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St Mary, Radwinter


Radwinter Radwinter Radwinter

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Towards the end of the long, harsh winter of 1814, a baby girl was born to the unmarried daughter of a Radwinter farm labourer. The new young mother, Mary Darnel, brought her infant to Radwinter church for baptism on 6th March that year, where she was christened Abigail. The name of the father of the child was not recorded in the registers. When Abigail was 18 years old, she married James Reynolds from the neighbouring parish of Great Sampford, here at Radwinter church. This is of interest to me, because James and Abigail were my great-great-great-grandparents.

I had long wanted to see inside Radwinter church. Of all the baptismal churches of my thirty-two great-great-great-grandparents, this was the last one where I had not photographed the font, if it survived, or at least a shot down the church towards the chancel, a view with which they would later have become familiar. Over the last few years I had tried several times to see inside, but on each occasion I had been rebuffed for various reasons. And it was not just family history that enticed me, for Radwinter church is one of the crowning moments of the 19th Century Anglican ecclesiological revival.

The rector here from 1865 to 1916, a little over half a century, was the Reverend John Frederick Watkinson Bullock. Over the later years of the 19th Century he bankrolled and drove through two major restorations, more like rebuildings, at the hands of two of the major architects of the Arts and Crafts revival, William Eden Nesfield and Temple Moore. The chancel, aisles and clerestory were rebuilt in the 1860s, and then in the 1880s came the rebuilding of the tower and a considerable refurnishing of the interior. This left a spectacularly rich church, dripping in splendour and suited and booted for the highest Anglo-catholic worship. But would we be able to see it?

It was about midday when John and I arrived in Radwinter. On a previous visit I had called at the rectory, but no one was in. I was happy to try this again, for in the porch of the church (which we will return to in a moment) there were no notices suggesting how we might otherwise see inside, other than that there was a coffee morning inside the church from 10 am to 1 pm on the first Saturday of every month.

And then I found the phone number of the parish administrator on a newsletter. It gave details of her days and hours of duty, and it so happened that this was one of them. I rang her, she quickly answered, she was very helpful, but it turned out that she was administrator for a whole group of parishes, and she didn't live in Radwinter. She was happy to give me the number of the woman who she thought had the key. Unfortunately, she didn't have that number, although she was sure she had recently seen it somewhere, so we agreed that I would ring off and she would call me back when she had found the number.

John and I wandered around the churchyard, which is deliciously unkempt and overgrown. The church is also rather unkempt and overgrown I am afraid, the chancel gutters bulging with weeds, slates loose on the vestry roof and the leading bulging in a chancel window.

After about five minutes, the nice lady rang back. No, she hadn't found the number. But she had phoned the team rector, who had told her that that woman who'd she'd thought had the key didn't have a key anymore anyway. He had explained carefully to her that the church was locked 'for insurance purposes'. I always wonder what this means, as the opening line in the advice given by the largest church insurance company Ecclesiastical Insurance is If possible, your church should be open during the day. Did it mean they weren't actually insured? Or was it that, in this case, the insurance company had special reasons for wanting the church locked without a keyholder notice?

Fortunately, the rector had given her the number of another lady, who did have the key, and this was the person I should ring. Thanking the kind parish administrator profusely, I rang off and did so. The new lady was very happy to come and open up, but as she'd just made her lunch, could we arrange a time later? In the end, we agreed on 1.30, and then John and I went off to explore Great Sampford and Little Sampford, both of which were open of course.

Was it worth waiting ninety minutes for? Most certainly yes, it was. Radwinter church is outstanding of its kind. To start with, there is that porch. This will be familiar to almost anyone who has looked at more than a few books about churches, because it is so singular and so regularly photographed. The lower part is 14th Century, but the upper part is half-timbered and jetties out above it. It was the 1880s work of Temple Moore, to Eden Nesfield's design.

You step through it into what was a dark church on this gloomy day, but then the kind lady flipped the switches to illuminate the chancel and clerestory, and it was at once magical, like a great London Anglo-catholic temple. This was an extremely High Church place in its day, even for this traditionally High Church part of Essex in Thaxted's orbit. A vast, ornate wrought iron screen, based on one in Milan cathedral and made to Temple Moore's design by a local workshop in the preferred Arts and Crafts manner, separates the chancel from the wide nave. No natural light intervenes except from above, all else is shadows and glows, reflections and whispers. The great reredos at the high altar is early 16th Century Flemish. It depicts scenes in the life of the Blessed Virgin. The Reverend Bullock bought it in a London auction house in the 1880s. The outer wings were added by Temple Moore after its restoration and installation here.

sanctuary high altar

In the north aisle chapel is another delight, a 15th Century Italian triptych depicting the Blessed Virgin and child, flanked by two Saints. You'll be reassured to know that all these things are alarmed, of course.The extensive range of 1880s glass in the nave is by Isaac Alexander Gibbs, all of a high quality and with a number of interesting period piece details. The panel of the young Christ teaching in the temple depicts the temple elders listening to him as the politicians William Gladstone, the Earl of Salisbury and Sir William Vernon Harcourt. The panel of Christ in the carpenter's workshop (a popular image in the 1880s) shows him kneeling on a board enthusiastically sawing it in half with little regard for Health and Safety. The figures brought to the Tree of Salvation by angels include a young black slave in chains. The angel turfing Adam and Eve out of paradise with a flaming sword is particularly memorable. There is also some glass in the vestry signed by Eden Nesfield himself.

Was the tradition here still Anglo-catholic? No, it wasn't, not really, said our host. Ten years ago perhaps, she added wistfully. There are signs of this, of course - the south aisle altar has now gone, replaced by a children's corner, and there is no smell of incense, no frontal on the altar. And, further back, Abigail Darnel's font has gone, to be replaced by a solid job of the 1870s with a towering font cover.

But it is all remarkable, and as John said it couldn't be left open as it stands, and to make it safe to open would be to ruin what it is. So there we are. But it would be nice if it was easier to visit outside of service and coffee times. After the struggle, it was with something of a sense of relief that we hit the road again en route for Helions Bumpstead.

Simon Knott, April 2018

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looking east looking west
font and font cover (1870s) south aisle chapel crucified high altar organ case (Temple Moore, 1880s)
Christ in the carpenter's workshop (Isaac Alexander Gibbs, 1880s) Presentation in the Temple (Isaac Alexander Gibbs, 1880s) Adoration of the Magi (Isaac Alexander Gibbs, 1880s) The young Christ preaching in the temple to William Gladstone, the Earl of Salisbury and Sir William Vernon Harcourt (Isaac Alexander Gibbs, 1880s)
Visitation (Isaac Alexander Gibbs, 1880s) Christ preaches at Galilee (Isaac Alexander Gibbs, 1880s) Angels of salvation (Isaac Alexander Gibbs, 1880s) Christ raises Lazarus from the dead (Isaac Alexander Gibbs, 1880s) Christ walks on the water (Isaac Alexander Gibbs, 1880s)
Baptism (Isaac Alexander Gibbs, 1880s) Adam and Eve are expelled from Paradise (Isaac Alexander Gibbs, 1880s) Adam and Eve with Cain, Abel and Seth (Isaac Alexander Gibbs, 1880s) Flight into Egypt (Isaac Alexander Gibbs, 1880s) Feeding of the five thousand (Isaac Alexander Gibbs, 1880s)
St Gabriel (Eden Nesfield, 1870) St Michael (Eden Nesfield, 1870) St Raphael (Eden Nesfield, 1870) Virgin and child flanked by Saints (Italian, 15th Century)
lavabo (Eden Nesfield, 1870) F D W Eden Nesfield 1870

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