Tuesday, 21 November 2017

Hidden Treasure

You'll like Hildersham. It's a small, quiet village and it's not really on the road to anywhere else. You'd have to have a special reason for passing this way. 

My special reason was to visit its church which is tucked away through the little gate and behind the big tree. You could easily miss it.

Once inside the churchyard you'll find that although it's hidden from the road it sits on a little terrace with a view out onto the sheep pastures that lie alongside the river. The churchyard, at this time of year, lies serenely beneath a carpet of golden leaves. Jays squabbled up in the high branches and a grey squirrel watched me from the low wall.

When some building work was being carried out in 2015 an ancient burial site dating from about the year 900 AD was unearthed, showing that this had been the spiritual centre of this little village for well over 1,000 years. But what I've come to see is something more modern. We need to go inside.

It's rather dim and gloomy as the windows are all richly coloured glass, but already you can see that the chancel is something special. So special that the area is fenced off and alarmed, so can only be viewed from the chancel arch. After messing about with the camera settings to try to get the best photos I could, I hit on a brilliant idea....

Turn the lights on, John!

What we have here is a glorious piece of Gothic revival, Anglo-Catholic church decoration by the famous stained-glass workshops of Clayton & Bell. It dates from 1890 and was carried out under the supervision of Rev Robert Goodwin and his sister, Elisabeth Hemmington-Goodwin. It would have been unusual for a woman to be allowed much say in such matters in those times, but she easily secured influence by paying for the whole project!

The wall paintings are especially important as, though Clayton & Bell's firm made plenty of stained glass they didn't often tackle murals. True fresco painting (the application of pigments to the still-wet plaster) which worked so well in countries like Italy, was usually unsuccessful in Britain as the climate was too wet and cold for the process to dry quickly enough. To overcome this a whole new process known as spirit fresco was developed by Thomas Gambier Parry and was used at Hildersham.

The reredos, that's the carving behind the altar, was made by the Cambridge firm of Rattee & Kett - there's always lots of work available for stone-masons in the buildings of the University.

I loitered for a while longer, admiring what I could see of the frescoes and stained glass and rather hoping that someone might just appear and grant me access to the chancel, but that was not to be.

All this glory could have been lost in 1972. The paintings were in need of some restoration and the Parochial Church Council  were faced with the decision of whether to try to raise the then huge sum of £3,000 for the work or to whitewash it over. The decision to preserve the paintings was decided by a single vote!

I switched off the lights and made my way outside, wondering at the strangeness of it all.

We used to have richly coloured churches till the Protestant iconoclasts declared war on all paintings and sculpture in churches according to their interpretation of the Bible.

Then in Victorian times, at the height of the industrial revolution, a group of people decided that they wanted to return to the old ways.

In a tiny Cambridgeshire village the vicar and his sister became so committed to this idea that they spent huge amounts of money to decorate their little church. The vicar and his architect even went on holiday together to Europe just to look at the medieval churches there.

The lady who had paid for the paintings never lived to see their completion. A few years later a book was written about the history of the church and didn't even bother to mention the wall-paintings.

As we've seen the local community were almost on the point of destroying the work in the 1970s. 

Now it's considered a national treasure, but one that not many people seem to be aware of and few seek out. If this was in a London museum or art gallery people would be willing to queue around the block or pay to see it.

Surprising what there is to see if you take the time to look.

Take care.


  1. Hard to believe there aren't hordes of people arriving in Hildersham especially to see this beauty John at the same time nice that they're not 😀 so many glorious details to see here, the ceiling, oh la stunning! As always beautifully shown here, merci beaucoup ✨

  2. Amazing what a woman with money could accomplish at that time in history. Money always talked I guess.

    A real treasure. I love the look of the outside too and in that setting, gorgeous!

  3. The richness of the detailed paintings, ornate colors with exquisite details...is stunning, especially being housed by the simple lines of the church outside. This was a most enjoyable post the way you led me through the scenes. And a big thanks for preserving such beauty here.

  4. I'm glad you took the initiative to look, John. It's a magnificent church and deserving of preservation.

  5. Oh, my, what a treasure it is. It is amazing. Hard to take it all in. I would probably be returning there every so often...it would be one of those places that draws me.

  6. Such a beautiful and magnificent church. I'm so glad you went inside and turned on the lights. Truly a work of art.

  7. Yes, always surprising and rewarding to take the less traveled paths. You found a gem here. What an incredible place.

  8. Taking the time to look and not knowing what you may discover is what it is all about. This is a true treasure, John. Magnificent photos!

  9. Yes, an absolute treasure trove of extraordinary and varied craftsmanship tucked away here John. Thank you for sharing your part of our amazing world. Blessings

  10. What a nice gem to come across and spend some time exploring. The church is gorgeous both inside and out. I love the stained glass windows, absolutely stunning. I enjoyed the background story and thank you for sharing it. Your photos are fantastic!

  11. What a beautiful and interesting church, and how amazing that anyone could think to whitewash over such artwork. As grand as the interior is, I daresay I might feel more comfortable wandering about in the churchyard.

  12. How wonderful that this church is open for anyone to wander in and look around. The wall paintings are beautiful, I can't imagine any group of parishioners voting to whitewash the walls, and it evaded disaster by just one vote, quite astonishing. Lovely churchyard too.

  13. I like the atmosphere in the first photo. Interesting wall paintings (in the style of stain glass) that would have been hard to replace. I can't imagine how stone carvers can do what they do - there is no going back if you make a mistake. Amazing work. Nice little church but I find it a bit crowded.

  14. What a beautiful little church! That's an incredible interior!

  15. An amazing story about this forgotten church full of wonder. Lovely photos too especially the one of the autumn tree overhanging the grave stones.

  16. I am so glad that it was decided not to destroy this beauty! Your photos are awesome--thanks for taking the time to share with us. Those stained glass windows are superb!

  17. Hi John - stunning place ... delighted you told us so much about it ... the photos are quite delightful and excellent. Amazing church ... and yes I'd love to visit sometime ... fascinating history - cheers Hilary

  18. Wow wow wow wow wow. A spectacular church. Thanks for sharing it with us.


Thanks for taking the time to comment. I'll try to answer any questions via a comment or e-mail within the next day or two (no hard questions, please!).