An architect unchained: celebrating Augustus Pugin’s masterpiece

Architects have a frustrating life, don’t they, forever constrained by the briefs and the budgets of their paymasters, always wondering how much more they could achieve if their clients would only interfere a bit less and pay a bit more. But just occasionally, when the stars are in alignment and the gods smile benevolently upon him, an architect is given a free hand to express himself.

At 61m (200ft) Giles church is Cheadle’s tallest building

Augustus Pugin was one such architect, and when the chains were removed he built his masterpiece, St Giles church in the Staffordshire town of Cheadle. Otherwise known as Pugin’s Gem, St Giles is a Grade I listed Roman Catholic church built in the Gothic Revival style. With a spire standing 61m (200ft) high, it is by some way Cheadle’s tallest building, and is – in my humble opinion anyway – absolutely spectacular.

Looking down the nave towards the altar

If you’re not from the UK you almost certainly have never heard of Cheadle. I’m guessing most Brits aren’t familiar with it either. This is a humble West Midlands market town of around 11,000 people. For hundreds of years the main industry in the Cheadle area was coal mining, but the mines have all closed now and the town’s main employer (JCB) makes mechanical diggers and excavators. It’s a remarkably unremarkable little place, and would be instantly forgettable were it not for the efforts of Mr Pugin.

The arches, walls and pillars are covered in decorative stencilling

Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin (1812-1852), the son of a French draughtsman and designer, was a prodigiously talented and prolific architect whose output included the interior designs for the Palace of Westminster, and over one hundred churches and cathedrals. He also managed to find time to pen eight books on architecture and design before dying at the age of just 40, succumbing – it is believed – to the effects of syphilis that he first contracted in his late teens.

View across the nave towards the pulpit. To the right of the pulpit is the rood screen, intended to protect the altar from irreverent gaze! Above the rood screen is Christ on the cross, with figurines of Our Lady and St John on either side.

Pugin’s patron in the building of St Giles was John Talbot, the 16th Earl of Shrewsbury (1791-1852). In 1829, two years after Talbot succeeded to the title, Parliament passed the Catholic Relief Act, better known as the Catholic Emancipation Act, 1829. This important piece of legislation allowed Roman Catholics to become Members of Parliament and to occupy all but a handful of public offices at a stroke, overturning restrictions that had been in place for hundreds of years.

Shrewsbury’s principal residence was at Alton Abbey – which he renamed Alton Towers – just 6 miles (9km) from Cheadle. The Earl took a keen interest in the spiritual welfare of Catholics in the town, and, emboldened by the Catholic Emancipation Act, he engaged Pugin to build a church there. Pugin, himself a Catholic, had previously undertaken an architectural commission for Shrewsbury at Alton Towers, and had impressed the Earl with his contention that Christian (or gothic) art and architecture could be a powerful weapon in the re-conversion of England to the Catholic faith.

The pulpit is carved from a single block of stone and features images of four saints

It was a marriage seemingly made in heaven. The Earl had the money, Pugin had the creative talent and the pair of them shared a passionate commitment to the Roman Catholic faith. Cheadle’s Catholic population was modest in size, but Pugin’s design was the opposite: extravagant, exuberant and extraordinary.

When St Giles was consecrated in 1846, the service was attended by Bishops, Archbishops and overseas statesmen, as well as the great and the good from the world of architecture and design. Cheadle had never seen anything like it before, and probably never will again.

Between the arch and the roof is a Doom Painting, a representation of the Last Judgment.

When we visited St Giles last year, I didn’t know quite what to expect, but insofar as I had expectations, Pugin’s Gem exceeded them one hundred fold. It is a breath-taking creation, all the more so for being located in this small and otherwise insignificant Staffordshire town. To describe it as totally over the top does not adequately describe its impact on the visitor, but you probably get the general idea!

The altar and reredos are carved out of alabaster. On the front of the altar are angels playing musical instruments. On the reredos the angels hold torches and censers.

I can’t agree with Pugin that architecture alone is capable of inducing religious conversion: in the 21st century such views are either wishful thinking or a dangerous delusion, depending on your point of view. My own spiritual beliefs were utterly untroubled by his masterpiece, but St Giles church remains clear in my memory, monumental and magnificent, a vivid testament to what can be achieved by an architect unchained.

Caldon Canal – Short on length, big on history!

It’s easy to underestimate the impact canals had on the early part of the Industrial Revolution. Today, if they are not drained of water or choked by vegetation, they’re mostly used for leisure purposes only. It is hard to believe that, 200 years ago, they were central to the industrial miracle that transformed society beyond all recognition.

Smart, colourful barges show that the canal is now used for recreational purposes. But hidden amongst the trees to the far left of this shot are remains of limekilns, a legacy from the canal’s industrial past.

The Caldon Canal is a mere 18 miles (29km) long, and runs from Froghall in Staffordshire to Etruria in Stoke-on-Trent, where it joins the much larger Trent and Mersey Canal. Completed in 1779 it was built primarily to transport limestone, so it comes as no surprise that abandoned limekilns can still be found along its route.

Closer view of the remains of limekilns at Consall Forge

The kilns at Consall Forge, which stand 10m high and 50m long, are now clothed in vegetation. Back in the day, however, the view would have been very different. Raw limestone, quarried nearby, would be loaded at the top of the limekilns. Furnaces heated the rock and converted it into quicklime, an essential resource in the steelmaking process. The quicklime would then be removed at the bottom of the kiln and loaded onto barges for onward transportation to where it would be used.

“Bridge #50” across the Caldon Canal at Consall Forge, in the picturesque Churnet Valley. Built c1779.

The remains of more limekilns can still be seen at Froghall Wharf, and here too the serene surroundings make it difficult to fully appreciate how the place must have bustled with activity in its heyday. Froghall also boasts a handsome 19th century warehouse. This has been tastefully repurposed as a café catering for 21st century visitors who like nothing more than to replenish the calories they’ve burned off during their canal-side strolls with a hot drink and an enormous slab of cake!

Former canal-side warehouse at Froghall Wharf, now serving coffee and cake!

One of the undoubted highlights of the Caldon Canal, and perhaps more unexpected, is the Cheddleton Flint Mill Museum. There was a watermill on the site in 1253, and by the 1500s there were two, one to wash woollen cloth in a process known as fulling, and one to mill corn. When the canal was driven past the mills in late 18th century it opened up the possibility of new uses.

Limekilns at Froghall Wharf

The Caldon Canal passes through Etruria, which was – from 1769 – the home of Josiah Wedgwood’s ground-breaking pottery business. One of his highly successful products was “creamware”, which used ground, calcined flint to help achieve its distinctive light-coloured appearance. The mills at Cheddleton were converted to grind the flint Wedgwood needed, and the canal enabled its easy transportation to the potter’s Etruria factory.

Canal view next to Cheddleton Flint Mill

Now owned and run by the Cheddleton Flint Mill Preservation Trust, the site offers fascinating insights into a flint milling process that I was completely unaware of before our visit. It also preserves the miller’s cottage, which dates from the 1800s, shining light on a lifestyle so very different from our own.

Cheddleton Flint Mill

The cottage is dressed as a piece of living history. Recently washed laundry (sparkling white!) hangs drying in front of the range, which serves both as the cottage’s source of heat and a stove for cooking meals. Along the walls two dressers display cherished pieces of tableware, and the table in the middle of the room is laid ready for tea. The exhibit is totally convincing, and it’s easy to believe that the miller and his wife have just popped put for a few minutes, and will soon be back to carry on with their lives.

The miller’s cottage at Cheddleton Flint Mill

Cheddleton Flint Mill is just one of many fascinating points of interest along the 18 miles of the Caldon Canal which, although clearly short on length, is undoubtedly big on history. A visit (or two, or maybe even three) can be strongly recommended if you’re ever in the area!

Ford Green Hall: a snapshot in time

We really enjoyed our visit to Ford Green Hall, a fine example of a timber-framed farmhouse built in 1624 on the outskirts of Stoke-on-Trent in the county of Staffordshire. Who wouldn’t appreciate such an iconic building, positively dripping with atmosphere, creaking at the seams with nearly 400 years of history? Such places are strangely comforting, aren’t they, islands of calm and stability amidst a raging ocean of rapid change. They seem timeless, as perfect and wonderful as the day they were first conceived all those centuries ago.

Rear view. The half-timbered black and white core of the building dates from 1624. The brick-built extensions to left and right were added about 100 years later.

But look a bit closer and you’ll quickly realise that it ain’t necessarily so.

When approaching Ford Green Hall the visitor’s attention is drawn to the picturesque timber-framed parts, which are plainly very old. And that’s why we’re here, isn’t it, to see some old stuff. We conveniently block out from our minds the fact that to either side of the building’s black-and-white core are two rather more modern and less attractive brick-built extensions.

Front view. The black and white projection towards the right of the hall is a gabled two-storeyed porch, added just a few years after the hall was first built. This extension is early evidence of the building’s dynamic history.

The plain fact is that by the early 18th century Ford Green Hall wasn’t meeting its owner’s needs, so around 1734 he added two new wings. To our modern eyes these wings are somewhat unsightly – perhaps even a little ugly – and serve only to disfigure the majesty of the half-timbered building to which they’ve been attached. Back in the day, however, the owner will have felt very pleased with himself for modernising an inadequate building that appeared to be stuck in the past.

Worse was to follow – from our modern, sentimental perspective – in the years that followed. Half-timbered buildings fell out of fashion to such a degree that the external timbers were covered up altogether, coated in stucco to disguise the hall’s 17th century origins. The name of the game was modernisation: out with the old and in with the new, and if you can’t get rid of the old altogether at least do the decent thing and hide it from view.

The Hall Chamber (first floor) was originally used as a bedroom, and at the time of Hugh Ford’s death in 1712 it contained 3 beds.

In the nineteenth century the long term owners of the hall – the Ford family – moved away, prompting a further decline in its fortunes. Divided first into three and later four cottages, which housed local coal miners, the building’s glory days appeared over until the local council stepped in.

Stoke-on-Trent City Council purchased the hall in 1946 and, following a major restoration – including removal of all the hideous stucco – opened it as a museum in 1952. They furnished is sumptuously, in the style of a 17th-century yeoman farmer’s house.

The Hall (ground floor) was the most important room of the house. Originally much of the cooking would have been carried out over the hearth in this room, and the family would also have eaten their meals here.

When the Council ran into financial difficulties (don’t they all, sooner or later?) in 2011, the museum faced closure. At this point the voluntary sector came to the rescue, with a charitable trust taking over its running. And they’ve done a good job: as far as we could see, when we visited a few weeks ago. Ford Green Hall is thriving once again despite the best efforts of local government and the Covid virus to throw spanners into the works.

This restoration project has done a great job of preserving a historic structure that would otherwise have perished. However it’s important to remember that what exists today doesn’t reflect the vision of the man who commissioned the building in the early 17th century, and gives few hints as to its varied history.

The Parlour (ground floor) was originally used as both principal bedroom and sitting-room.

When we visit Ford Green Hall, or any other historic building that has been restored for its heritage value, we are simply being treated to a snapshot in time. The true history of such places is always much more dynamic and complex than is apparent to the casual observer.