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.

Paradise lost? – Elvaston Castle and Gardens

Determined to make the most of the short respite between the end of the first Covid lockdown and the start of the second, we decided to take a trip to Elvaston Castle. Sounds rather grand doesn’t it, conjuring up romantic images of sturdy curtain walls, a moat and a portcullis, and maybe intrepid knights rescuing distressed damsels from dismal towers. But the reality is very different, and a good deal less glamorous.

File:Elvaston Castle - geograph.org.uk - 6393.jpg

PHOTO CREDIT: Chris J Dixon / Elvaston Castle / CC BY-SA 2.0

Situated on the edge of the city of Derby, Elvaston Castle is a castle in name only. It might more accurately be described as a grand country mansion in the Gothic Revival style, and was designed for the third Earl of Harrington in the early 19th century. Successive Earls of Harrington made their home at Elvaston until 1939, when the 11th man to bear that title finally left for good, relocating to his estates in Ireland.

During World War II, the mansion was turned into a teacher training college when the original college in Derby was evacuated. The college vacated the building in 1947, after which it remained mostly empty for the next two decades and fell steadily into disrepair. Although proposals for the mansion’s demolition – to enable the extraction of gravel – were rejected, a comprehensive rescue package proved elusive.

The Gothic Hall (photo taken 2015)

Such is its poor state of repair that it wasn’t possible for us to view the inside of Elvaston Castle when we visited this autumn. Luckily, we’d visited in 2015, during a rare open day event, and were able to see some of what it has to offer. Mrs P’s photos from that time reveal it to be impressive, a fine example of Gothic Revival design.

With the mansion itself off-limits, our visit this year was confined to Elvaston’s 300 acre (120 hectare) grounds. These offer formal gardens and a walled “Old English Garden,” as well as woodland, parkland and a picturesque lake. Part of the estate is designated as a Local Nature Reserve, offering the chance to spot a variety of wildlife.

The Gothic Hall (photo taken 2015

The gardens have an interesting history, and if you sniff the air attentively you may detect the faint whiff of impropriety, otherwise known as the scandal of the earl and the actress. The earl in question was Charles, 4th Earl of Harrington, a 19th century eccentric and trend-setting dandy, a friend of the Prince Regent who designed many of his own clothes and was addicted to snuff. He reputedly had 365 snuff boxes, one for each day of the year, although history is disappointingly silent on how he coped in leap years.

Towards the end of the 1820s, Charles fell madly in love with Maria Foote, an actress 17 years his junior who was also an unmarried mother.  By the standards of the day it was a dangerous liaison, and inevitably incurred the displeasure of ‘polite’ London society.  Doors slammed in their faces, and the couple retreated to Elvaston to lick their wounds and pursue their relationship out of the public gaze. 

The Moorish temple (built c1846)

To ensure a suitably romantic ambience, the Earl appointed William Barron as his Head Gardener, with a brief to design gardens that would be a “private and secluded oasis of great beauty” for himself and his true love. Leading a team of 90 gardeners Barron set about creating a series of themed gardens, including an Italian garden based on designs from Tuscany, and the Alhambra garden complete with a Moorish temple. 

In all Barron spent around 20 years working on Elvaston’s gardens, and even developed the practice of transplanting mature, fully grown trees to help hurry the job along. Some of the yews transplanted to Elvaston were already hundreds of years old, and were moved over distances of many miles to reach the estate.

The walled “Old English Garden”

Following the 4th Earl’s death in 1851, his brother, Leicester Stanhope, 5th Earl of Harrington, opened the gardens to the public. They became renowned as “a Gothic paradise” and received thousands of visitors, many of whom travelled to Elvaston on special excursion trains. However, like the mansion, the gardens became neglected once the 11th Earl left for Ireland.

In 1969 absentee owner William Stanhope, 11th Earl of Harrington, sold the estate – both house and gardens – to Derbyshire County Council. A year earlier the Countryside Act had proposed the creation of “country parks…for the enjoyment of the countryside by the public.” The Council duly opened the estate to the public in 1970, when Elvaston became England’s first Country Park.

The Council has now owned Elvaston castle for more than 50 years, and given the poor condition of the buildings and the somewhat neglected gardens that we witnessed a few weeks ago, it’s difficult not to conclude that they’ve been asleep on the job. They will maintain their innocence, of course, pointing to financial pressures and competing priorities…but Councils always do that, don’t they?

The decline and fall of Elvaston has been a locally controversial issue for decades, with lovers of the estate incensed and appalled by the Council’s failure to restore and protect a house and gardens that both enjoy Grade II* listed status from Historic England.

Finally, to help them get a grip, Derbyshire County Council established the Elvaston Castle and Gardens Trust to manage the estate on their behalf through a long-term lease agreement. In 2019 the Council and Trust agreed a revised Master Plan, and began touting it as the solution to Elvaston’s ills. Here’s what a Council spokesperson said at the time:

“Protecting, conserving and securing the estate’s heritage and biodiversity for future generations is at the heart of the new Master Plan which outlines proposals to revive and restore the estate to help bring in more visitors and increase revenue…Elvaston is a beautiful place to visit and enjoy and we are working with the Elvaston Castle and Gardens Trust to make sure this nationally important asset is secured for the future.”

Derbyshire County Council spokesperson, quoted in a report on the Derbyshire Live website, 15 July 2019, retrieved 3 December 2020

Sounds reasonable, I suppose, but are these fine words realistic in the context of the financial constraints ushered in by Covid-19? At the end of 2018, it was reported that the Council had identified a repairs backlog of £6.4m and annual running costs of £700,000. Those numbers were enormously challenging even before the pandemic; today I suspect they are unattainable.

I do hope the Council and the Trust will be able to deliver on their lofty ambitions. However I can’t help thinking that, before too long, Elvaston Castle and Gardens may be filed permanently under the heading of Paradise Lost.

Dovedale: an iconic Derbyshire attraction

Although Dovedale’s only a fairly short drive from Platypus Towers we don’t go there often. It’s just too popular, the jewel in Derbyshire’s crown, always heaving with tourists and therefore devoid of the very peace and tranquillity that would be our reason for visiting this spot in the first place. But maybe this year, with Covid-19 wreaking havoc in the travel sector, we’ll get the place to ourselves?

File:Ilamhall.jpg

Ilam Hall, illustration from Morris’s ”Country Seats,” 1880. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

We park up at Ilam Hall, which is just over the border in Staffordshire, before heading off into Derbyshire to view the iconic Dovedale stepping stones.

“Ilam Hall” sounds grand, doesn’t it, but it’s a mere shadow of its former self. Although there’s been a hall on the site since Elizabethan times, the current building and adjacent Italianate garden date from the early 19th century. The mansion was built in the Gothic Revival style, and was a statement of wealth and power by the man who commissioned it, social-climber Jesse Watts-Russell.

The Italianate garden and the remains of Ilam Hall date from the 1820s

Ilam Hall was so highly thought of in its day that in 1880 it was featured in Volume 1 of the Rev. F.A.O Morris’ series County Seats of the Noblemen and Gentlemen of Great Britain and Ireland, an ambitious multi-volume tome describing what were reckoned to be the finest country houses of the time. 

However, by the 1930s the mansion had become derelict and was sold for demolition. But at the last moment a philanthropist – the flour magnate Sir Robert McDougal – stepped in.

Holy Cross church to the right, and the remains of Ilam Hall in the distance

McDougal purchased what was left of the house (the Great Hall, service wing, hall, and entrance porch) and gave it to the National Trust, on the understanding that it would be used as a Youth Hostel.

Close by the Hall is Holy Cross church, a Victorian rebuilding of a medieval church. The very first church on the site was built in Saxon times, and grew up around the shrine of St Bertram, a 6th-century hermit who took up a solitary life after his wife and child were killed by wolves, packs of which once roamed the local forests.

St Bertram’s Bridge

Just 100 metres from the church is the stone built, single span St Bertram’s Bridge, an impressive scheduled monument dating from no later than the eighteenth century.

But none of this is the reason for our visit today, and so we set off towards nearby Dovedale. On our way, we pass through the tiny estate village of Ilam, built in its present form by Jesse Watts-Russell.

Part of the Ilam estate village, designed by Sir George Gilbert Scott

Watts-Russell had originally been attracted to the area because it reminded him of the Swiss Alps. Really? – the man was clearly deluded! Whatever. Having bought the estate and commissioned a new Hall, he decided to indulge his Swiss fantasy by commissioning famous architect Sir George Gilbert Scott to design a new Ilam village in an Alpine-style. The scheme was designed around 1839, and still looks splendid today.

Leaving the village behind us we take a well-worn path across the hillside, and stroll for around 45 minutes before we reach the lower section of Dovedale. We know we’re in the right place because it’s chaos, cars piling into the car park and platoons of pedestrians marching gallantly towards the famous stepping stones. So much for having the place to ourselves!

Dovedale by Moonlight, c 1785. Joseph Wright of Derby, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Long appreciated by poets and artists, Dovedale first became a significant tourist destination in the nineteenth century when the industrial revolution gave rise to a middle class with both the time and resources to take leisure breaks away from home.

The opening of a railway station at nearby Thorpe Cloud in 1899 made it more readily accessible, and visitor numbers increased. The station and the railway have long since been withdrawn from service, but the visitors keep on coming!

Thorpe Cloud, an instantly recognisable landmark

Dovedale lies in the White Peak, a limestone plateau that forms the central and southern part of the Derbyshire Peak District, and is the name given to the section of the Dove river valley between Milldale and Thorpe Cloud. It contains some of the most spectacular limestone gorge scenery to be found in the UK.

Today we’re not planning to explore the Milldale section, possibly the most scenic part of Dovedale. Instead we’ll walk upstream, in the shadow of Thorpe Cloud – the highest hill in these parts, and an instantly recognisable landmark – until we reach the the iconic stepping stones. Every man and his dog will want to cross the Dove here, and we’ll join them, before returning to our starting point on the opposite side of the river. That should be more than enough excitement for one day.

The stepping stones date from around 1890. It was then that some enterprising locals – who had presumably worked out that increasing the number of visitors to Dovedale would also improve their own chances of making a fast buck – decided to make it easier for casual walkers to cross the river.

A bridge was ruled out, perhaps because of the cost, but just as likely because stepping stones seemed a lot more romantic. If that was their thinking then they were absolutely right. Today everyone who visits Dovedale wants to cross the river via the 16 large flat rocks put there for just that purpose.

For over a century, many thousands of visitors made use of the stepping stones each year. Everyone had a good time, and very few of them fell in.

And even those who did take the plunge suffered little more more than wet shoes and a momentary loss of dignity, given that the river’s wide and very shallow at this point.

However in 2010 the local council decided that the stones were a potential hazard, and placed limestone caps on all but one of them. Health and Safety was – and is – alive and well in the fair county of Derbyshire.

Our visit today passes without wet feet or any other unwelcome incident. We simply have to queue for a while, waiting for countless day-trippers and the occasional dog to make the crossing before, finally, it’s our turn. A grand time is had by one and all.

It’s easy to see why this simple activity, undertaken in such a scenic location, captures the imagination of visitors from near and far. We all need a few simple pleasures in our lives, and crossing the Dovedale stepping stones is one of them.

Sadly, Dovedale’s future doesn’t look rosy. The historic woodlands that flank the lush, green valley are being ravaged by Ash Dieback, a fungal disease that originated in Asia. It probably arrived here thanks to the global trade in plants, and is wrecking ash woodland throughout the UK.

Note how the original stepping stones have been capped with limestone slabs. Health and Safety gone mad!

Conservationists at the National Trust, which manages Dovedale, say 80% of its ash trees are at risk of being wiped out. And four out of five of all the trees in Dovedale are ash.

Ash Dieback Disease is a disaster for such a well-loved Derbyshire landscape. The National Trust’s planned response is

to increase the diversity of tree species in the areas hit hardest by ash dieback, by planting native tree species and allowing areas with other species already present to set seed themselves

Source: National Trust website, retrieved 16 October 2020

Plainly, as Ash Dieback takes hold, Dovedale will never be quite the same again. But all landscapes change over time, and the National Trust should have the expertise at its disposal to ensure that this very special Derbyshire place remains special. Let’s hope so.