Category Archives: Sacred Places

Exploring Sydney: Watson’s Bay

The Gap, Watson’s Bay, Sydney, Australia

Our Lady Star of the Sea RC Church, Watson’s Bay, Australia

On my previous visits to Sydney, in 2010 and 2011, I made no use whatever of its extensive ferry system, an omission as grievous as my failure, on my first visit to Rome, to visit the Vatican.

At leisure on my 2017 visit, I took the first opportunity to catch a bus to Circular Quay and hop on the first ferry out, which took me to Watson’s Bay, a headland with spectacular views and a long history of maritime and military significance.

There I had a cup of tea at Doyle’s on the Wharf [https://www.doyles.com.au], one half of a celebrated fish restaurant, along with Doyle’s on the Beach (established 1885).  It was too early for fish and chips, but I’d gladly return another time, especially if it was an appropriate occasion for the more formal Doyle’s on the Beach which has tablecloths.

My exploration led me along the cliff-top path known as The Gap.  The Gap was and still is a notorious suicide spot, though the cliff edge is strongly fenced.  There is a memorial to Don Ritchie OAM (1925-2012), a local resident who repeatedly took in and tried to help people in despair at The Gap.

He was a World War II navy veteran who after the war worked as an insurance salesman.  He was adept at spotting distressed individuals on the cliffs and by making a simple approach such as “Can I help you in some way?”, and inviting them home for a cup of tea, he saved the lives of 164 potential suicides.  As he put it, “You can’t just sit there and watch them.”

Another rescuer of more than thirty potential suicides was Rexie, a German Shepherd bitch owned by the proprietor of the Gap Tavern in the 1960s.  She had the ability to recognise potential suicides and would bark to attract assistance.

I tried to locate the former tram-track, where first-generation Sydney trams plunged down hairpin bends to reach their terminus, and though I think I found it in part, it was so overgrown as to be unrecognisable:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nLjwCFtqKgc.

When I emerged on to Old South Head Road and headed back downhill towards the bus terminus I came upon St Peter’s Anglican Church, a tiny little cell designed by Edward Blacket in 1864 and the more remarkable Our Lady Star of the Sea RC Church, a 1910 exterior with a much later spire but no tower, and a beautiful 1966 interior, with a five-light east window in the form of the Southern Cross constellation.

Further along the cliffs stand two lighthouses, the Signal Station (1790) [http://www.watsonsbayassociation.org/cms_subpage/5/20]  and the Macquarie Lighthouse (1883) [http://www.watsonsbayassociation.org/cms_subpage/5/21].

The bus that I caught back into town took me a different way, so that I discovered the stunning views to be had of central Sydney, with the Harbour Bridge in the distance, from an area called Dover Heights, before the bus dropped down into Bondi Beach, the classic Australian version of seaside.

Traquair murals

St Peter's Parish Church, Clayworth, Nottinghamshire: Traquair Murals

St Peter’s Parish Church, Clayworth, Nottinghamshire: Traquair murals

When I visited Drakeholes to photograph the canal tunnel my curiosity was piqued by brown tourist road-signs marked ‘Traquair murals’ because I didn’t recognise the name.

That’s because I’m neither Scots nor a fine-art aficionado.

Phoebe Anna Traquair (1852-1936) was Irish by birth, an illustrator, jewellery designer and embroiderer whose mural painting was mostly done in Scotland.  Only two of her mural schemes are in England, and one of them is a couple of miles down the road from Drakeholes, at St Peter’s Church, Clayworth.

The church itself is interesting – built in the twelfth century, restored in 1874-5 by John Oldrid Scott, Grade I listed.

Phoebe Anna Traquair, who married a Scots palaeontologist, was a leading figure in the Arts and Crafts movement in Scotland, and the first woman to be elected to the Royal Scottish Academy,

The Traquair Murals dated from 1904-5, and were restored by Elizabeth Hirst in 1996.  They were given by Lady D’Arcy Godolphin Osborne as a thank-offering for the safe return from the Boer War of her son, Captain Joseph Frederick Laycock DSO (1867-1952), of Wiseton Hall.  As Joe Laycock he competed for Britain in the 1908 Olympics with his friend the 2nd Duke of Westminster.

The murals cover all four walls of the chancel, illustrating in rich colours and gilding a comprehensive figurative scheme and incorporating portraits of local children:  several of the figures on the north wall, bringing gifts to the Christ Child, are members of the Laycock family, and some of the adjacent Angel Choir are actual choristers, including Tony Otter (1896-1986), who was Suffragan Bishop of Grantham from 1949 to 1965, and his cousin Jack Martin.

The murals are claimed, collectively, to be the largest artwork in eastern England.

Size doesn’t matter.  They’re beautiful, and worth seeking out in this gem of a church, set in the countryside between Bawtry and Gainsborough in north Nottinghamshire.

Clayworth stands on the B1403 road south of Gringley-on-the-Hill.  St Peter’s Church is open daily.

William Huntingdon’s bequest

St Mary the Virgin Parish Church, West Stockwith, Nottinghamshire

St Mary the Virgin Parish Church, West Stockwith, Nottinghamshire

I doubt I would ever have found my way to West Stockwith but for my curiosity to know where the Chesterfield Canal ended.

That’s how I found the attractive Grade II*-listed eighteenth-century church of St Mary the Virgin, which stands beside the River Idle as it joins the River Trent.

It was built in 1722 at the bequest of William Huntington, who died on Christmas Eve 1714 aged forty-one.  His monument, carved by E Poynton, sits in the north-east corner with his effigy gazing towards the altar.

The inscription explains that he was a ship’s carpenter, the second son of John and Mary Huntingdon,–

who by his Last Will & Testament after ye death of his Mother and the Marriage or Death of his Widow gave Seven-Hundred and Forty Pounds for ye Building of ye CHAPPEL and HOSPITAL round about it, and for ye Support of a MINISTER SCHOOL MASTER & ten POOR Ship-Carpenters’ Widows and other CHARITYS, bequeath’d all his Lands in West-Stockwith Gunhouse, and Misterton for ever.

When the River Trent was the only useful transport artery in the district, there was no doubt enough profit in shipbuilding for a second son, presumably without heirs, to amass so much surplus wealth.

The second minister, Rev Robert Pindar, complained in 1743 that the original trustees, once the building work was complete, were misapplying the income from the trust and a Chancery suit was slowly and expensively proceeding.

The church is a simple brick oblong, with a bell-turret, lit by tall round-headed windows filled with plain glass apart from a small panel in one window of stained glass dated 1842.

It was built with the adjoining almshouses on the site of William Huntingdon’s shipyard, replacing an older chapel-of-ease which stood on what is now Canal Lane.  The parish church was two miles away at Misterton.

There is no east window.  At the east end, two giant Ionic pilasters frame a blank space that seems to need something larger than the carved oak altar and reredos, given as a war memorial in 1922, and a modern cross.  Apparently, much of the original furnishing and decoration was removed in 1887.

Presumably the church once had box pews.  The present pine benches are dated c1900.

West Stockwith became an independent parish in 1892, and remained so until it was reunited with Misterton in 1957.  A Local Ecumenical Partnership with the local Methodist congregation was formed in 2000.

St Mary’s Church continues to function, is well looked-after, and is a haven of quiet in a particularly quiet part of north Nottinghamshire.

Holy Name of Jesus

Church of the Holy Name of Jesus, Oxford Road, Manchester

The Church of the Holy Name of Jesus, Oxford Road, Manchester, stands as a symbol of permanence in an area that has seen huge changes since the parish was founded in middle of the nineteenth century.

In the decade after the Great Famine of 1845-49, thousands of Irish immigrants settled to the south of the River Medlock. 

The first Bishop of Salford, William Turner (1799-1872), invited the Society of Jesus to provide clergy for a new parish to be located in a temporary church in Burlington Street.  This structure, named Gesù after the Society’s mother-church in Rome, was opened on Easter Tuesday, April 4th 1868.

The foundation stone of what came to be called Holy Name Church was laid in June 1869. 

The shell of the building without interior fittings cost £14,000 and was opened on October 15th 1871.

The architect was Joseph Aloysius Hansom (1803-1882), famed as the inventor of the ‘Patent Safety Cab’ that bears his name.  He designed Birmingham Town Hall (designed 1831-32, completed 1861).  His other major churches are Mount St Mary’s Church, Leeds (1851-57), St Walburge’s Church, Preston (1854), Plymouth Cathedral (1856-58) and Arundel Cathedral (1869-73). 

Built of brick, faced with Warwick Bridge stone outside and terracotta within, Hansom’s design is in fourteenth-century Gothic style. 

The façade is asymmetrical:  the baptistery with its conical roof extends to the south, and because of the street-layout the footprint is trapezoidal, so that the liturgical east end (actually north-east) is wider than the entrance.  This is disguised by the layout of chapels along the south aisle, which are balanced by confessionals, each with its own fireplace, to the north.

The nave is wide, light and spacious, reflecting the Jesuit preoccupation with preaching.  The rib-vault of hollow polygonal terracotta blocks by Gibbs & Canning Ltd of Tamworth is supported by slender columns.

J A Hansom intended a slender lantern and spire 240 feet high with twin windows and gables, but it was abandoned for fear of overburdening the foundations. 

Instead, a shorter, tapered tower was designed by Adrian Gilbert Scott (1882-1963), younger brother of Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, the architect of Liverpool Cathedral.  It was completed at a cost of £17,000 in 1928.  Its carillon of bells was dedicated on October 13th 1931.

During the ministry of Fr Bernard Vaughan SJ (1847-1922, brother of Cardinal Henry Vaughan), the church had a powerful influence on the surrounding community. 

In the year 1900 the parish, with a population of 3,500, registered 25 converts, 125 baptisms, 2,850 Easter Communions and 32,815 confessions.  A bazaar in 1893 raised £7,350, supplemented by a donation of a thousand guineas by Sir Humphrey Trafford, then the owner of Trafford Park, and his friends. 

In 1895 the funeral of Sir Charles Hallé took place at Holy Name Church:  the cortège reached Weaste Cemetery four hours after the start of High Mass, which included a performance of the Mozart Requiem and Beethoven’s Eroica symphony.

The removal of local families to outer-Manchester housing estates from the end of the 1920s, the upheavals of the Second World War and the post-war clearance of the surrounding streets radically changed the setting of Holy Name Church. 

The area became a collective campus for what are now the city’s three universities – the University of Manchester (formerly the Victoria University of Manchester), the Manchester Metropolitan University (previously Manchester Polytechnic) and the Royal Northern College of Music (founded by Sir Charles Hallé as the Royal Manchester School of Music).

The Jesuits moved away in 1985 and from 1992 the church was run by the brothers of an Oratory of Saint Philip Neri.  In 2003 the Oratorians moved to St Chad’s, Cheetham Hill, the mother-church of Manchester Catholics, and the Jesuits were invited back to Holy Name to run the Manchester Universities’ Catholic Chaplaincy: http://www.muscc.org.

A visit to the Church of the Holy Name of Jesus forms part of the Manchester’s Heritage (June 3rd-7th 2019) tour.  For further details, please click here.

For details of Mike Higginbottom’s lecture Manchester’s Heritage, please click here.

The 80-page, A4 handbook for the 2009 tour Manchester’s Heritage, with text, photographs, maps and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

Holy Angels

Church of the Holy Angels, Hoar Cross, Staffordshire: chantry chapel

The Hon Mrs Emily Charlotte Meynell-Ingram (1840-1904) was one of the richest women in England, the widow of Hugo Francis Meynell-Ingram (1822-1871), whom she married in 1863.

From her husband she inherited substantial estates in Staffordshire, Lincolnshire and Yorkshire, amounting to 25,000 acres including Temple Newsam, near Leeds, and Hoar Cross in east Staffordshire, ten miles west of Burton-on-Trent.

Her father-in-law died in 1869, shortly after he began building a new house at Hoar Cross to replace the Old Hall.  It was completed in 1871, the year that his son’s death in a hunting accident left his widow lonely and socially isolated.

Though the Mrs Meynell-Ingram preferred to spend time at Temple Newsam, she dealt with her bereavement by building Holy Angels’ Church at Hoar Cross, within a short walk of the Hall, so that her husband’s remains could be transferred from the parish church at Yoxall.

Mrs Meynall-Ingram resolved from the outset to entrust the entire design of her church to a single architect.

Her choice, George Frederick Bodley (1827-1907), remained with the project from the initial commission in 1871 until the end of his life.  Indeed, the only part of the church that he didn’t design, the narthex, is his own memorial designed by his assistant and successor in the practice, Cecil Greenwood Hare (1875-1932).

Bodley had previous experience of working for a single lady patron with an open cheque-book:  he had designed St Martin-on-the-Hill, Scarborough in 1861-2 for Miss Mary Craven, the daughter of a Hull surgeon.

He and his business partner Thomas Garner (1839-1906) certainly worked together at Hoar Cross, though Bodley seems to have taken a lead.

Holy Angels’ is an essay in the Decorated style of fourteenth-century English Gothic and is regarded as one of Bodley’s best churches.

The church is oriented to the south, so that daytime sun streams through the six-light east window.

The nave has a timber roof, while the significantly taller east end is elaborately vaulted.  These features combine to make the sanctuary a dramatically lit, mysterious space, its sanctity preserved by Bodley’s ornate iron screen.

In 1888, when the Old Hall was opened as a boys’ orphanage, Mrs Meynell-Ingram decided the church was too small and commissioned Bodley to take down the west wall and extend its length from two to three bays.

She added the Lady Chapel to the south of the chancel in 1891, and the corresponding All Souls’ Chapel to the north in 1901, and refloored the nave in black and white marble the following year.

And Mrs Meynell-Ingram incessantly collected artefacts to embellish Holy Angels’ when she travelled in Europe and the Mediterranean.  She commissioned the Stations of the Cross copied from the Antwerp carvers the Antwerp carvers Jean-Baptist van Wint and Jean-Baptist de Boeck, coloured in the sgraffito manner which she had seen in the Mariankirche in Danzig (now Gdańsk).

The Chantry Chapel contains the tombs of both Hugo and Emily Meynell-Ingram, their effigies each resting on an alabaster base under ogee arches.  The effigy of Hugo Meynell-Ingram is by the Pre-Raphaelite sculptor Thomas Woolner (1825-1892).

This sumptuous church is one of the highlights of Victorian architecture, worth seeking out for its great beauty and richness.

It epitomises what can be done when piety, grief and great wealth combine with artistic excellence.

A guided tour of Holy Angels’, Hoar Cross is included in the Pugin and the Gothic Revival (September 18th-22nd 2019) tour with lunch at Hoar Cross Hall.  For details please click here.

For details of Mike Higginbottom’s lecture Survivals & Revivals:  past views of English architecture, please click here.

The Church of King Charles the Martyr, Royal Tunbridge Wells

Church of King Charles the Martyr, Royal Tunbridge Wells

The site of Tunbridge Wells was empty fields until Dudley, Lord North (1581-1666) came upon a chalybeate (iron-bearing) spring in 1609 while staying at a lodge in nearby Eridge for his health.

He publicised the therapeutic powers of the waters –

These waters youth in age renew,

Strength to the weak and sickly add,

Give the pale cheek a rosy hue

And cheerful spirits to the sad.

– and attracted royal approval when Queen Henrietta Maria, consort of King Charles I visited in 1630.

The Lord of the Manor, Donagh MacCarthy, 1st Earl of Clancarty (1594–1665), enclosed the spring and built a meeting hall “to shelter the dippers in wet weather”.  Nevertheless, when Queen Catherine of Braganza took the waters in 1664, her court was accommodated in tents.

The spa’s first assembly room was in fact the Church of King Charles the Martyr, built as a brick chapel of ease in 1684.  Its unusual dedication memorialised the executed monarch, whose death was until 1859 remembered as an Anglican feast-day on the anniversary of his execution, January 30th.

The land for the church was given by Viscountess Purbeck and the fundraising and subsequent building programme was supervised by the MP and entrepreneur Thomas Neale (1641–1699) as part of his nearby development of shops and inns.

The fine plaster ceiling of five domes was installed in 1678 by John Wetherell, who had worked for Sir Christopher Wren at Greenwich.  Five years later a further dome was installed to the north, opposite the original doorway.

This building quickly became too small for either an assembly or its congregation.

In 1688-1690 Henry Doogood, Sir Christopher Wren’s chief plasterer, took down the west wall, replacing it with the tall columns that still stand in the middle of the nave, and doubled the size of the interior, duplicating the plaster ceiling with, as Pevsner remarks, “more bravura” than the original.

Strict social separation was maintained between the high-status worshippers in the body of the church and the tradespeople and servants above:  the oak-panelled seventeenth-century galleries were originally accessible only from outside.

Ironically, when the then Princess Victoria, aged sixteen, with her mother, the Duchess of Kent, visited in 1835 she sat in the north balcony which was at the time close to the pulpit and the altar.

St Charles the Martyr became a parish church – with an unusually small area, 65 acres, much of it common land,– only in 1889, when for the first time the interior was oriented to the east by the architect Ewan Christian.

The three-decker pulpit was removed and the seating reversed to face the present-day chancel, removing the anomaly that the communion table stood at the side of the church, out of sight of most worshippers.

In this refurbishment the Credo and Paternoster boards by William Cheere were brought from the church of All Hallows, Bread Street, in the City of London (built 1681-84;  demolished 1878).

The Church of King Charles the Martyr is a highly unusual building and well worth a visit.  The greeters are particularly welcoming:  http://kcmtw.or

“Perfectly plain” Pugin

St Barnabas Cathedral, Nottingham

After he had begun work on St Mary’s Church, Derby, Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin was invited to design a parish church for Nottingham, a bigger building with a limited budget, and therefore plainer than he liked.

Pugin himself had envisaged St Mary’s as the future cathedral for the North Midlands, but when the Catholic hierarchy was re-established, the East Midlands diocese was based at St Barnabas’ Cathedral, Nottingham.

By the time he designed St Barnabas’, Pugin had already completed the drawings for the much more elaborate St Giles’ Church, Cheadle, yet at Nottingham he contrived dramatic effects in what he claimed was the most economical manner, though he exceeded the initial budget by half.

Always melodramatic, and sometimes hysterical, this talented, obsessive, frantic, fascinating man remonstrated with the Earl of Shrewsbury, who had subscribed £7,000 of the original £10,500 estimate, about whether, and where, to have the tower:

I have no reason for placing the tower of Nottingham at the West end.  It would be a loss, a clear loss of funds.  I have not one tracery window, no pinnacles or any ornament externally.  It will be the greatest triumph of external simplicity and internal effect yet achieved.  Yet I must have outline and breaks or the building will go for nothing.

Looking at the completed church, it’s easy to see what he meant about the position of the tower;  it is equally easy to see that the finished design is not short of external ornament.

Pugin’s stated aim was to build a church “which would give general satisfaction, have a grand appearance, although perfectly plain and admit of a most solemn and rich interior.”  The plain ashlar walls, pierced by narrow lancets and a rose window of plate tracery, give an impression of solidity.  The whole church is 190 feet from end to end, and the spire rises to 150 feet but looks higher as the street slopes downhill towards the east.

But Pugin himself was dissatisfied.  He felt, quite literally, that his style was cramped:

Nottingham was spoilt by the style restricted to lancet – a period well suited to a cistercian abbey in a secluded vale, but very unsuitable for the centre of a crowded town… there was nothing left but to make the best under the circumstances, and the result has been what might be expected;  the church is too dark, and I am blamed for it…

Indeed, Pugin was easily disgruntled.  Having converted to Catholicism only in 1832, he was “a Catholic first and whatever else he was second”.

Monsignor Martin Cummins, in Nottingham Cathedral:  a history of Catholic Nottingham (1985), relates how –

When showing an Anglican friend the Rood-screen, Pugin said:  “Within is the holy of holies.  The people remain outside.  Never is the sanctuary entered save by those in sacred orders.”  Then, to his horror, a priest appeared in the sanctuary showing the screen to two ladies.  Pugin turned to the sacristan, “Turn these people out at once!  How dare they enter!”  But the sacristan replied, “Sir, it is Bishop Wiseman.”  Pugin, powerless, retired to the nearest bench and burst into tears.

Pugin’s architectural career only began in the late 1830s.  By the end of the 1840s the energy he poured into his creativity had wrecked his health, and he died, a broken man, in 1851 at the age of forty.

A guided tour of St Barnabas’ Cathedral is included in the Pugin and the Gothic Revival (September 18th-22nd 2019) tour.  For details please click here.

For details of Mike Higginbottom’s lecture Survivals & Revivals:  past views of English architecture, please click here.

Pioneer of the Gothic Revival

St Mary’s Roman Catholic Church, Derby

St Mary’s Roman Catholic Church in Derby, built 1838-39, was the first complete design of the foremost designer of the English Gothic Revival, Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin (1812-1852).

Its foundation stone was laid on June 28th 1837, the day of Queen Victoria’s coronation.

Previously the few Catholics in Derby had worshipped in a small building in Chapel Street.

Built to the north of Derby town centre, at precisely the time when the approaching railways were about to cause rapid growth in population, St Mary’s was an acknowledgement that many of the workers who would migrate to the new railway works would be Irish in origin.

The site was constricted and funds limited.  Pugin set out the building with the sanctuary to the north and a tall tower, 100 feet high, placed centrally at the south (liturgical west) front.

The church would have been even more prominent if Pugin’s slender spire, supported by flying buttresses, had been built:  its tip would have reached two hundred feet above street level.

In the absence of a spire, a white Portland stone statue of St Mary was mounted on top of the tower and unveiled on Trinity Sunday 1928.

Now that many of the surrounding buildings have been cleared the plainness of the side walls is noticeable.

Though the exterior of St Mary’s is elegant and understated, the interior was richly decorated.

Pugin designed a whole range of fittings and metal furniture in collaboration with the Birmingham manufacturer, John Hardman.  The panoply of lamps, crosses, candlesticks, vessels and altar furniture first seen at the consecration ceremony were the earliest products of a partnership which lasted to the end of the architect’s life.

The Derby Mercury reported that “the appearance of the clergy, upwards of fifty in number, surrounding the Altar, was extremely gorgeous”.

The Catholic newcomers were not welcomed to Derby by the established Anglicans.

In 1846 the great bulk of the Anglican parish church of St Alkmund, designed by the local architect Henry Isaac Stevens (1806-1873), was built, blocking the view of St Mary’s from the town centre.  It was traditionally said to have been the “Anglicans’ revenge” for the construction of Pugin’s church.

Ironically, when St Alkmund’s was demolished in 1967 to make way for the Inner Ring Road, some of its stone was offered for the construction of a new East Porch for St Mary’s.

The footbridge across the underpass leads directly to St Mary’s main entrance, and there is now an unimpeded view between Pugin’s elegant Gothic Revival church and the superb medieval Perpendicular tower of the Anglican cathedral of All Saints’.

St Mary’s Church is listed Grade II*.

A guided tour of St Mary’s Parish Church is included in the Pugin and the Gothic Revival (September 18th-22nd 2019) tour.  For details please click here.

For details of Mike Higginbottom’s lecture Survivals & Revivals:  past views of English architecture, please click here.

Climbing heaven

Former St Benedict’s Church, Ardwick, Manchester – now Manchester Climbing Centre

The parish church of St Benedict, Ardwick, Manchester, was the result of the wealth and religious inclinations of one man, John Marsland Bennett (1817-1889).  An Alderman and two-term Lord Mayor of Manchester, he prospered as a timber and stone merchant owning an extensive site at the junction of two main-line railways to Crewe and Sheffield.

When the Secretary of the Manchester Diocesan Church Building Society asked Mr Bennett for a plot of land to build a church in 1876 he offered to build the church on land he would provide. 

St Benedict’s Church was consecrated on March 20th 1880.

The architect was Joseph Stretch Crowther (1820-1893) and St Benedict’s is unlike any of his other church designs. 

It is entirely in brick, in header bond on the exterior and English bond within, with stone and terracotta dressings, rectangular without porches.  The body of the church is narrow and high, with a magnificent double hammer-beam roof. 

This magnificence came without a congregation.  Much of the surrounding land had yet to be developed and some of the speculative houses already built had yet to be occupied.  There were only 26 communicants on Easter Day 1880.

This did not seem to trouble the Bennett family, staunch Anglo-Catholics who used it to worship as they pleased in a predominantly Evangelical diocese.

They omitted to provide an endowment.  Their financial support dwindled after the death of J M Bennett’s eldest son, Armitage Bennett, aged 48, in 1897 and ended completely by the time the family business closed in the 1930s.  After the Second World War Keble College, Oxford took over patronage of the living.

When almost all the housing in the parish was cleared in the late 1960s the parish developed as a “shrine church” for Anglican Papalism, the branch of Anglo-Catholicism that looks towards reconciliation between the Church of England and Rome, and rejects any development that might prove an obstacle to that goal.

St Benedict’s came to serve a congregation that did not live locally, and although its centenary was celebrated by the sandblasting and chemical cleaning of the entire building in 1980, it became increasingly difficult to sustain the congregation and the structure.

The final celebration of Mass at St Benedict’s took place on February 11th 2002.

Closure inevitably threatened the future of this Grade II* building until the climber John Dunne took it on as a base for the Manchester Climbing Centre, which was opened on March 15th 2005, and continues to thrive as a popular venue for indoor climbing and bouldering.

The climbing paraphernalia crowds Crowther’s spacious interior – https://manchesterclimbingcentre.com/the-centre/4 – which is a small price to pay to preserve the building for years to come. 

Without the Manchester Climbing Centre, St Benedict’s might well have been flattened before now.

The climbing equipment is demountable, so that the listed interior is preserved.  The ornate iron screens around the sanctuary remain intact, and the mutilated original reredos apparently still exists, though hidden, at the east end.  All of the stained glass remains, but the 1907 pulpit and the organ have been removed.

Around the east end of the church are brass panels commemorating deceased members of the parish. 

One of them is in memory of Professor John Mills, who died in a climbing accident in Snowdonia on December 3rd 1977, aged 63.  A lifelong climber, he would have been astonished to know that his parish church became a climbing centre.

Read about another very different historic building that has been brought back into use as a climbing centre here.

A visit to the Manchester Climbing Centre forms part of the Manchester’s Heritage (June 3rd-7th 2019) tour.  For further details, please click here.

For details of Mike Higginbottom’s lecture Manchester’s Heritage, please click here.

The 80-page, A4 handbook for the 2009 tour Manchester’s Heritage, with text, photographs, maps and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

Providential curry

Former Providence Place Congregational Chapel, Cleckheaton, West Yorkshire

Former Providence Place Congregational Chapel, Cleckheaton, West Yorkshire

When my curry-loving mate Richard and I go to Bradford to meet my friend Mohammed he usually takes us to one of the many curry houses in inner-city Bradford, but on our last meeting we set off on a mystery tour to Cleckheaton.

Our destination was Aakash, which claims to be the largest curry house in the world.

It occupies the former Providence Place Congregational Chapel of 1857-1859, a gigantic temple of nonconformity designed by the prestigious Bradford practice of Henry Francis Lockwood and William Mawson, who built much that is fine in the Bradford area in the mid-nineteenth century including St George’s Hall (1851-52), the Wool Exchange (1864-7), the City Hall (1869-73), and almost every building in Saltaire (1851-76).

Providence Chapel cost about £9,000, an impressive sum that sounds considerable until it’s compared with the £16,000 that Sir Titus Salt spent on the Congregational Church in Saltaire.  At the time you could get a modest but respectable Gothic parish church for around £4,000.

For their money, Cleckheaton Congregationalists were given seating for 1,500 and a grandeur that would flatter a municipal town hall.  Its ashlar façade has a giant portico of five unfluted Corinthian columns supporting a pediment containing a roundel, surrounded by carved foliage, with the inscription “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will to all men”.  In front are cast-iron gates and lamp standards.

Listed Grade II*, the chapel was described in Nikolaus Pevsner’s Buildings of England as “amazingly pompous for a religious building”.

It closed in 1991 when the remaining congregation combined with the amalgamated Spendborough Group of United Reformed Churches at Grove, Gomersal, and it became an Indian restaurant founded by a former taxi-rank owner, Mohammad Iqbal Tabassum.

It was named Aakash, the Urdu word for “sky”, and the coffered ceiling was painted with clouds.

The box pews inevitably went and the rake of the gallery floor was levelled, but the organ and the pulpit, described by a reviewer at the time as “skip-sized”, remained as a “lookout post” for the restaurant manager.

Sometime before 2008 it closed and reopened under new management.  Perhaps that was when the pulpit was replaced by a series of staircases linking the main floor with the gallery.  The organ pipes remain, heavily painted, but the organ has gone.

The buffet-style curry is as splendid as the surroundings:  http://aakashrestaurant.co.uk.