Saturday, 25 January 2014

All Saints' Church

All Saints' Church in Cambridge is an enigma:

  • Easy to see but difficult to find
  • An attempt to discover a way forward by looking back
  • A treasured jewel which has been preserved largely through neglect

Its graceful spire is a landmark on the Cambridge skyline but the building is tucked away on a tiny plot of land in Jesus Lane. It's very difficult to find a satisfying viewpoint from which to take a photograph.

So let's have a look inside...

By the mid-19th century the old All Saints' Church in Trinity Street had become insufficient for the needs of the parish and needed so much work that it was decided to build a new church in Jesus Lane which was nearer to the homes of the bulk of the congregation. They tried to get the leading architect of the day, Gilbert Scott, to design the church but in the end had to settle for his pupil, George Bodley, to undertake the task.

His initial design did not hold much promise, being too expensive for the funds available and too big for the land on which it was to be built!

Back to the drawing board, Bodley!

His second design was in the Decorated style of the early 14th century. It was his first attempt at the style but he went on to design over 100 other similar churches.

So, here we are in the 1860s, the height of the Industrial Revolution, when Britain was moving headlong into the modern age. And here is Bodley building a church in the style of 1320 - what's going on? 

Not everyone was ready to jump into the future and there was a considerable counter-culture intent on returning to old, half-forgotten values. The Gothic revival in architecture,literature and poetry, the growth of Anglo-Catholicism and the Art and Crafts Movement all harked back to earlier times. So an old-fashioned church, richly decorated with wall painting and with hand-crafted fittings would fit the bill perfectly. And that's precisely what they got.

The walls were covered with what appears at first glance to be wallpaper but which, on closer inspection, turns out to be stencilled wall-painting. It looks very much like the work of William Morris and indeed Bodley did employ Morris's firm to do some work, particularly the roof, but the walls are apparently by someone else - possibly Bodley himself. Let's see what Morris & Co did with the roof then...

Perhaps I should admit at this stage that I had real problems getting these photos; there's not much light inside the church - and there's a reason for that. Early Medieval churches were designed differently, without clerestory windows to light the upper portion of the building. A church was seen as a dark, cave-like space in which to meditate deeply, contemplating ones sins and mortality, whereas later churches and cathedrals were designed to lift the spirit and send ones thoughts soaring heaven-ward. It's a difference in philosophy as much as an architectural variation.

Above the chancel arch is this glorious painting of Christ on a rainbow throne, flanked by The Virgin Mary and John The Baptist. It's based on Medieval "Doom" paintings which were usually in this position but had depictions of heaven (on Christ's right) and hell (on His left). Presumably the rather gory imagery used to represent hell did not sit comfortably with Victorian sensibilities.

The pulpit was designed by Bodley and painted by Wyndham Hope Hughes. On the centre panel is St Peter....

And at the other end of the church is another painting, also probably by Wyndham Hope Hughes, this time of Jesus blessing the children...

In front of the painting is Bodley's font...

So we have a very fine church, but the parish itself was not a wealthy one and consequently there were very few changes from the initial conception of George Bodley and his associates.
As a result it's all there for us to enjoy today.

The little war memorial above was added after The First World War.

And the fine Women's Window was added in 1944. It depicts The Virgin Mary (accompanied by a Boy Scout!), Mary Magdalene and the Woman at the well in Samaria, as well as four great Christian women of the time - Elizabeth Fry, the prison reformer; Josephine Butler, social reformer; Mother Cecile Isherwood, foundress of a community of nuns in South Africa; and also Nurse Edith Cavell.

During the 20th century the congregation declined and in 1973, when the magnificently-named Rev L J Hereward Hard retired, the church fell into disuse. The church is now in the care of The Churches Conservation Trust. It's usually open to the public; a board stands outside saying "Church open", you push the rather plain door open and, if you are lucky, you'll have the place to yourself - no tour guide, no admission charge, no audio tour. Just glorious colour, fascinating details and a slightly fusty atmosphere.

Back outside you can stare up at the tower and spire, which apparently is based on the church at Ashbourne in Derbyshire, and wonder at the curious times in which the church took shape and the series of chance events which have led to its survival.

Take care.


  1. Thanks for the tour John. I was amazed at the William Morris ceiling and the decor certainly screams the Victorian age. I am glad this is under the Church Conservation Trust as these gems need to be looked after. Take care.

  2. a brilliant intro' photograph John and my how impressive on the inside too; and the lighting casts a beautiful mellow hue in the second photograph; another neat series from Cambridge

  3. Great piece, John. Thanks. I share your frustration about getting a clear shot at the exteriors of buildings.

  4. Fascinating. Would be a delight to see in person.

  5. I notice the Beatitudes are written as a boarder just under the ceiling. Something for the people to ponder in the dim light.

  6. Wonderful, - you have no idea how much your tours and beautiful photos are appreciated, John. They add to the dreams that probably won't materialize, and make a glorious substitute. What a fine building, - love the spire.

  7. Thank you so much for this sightseeing! I have always admired all the grand churches one finds in England, even i the tiniest of villages. One wonders how they could have been built hand how they can be maintained.

  8. J'adore everything about this post John.. The All Saints Church is amazing, its history colourful ..we can only be thankful that it is still here for us to enjoy today. Merci beaucoup for your very eloquent telling of the story and the photos... Oh those wonderful arches..

  9. I must remember to push at that plain door and discover all those wonderful sights the next time we visit Cambridge. I'm glad the church is being cared for and that it is open to visitors. Thanks for this post I've really enjoyed it:)

  10. An interesting post that I enjoyed reading. Loved the church, an inspiration!

    Thank you. Love love, Andrew. Bye.

  11. It's a beautiful church with an interesting history. Such fine craftsmanship is wonderful to see. I can't help wondering is it used for weddings as it would be a beautiful setting.

  12. Well done Bodley .... and it remains for us to view this wonderful old church exactly as he designed it.

  13. Long may such places survive. The Churches Conservation Trust does a wonderful job. This one looks wonderful.

  14. Excellent church - the all over painted decoration reminds me of Church of St Francis in Krakow that the let Stanislaw Wynspianski loose on. On my list of places to go even before you chucked in a window by the famous Scottish stained glass man Douglas Strachan.


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