St John’s Church, Chester, which lies outside the city walls near the half-exposed Roman amphitheatre, looks to all practical purposes Victorian, though with a ruined east end that has to be older and a stump of a tower in south-west corner.
When you step inside, the fine Norman interior comes as a surprise.
It has an architectural feature unique among English churches – the nave arcades have a barely perceptible but deliberate outward lean – and there is a noteworthy wall-painting of St John the Baptist on one of the columns.
This church was from 1075 until 1102 the cathedral of the former diocese of Lichfield, and even after the see was transferred to Coventry, St John’s remained a nominal cathedral within what was known as the diocese of Coventry and Lichfield until the Reformation, when the nave became a parish church and the east end was left to ruin.
You can see in the Norman architecture exactly where the bishop’s departure interrupted the building programme: the nave triforium and clerestory are anything up to a century newer than the arches on which they stand.
Although the Victorian architect R C Hussey had carried out a restoration in 1859-66, the mainly sixteenth-century north-west tower collapsed in 1881. The Chester architect John Douglas rebuilt the north porch, leaving the ruins of the Norman choir and Lady Chapel and the fourteenth-century choir chapels.
Most historic buildings are a palimpsest – a document repeatedly erased and rewritten – but St John’s has suffered more alterations than most.
St John’s Church is open daily for visitors and worshippers. No admission-charge is levied, and donations are welcomed: http://www.parishofchester.com/donations.html.
For details of Mike Higginbottom’s lecture Survivals & Revivals: past views of English architecture, please click here.
The 48-page, A4 handbook for the 2009 Historic Chester tour, with text, photographs, 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.