was taken to a building in the grounds of Rye House in Hertfordshire, renowned for the plot against Charles I’s two sons, happily discovered before they could be assassinated. The bed is magnificently carved. The head is a work of art, and the canopy and bedposts are also richly decorated. From the moment the idea of this huge bed entered the mind of its maker the Great Bed of Ware must have been a perpetual joke down the centuries. All kinds of travellers stopping at the two inns have slept under its great canopy, and many strange bedfellows it must have seen.

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