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The Ecclesiologist

Volume IV (New Series I). Number VI. November, 1845.
Cambridge: Walters, pp 263-270

On Ecclesiastical Grouping

A TASTE for the natural beauties of scenery and landscape is one of the many aesthetical consequences of the teaching of the Church. Traces of it are scarcely to be found among the earlier writers of Greece and Rome; we say the earlier, because as the Church came into contact with heathenism, the latter was in this, as in other instances, unconsciously acted on by Christianity. In the Middle ages, therefore, we might naturally expect to find a love for the beauties of nature very strong; that it was so, this paper will attempt to prove. In those truly dark centuries, the latter part of the seventeenth and the whole of the eighteenth, this love was all but extinct. Witness the taste which laid out the gardens, and formed the plantations, of our great-grandfathers; which considered their Dutch parterres and geometrical plots, as depicted in a bird's-eye view, the most noble embellishment of a topographical work: witness the argument of Burnet, the author of the Theory of the Earth, for the original uniformity of the surface of the globe, because a merciful Creator could never have intended to disfigure it with such unsightly excrescences as mountains.

While many writers have treated on the picturesque generally, we believe that our present subject is new. By our title we intend to express the science of so placing a church, as best to harmonize with the surrounding scenery, and to receive the greatest beauty from it; or, again, on the other hand, that of so moulding the changeable features of a landscape, foliage, &c., as to set off, to its utmost advantage, GOD'S Temple. We mean also to express the art of so placing a church as, most happily, in a distant view, to combine with another, or with the buildings with which it may stand in contact; and, lastly, the principle on which these buildings should be designed and executed.

It may be said, and in a certain sense most truly, that if a church once comes to be regarded as a picturesque object in a view, an elegant termination to an avenue, or a tine object in a street front, farewell all idea of reverence to the House of GOD. But there is, in the first place, a wide difference between making a church subservient to the beauty of a landscape, and making a landscape subservient to the beauty of a church. In the one case, we endeavour to turn that which is consecrated to the MOST HIGH into a means of gratifying the senses of man: in the other, we only do in deed, what we so often do by word, when we call on the mountains and bills, the earth and all green things, to bless the LORD: to praise Him and magnify Him for ever. Again, when a mansion is built, it is not deemed complete till plantations have been raised, and gardens laid out, a vista opened here, an avenue planted there; but, when a new church has been consecrated, we are too often content that it should stand in the midst of brickfields, or surrounded by pits and wastes, while it vainly endeavours to match its stunted spire against the giant chimney of the neighbouring manufactory. And is it not a fact that, in nine cases out of ten, an architect, when called to design a church* has not any idea where it is to stand? Hill or valley, forest or heath, crag or ravine, it is all the same to him; and consequently his edifice, when erected, seems, per se, an excrescence on the landscape, instead of forming, as did those of our ancestors, a part of it.

Our subject naturally divides itself into four heads: the effects produced on a church by juxta-position with hills, water, woods, and buildings. We will offer a few remarks on each of these divisions, deriving our examples from our own country,

1. It may be laid down as a rule, that the summit of a hill is one of the most difficult positions which can be chosen for a church. If small, the building is apt to become insignificant; if large, staring. It was not a favourite choice of our ancestors; and we may account for this partly on the ground of difficulty of access. One of the most noble instances of a commanding situation being commandingly occupied, occurs in the church on the top of Glastonbury Tor, in Somersetshire. The Tor itself forms a pretty regular cone; the tower of the church (for the body has been shamefully suffered to perish) is situated on the precise summit, and being about a hundred feet In height, is visible to half the county. It is an elaborate Perpendicular structure; too elaborate, indeed, for its position; as the rude boldness and freedom of the surrounding scenery is unfavourably contrasted with the tameness and preciseness and tautology of Tudor foliation. Still, the distant effect is tine; and the temple of GOD seems, as it ought, to be exalted far above all the buildings designed for the convenience or pursuits of man. S. Michael, DUNDRY, in the same county, near Bristol, is another noble specimen. The hill on which it is built is a kind of table ridge, sinking, however, slightly from east to west. The church stands on the slope; the nave is small, and Early English, and the chancel, though later, of proportionate size. The tower is one of the most laboured structures of the West; the windows and buttresses are all rich; but the pierced battlements with their pierced pinnacles and flying buttresses are hardly in their way to be surpassed. It catches the eye in every direction, and would justly be liable to the charge of showiness and want of proportion, were there not a special purpose to he attained by its extraordinary elevation. It was built by the Merchants Adventurers of Bristol, in 1482, as a sea-mark; and stands an illustrious monument of the piety which could thus make the necessities of commerce tend to the promotion of GOD'S glory. Again, LINCOLN cathedral is a notable instance; it stands on an elevated mound, rising suddenly in a very flat country. The eye, however, is dissatisfied; there is a heaviness about the pile, and a want, so to speak, of verticality. No doubt the very thing now felt to be missing was supplied by the spires with which the towers were once crowned.

In these cases the position was evidently chosen partly for the sake of bestowing effect on the church, and the greatest pains were therefore taken to render the building worthy of the situation. The contrast was courted, and the result is, on the whole, successful. But there are other cases where necessity or convenience dictated the top of a hill as the locality for a parish church, but where the funds for its erection could not supply richness, and the number of the population did not require size. It is curious then to remark how carefully contrast is avoided.

S.------, PYECOMBE church, Sussex, may serve as an instance. It stands in a most conspicuous position, occupying the summit of a headland which divides two valleys. At the time that it was erected probably nothing more than, a country path approached it; but so dexterously was its position, managed, that although now three great roads meet at the base of Pyecombe hill, and although there is not a tree to shelter or conceal the plainness and rudeness of the church, the eye, far from requiring a more gorgeous building, dwells on its simple chancel and nave, and tower unpierced for windows, and low pyramidal head, with satisfaction. The secret is in its position a little below the extreme brow of the hill; the eye looking to it from below, is carried up, by the upward lines of the building, to the higher ground beyond and loses itself in. that. A similar, although more commanding position is occupied by the parish church of S. Andrew, CLIFTON, near Bristol. A most offensive building in itself, it would have been Jess so had the builder, taking his pattern from the last instance, contrived to have the hill as a background, on which the eye of the spectator, passing below, might rest. But he has placed the unfortunate building on the very edge of the ridge, and thus brought it out into full relief against the sky, rendering it frightful beyond common hideousness.

The church of S. John, WIDFORD, in Hertfordshire, is very beautifully placed on the top of a low hill, running east and west, like an elevated bank; its slope and the valley below are so crowded with trees as to obviate any appearance of abruptness or intrusion. S. Helen, HOUGHTON, in Sussex, is wildly situated on the top of a solitary down; the hills about it soften down the otherwise offensive character of its locality. S. Michael, BARTON, near Ulleswater, on the summit of a green knoll, is a massy Norman structure, with central tower; and what with the shrubs and underwood that surround it, and the lofty eminences that tower up at no great distance from it, it harmonizes wonderfully with the landscape. Thus much may suffice with respect to towers at the summit of hills: a position always difficult, and never to be employed without great necessity.

Next, with reference to spires in a similar locality. It is a general belief that they are here out of place; but this belief is not grounded on any philosophical reason, and assuredly is at variance with precedent. Among many instances of it, it will be sufficient to mention a few, S. Peter's, at CAMBRIDGE, an Early English building, is placed on the top of a steep hill, and, which is more remarkable, it is almost the only one of the parish churches which appears originally to have had a completed spire. There is no pretence about the building; and it is impossible from the increased population and miserable houses which now surround it, to judge what its original effect may have been. S. HILARY, in Cornwall, is another instance. Its locality is the summit of a huge barren down, and (whether originally so or not) the principal approach to it is by a kind of avenue formed of low trees and brushwood. This not only effects an agreeable contrast when the spectator is near it, but breaks the otherwise too staring appearance which its elevation would give it. A ludicrous instance of this position may be seen in BLACKHEATH PARK church, near London. It stands on the middle of a steep ridge, and has a high spire, which, visible for miles round, is not unaptly known by the name of the toothpick. S. Michael's, at LICHFIELD, though very much elevated is yet pleasing: the sides of the hill on which it is placed are not deficient in wood, softening down what might otherwise be objectionable. S. Anne's, at LEWES, though itself high, can only be viewed from higher points; and the upward tendency of its spire contrasts well with the soft and smooth slopes of the circumjacent downs.

There is a class of hills almost peculiar to Surrey, and the adjacent parts of Kent and Sussex: and the churches found in them are not only admirably adapted to their locality, but scarcely occur anywhere else. We allude to steep yet low sand-hills, overgrown with furze and heath, frequently broken away on one side into a puny precipice, and presenting a rich intermingling of colours. The churches, mostly early edifices, have neither bellcot nor spire, but something betwixt the two; a small wooden tower surmounted by a low spire of the same material, and both painted white. Sometimes the whole west end will be constructed of wood, as in the small church of S. Peter, NEWDIGATE: sometimes the spire arises from the centre of the nave, as in S. Michael, THURSLEY. But the excellent effect of these edifices is striking. The eye, wearied with roving over the uncultivated and shapeless moorlands, rests with delight on the clear and sharply denned spire; and its whiteness is pleasing, contrasted with, and subdued by, the purple flush of the heath, the bright gold of the furze, and the rich red hue of the excavated lane-side, when the slant ray of a morning or afternoon sun falls upon them. There are instances, also, of small chapels perched on the very summit of conspicuous hills, which deserve attention. It will, we think, be found that their height is rather greater in proportion to their size than would be the case in any other situation. There were three chapels of this kind near Guildford: S. ANNE'S, S. CATHERINE'S, and S. MARTHA'S. The first is destroyed; the second, a ruin; the third, still or lately used. S. CATHERINE'S was a remarkable example of height; and this circumstance seemed to make it part and parcel of the hill on which it stood, and protected it from the danger of appearing insignificant. S. MARTHA'S is not so high; but its hill, though, in reality, much more elevated, has a much gentler ascent. The principle seems to be not to pain the eye by an abrupt termination or truncated cone. The chapel of the HOLY GHOST, close to the Basingstoke station, on the Southampton, railway, now a ruin, is much like S. Catherine's, both in position and character. CHAPEL UNY, on the other hand, near the Land's End, seems to have borne a closer resemblance to S. MARTHA'S; but it is so much destroyed that it is difficult to speak with certainty.

Sea-cliffs come next under notice. Here we shall almost invariably find a tower, lofty but very plain. In such wild and lonely places, exquisite detail would not only become fantastical, when compared with the solemn sternness of the surrounding rocks, but would ill support the rain, the wind, and the spray, which every autumn and winter would drive upon it. The church of S. BURYAN, in Cornwall, is a good instance. It has the fault of staringness, when seen at a distance, and would, of course, possess it still more strongly on a near approach, had not the architect so placed it, that, though on the highest ground west of the Lizard, it becomes invisible for a mile before you reach the village, on whatever side you enter. The little church of S. Martin, OVER-STRAND, near Cromer, in Norfolk, is also a good instance. It stands on the very edge of the cliff, and its unassuming tower harmonises well with the neighbouring objects. S. PAUL, or S. PAULINUS, in Cornwall, may lead us to avoid two faults in such a situation. It is narrow, in proportion to its height, and gives an uncomfortable impression of weakness to any one who reflects on its exposed situation. Again, its buttresses are childishly thin--indeed, little better than sham ornaments: and this, though marring the beauty of many a perpendicular tower, never appears to so much disadvantage as here. S. SENNEN, the westernmost church in England, and within sight of the Land's End, has a low, plain, and sturdy tower: it would be improved, however, by the absence of pinnacles. For strength should be, not only actually, but also apparently, the distinguishing characteristicks of these outposts of the Church. S. DECUMAN'S, in Somersetshire, though not immediately on the sea, occupies something of the same situation: and it is worthy of note that its tower is plain, although rich. A tower as elaborate as most of those in the same county would have been out of place; that actually existing, unornamented to the belfry windows and above those sufficiently laboured, suits the character of the landscape--half gentle, half wild--very well.

We may proceed to speak of crags--a position not so often chosen, possibly only because not so often occurring, in England, as abroad. DURHAM cathedral is a notable instance. It is perched on the summit of a high cliff, beneath which flows the Wear: the locality is commanding, and gives great magnificence to the building; it, however, unfortunately deprives it of the possibility of possessing a western entrance. It also appears to us, though in truth a subject on which we would speak with diffidence, that had the western facade stood immediately on the edge of the cliff, instead of the Lady Chapel intervening between it and the edge, the effect would have been much grander. As it is, the thing is impossible, on account of the position of the tomb of Venerable Bede. S. MICHAEL'S Mount, in Cornwall, and Mont S. MICHEL, in Normandy, are both magnificent examples of the arrangement under consideration; but each too well known to need description here. The church of S. Michael, CLAPTON-IN-GORDANO, Somersetshire, is singularly well situated. Clapton Hill, a high, bold, wooded down, slopes off towards the village, and then, terminates in a crag, covered with brushwood, and unusually steep. At its foot is the old manor-house, with porch, wall, and entrance-gate; perched on the very top of the hill, is the early English church, the sharp pitch of its aisles, and the low, modest tower. Singularly enough, a crescent, the bearing of the former possessors of Clapton Court, is displayed in their dwelling; so that the Cross and the Crescent appear in close and very appropriate juxta-position.

So much with respect to the summits of hills as an ecclesiastical position. The next situation is the slope; one of the most beautiful, when well chosen; one of the worst when carelessly selected. How ugly a church may appear in this position may be understood by all who have seen the new church of S. ----, CLEVEDON, near Bristol. It is bad enough in itself; and, standing at the side of Clevedon hill proclaims its frightfulness far and near. In the very same landscape, is a church occupying a similar locality, which might have taught the architect better things. All Saints, WRAXALL, Somersetshire, is placed nearer to the bottom than the top of a hill in the shape of a flattish crescent, the church occupying the centre of the inner part. There are a few trees around it, which improve its appearance: perhaps there were more originally. The tower is very lofty, and having the hill for the back ground, is brought out into pleasing, but not too strong, relief, This kind of position is very good, where the crescent of hills falls back from the sea; of which we have a pretty example in S. GULVAL, Cornwall. S. LUDGVAN, in the same range, and occupying the bolder locality of one of the extremities of the crescent, requires and obtains deeper shade to embosom it.

S. Nicholas, BRAMBER, in, Sussex, stands about half way up a very steep and well-wooded hill, and is almost hidden from the spectator, till lie is in the church-yard. Higher up, are the ruins of the castle; and the whole combination is excessively picturesque. S. Michael, MINEHEAD, in Somersetshire, where the hills run out into a bold cliff, has its church more than half way up their side; and the effect is here also good.

The position at the bottom of a hill is, in all respects, desirable;--it may he rendered the source of great beauty, and can hardly be egregiously mismanaged. We are not sure that, excepting in peculiar instances, a tall spire is here desirable. It is a sound rule in church building,--Never provoke a contrast, unless you can ensure a victory. The height of the hill will, probably, make that of the spire insignificant. A plain pyramidal capping is, for a small church, very desirable in this case. A round tower, too, (which, we believe, has not yet been adopted by any modern architect,) looks well. Examples of the skill with which this position was seized by our ancestors, are so common, that it would be useless to particularize many: we will only mention S. Andrew, BISHOP'S COMPTON, Somerset; Holy Trinity, POYNINGS , Sussex; S. ----, EAST MARDEN, in the same county--a singularly beautiful instance; and S. Mary, CALDER Abbey, Cumberland.

II. Juxtaposition with wood is the most practical consideration arising from our subject; because we have here the power of accommodating natural beauties, in a great measure, to our own purpose, and because our remarks apply as well to old as to new churches. The grace which trees are capable of bestowing on a church is well known. S. ------, OAKWOOD, (near WOOTTON,) Surrey, stands, as its name implies, in the very heart of a grove of oaks; and nothing can exceed the loveliness of the contrast afforded by its Early English simplicity, as compared with the wreathed and gnarled branches and notched foliage, by which it is surrounded. It has a very plain bell-cot. S. Giles, CROXDEN, Staffordshire, is another notable instance; and we need hardly remind our Cambridge readers of S. Mary, MADINGLEY. A singular instance is afforded by S. Mary, CAPEL-LE-FERNE, Kent: -- the church, a perpendicular casing of an Early English building, stands on tin exposed piece of table land, bleak and desolate; but,--(and, as the name seems to shew, the position is of no modern, date,)--it has been surrounded by a group of firs, which, in great measure, serve to convert the ugliness of its original situation into something like beauty. S. Mary, DUNSFOLD, Surrey, a small decorated cross church, is another interesting specimen.

The effect of trees may be divided into four general classes:--the massy, as oaks, beeches, and yews; the broken, as ashes; the spiry, as cypresses and poplars; and the overhanging, of which the palm is the most perfect example, but cedars and elms are so in a great degree. Some trees vary between two of these classes; limes unite much of the first and third; aspens, of the second and third.

Now, the massy effect of a fine oak, the tendency of which, be it observed, is rather horizontal, is most nobly contrasted with the verticality of a tall spire rising above it. To have, therefore, four or five great oaks towards the south-west of a church, (we do not necessarily mean in the church-yard,) is, besides the protection they afford, of great aesthetical advantage, provided, that is, there be a spire. For a massy perpendicular tower, on the other hand, juxtaposition with more broken foliage is desirable. Poplars and similar trees can hardly be made to harmonize with, because they seem to caricature, an ecclesiastical building, and should therefore never be planted near it.

We have already exceeded the limits that we had proposed to ourselves, and must therefore reserve till another occasion the remarks that we proposed to offer on the two last branches of our subject.

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