External appearances can be misleading. Uninspiring when viewed from the outside, some apparently ordinary buildings conceal hidden gems within. A prime example is the tiny church of St Martin in the Surrey village of Blackheath – who would expect to find, behind its thoroughly unchurch-like exterior, a rich and vibrant display of murals depicting scenes from the life of Christ?
St Martin’s Church dates from the 1890s, and was designed by architect Charles Townsend (1851-1928) in the Arts and Crafts style. Inspired by Byzantine and Romanesque buildings he had seen on his travels in Europe, Townsend created a low-roofed structure modelled on an Italian wayside chapel.
Instead of the traditional cruciform footprint, he opted for an oblong hall topped off with a low, barrel-vaulted ceiling. Alabaster lines the chancel walls and sanctuary arch, which are separated from the main body of the hall by a gleaming, gilded screen. In line with the principles of the Arts and Crafts movement, the church was built wherever possible from locally sourced materials.
The murals are, for me, the stand-out feature of the church. Of course, back in medieval times nearly all internal church walls were awash with paintings, but these were mostly destroyed or painted over during the Reformation. Since then, adorning church walls with murals has happened in a few places, but it remains unusual to find any English church painted in this fashion. For me, this is what makes St Martin’s so appealing.
The St Martin’s murals were painted in 1893-95 by artist Anna Lea Merritt (1844-1930). Born in Philadelphia, Merritt moved with her family to Europe in 1865. By 1870 she was living in London, where she met the noted art critic Henry Merritt (1822–1877). They married in April 1877, but sadly Henry died just three months later.
Anna outlived her husband by over 50 years, and – remarkably for a woman of that period – spent her days, and earned a living, as a successful artist. She believed that true religious feelings are accompanied by light, hope, and cheerfulness, and her murals at St Martin’s convey the message wonderfully. St Martin’s is unlike any church I’ve ever visited, and one that I shall never forget.
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Surrey is several hours drive from where we live, so it’s unlikely we’ll be making a return visit to St Martin’s any time soon. However, there is a church much closer to home that also boasts some fascinating murals. St Mary’s Church in the Derbyshire village of Cromford was built in the last decade of the 18th century. It is historically significant as the final resting place of Sir Richard Arkwright, builder in 1771 of the world’s first water-powered cotton-mill.
Arkwright, regarded as one of the founding fathers of the Industrial Revolution, commissioned the construction of St Mary’s to serve the workers at his Cromford cotton-mill. However, the striking wall paintings were not added until 1898, as part of the church’s centenary celebrations. The artist responsible for them was Alfred Octavius Hemming (1843-1907).
From the outside St Mary’s looks more typically like a church than St Martin’s. But here too there is no hint of the splendid and highly unusual murals that lie within. And perhaps we should see this as a metaphor, or maybe a life-lesson? External appearances, these two churches remind us, are often misleading. We should endeavour to look beyond them to seek out that which initially lies hidden from view. Only by doing so do we stand a chance of discovering deeper meaning and true beauty.
I must confess that I’d never heard of the Watts Cemetery Chapel before our visit there a few months ago. The little building doesn’t appear to be well known, either locally or nationally. Maybe that’s because it’s hidden away in deepest, darkest Surrey, on the outskirts of a little village, languishing on a road to nowhere. Or maybe because it was designed by a woman, and has therefore – until quite recently – been under-appreciated by the male-dominated architectural establishment?
The designer in question is Mary Watts (1849-1938). She was the wife of George Frederic Watts (G F Watts, 1817-1904), one of the most accomplished painters and sculptors of Victorian Britain. Mary was herself a hugely talented artist, and when their village decided to create a cemetery to increase the capacity of the local graveyard she saw an opportunity to push herself further than she’d ever been pushed before. She offered to build for the village a mortuary chapel, which is a consecrated space in which bodies of the dead can lie briefly before burial or cremation. Mary’s loving husband, 33 years her senior and significantly wealthy thanks to his successful career as an artist, provided financial backing for the project.
The Chapel was built between 1895 and 1904, with a floorplan that is best described as a circle intersected by a cross. Mary’s work oozes with mystical symbolism, and the floorplan is just one example. She described it as “the Circle of Eternity, with the Cross of Faith running through it.”
From the outside, the Chapel looks like a Byzantine or Orthodox Church that has been lifted intact from its place of origin and incongruously deposited two thousands miles away in the leafy Surrey hills. It is built from small bricks made from a local red clay, and the exterior is decorated with a variety of intricate terracotta panels. These boast a complex array of symbols derived from Celtic, Romanesque, Jewish and Egyptian traditions.
Magnificent though it is, the external appearance of the building gives no clue to the wonders that lie within. The walls and vaulted ceiling are totally covered with rich, vibrant decoration. The senses are assaulted by the range of colours, by the glitter of gold and silver, and by a magical, metallic lustre. Angels stand in a circle around the walls, and in the centre of each group of them rises a Tree of Life, its roots entwined below like the arms of a crazed octopus. Above each group, a Seraph (a form of high-status angel) clad in “the crimson colour of love and life” raises its hands in a sign of blessing.
Taken as a whole, externally and internally, the Watts Cemetery Chapel is truly mind-blowing, so it is no surprise that the noted writer and broadcaster on architectural matter, Lucinda Lambton, wrote this about it:
‘It is no exaggeration to say that the Watts Cemetery Chapel is one of the most beautiful, one of the most extraordinary, original,marvellous and magical buildings in the whole of the British Isles!’
Interestingly, the decoration of the Chapel was a community endeavour. Mary encouraged local people to explore their own creative potential by getting them involved in making some of the external terracotta panels and internal decorative features. The faces that decorate parts of the vaulted ceiling are cherubim and are representations of local children who helped with the project.
Work on the project was completed in 1904, the same year that Mary’s husband G F Watts died. Appropriately, the casket containing his ashes was displayed in the Chapel, before later being buried in the cemetery. The Chapel, and the adjoining cemetery, continue to be used to this day. It is good to know that this wonderful, Grade I Listed building is not simply a tourist attraction, but continues to be used for its originally intended purposes. Long may it continue.
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Postscript: To learn a little more about the Chapel please view this brief video produced by the Watts Gallery Artists Village.
We spot him first in the monastic cloisters that are attached to the Cathedral, rolling on his back and wantonly flashing his belly at anyone who will look in his direction. I hurry towards him, camera in hand, hoping to capture some cute video action. But he’s in no mood to be filmed and disappears through a doorway into the main body of the Cathedral. Mrs P’s still taking photos of the cloisters, so I wait for her. By the time we’re ready to follow my new feline friend into the main body of the Cathedral, he’s nowhere to be seen.
Work began on the construction of Norwich Cathedral in 1096 and was completed in 1145. It is a magnificent building, regarded – its guidebook informs me – as one of the finest examples of Romanesque architecture in Europe. The monastic cloisters are the second largest in England, exceeded only by those at Salisbury Cathedral. Its cathedral close – that is, the area immediately around a cathedral comprising various properties that belong to it – is England’s largest.
Clerics and other Cathedral officers are housed or work in Norwich Cathedral’s close. And, as we are soon to learn, the close is also home to a cat who is famous the world over.
“Budge” the cathedral cat
Leaving the cloisters behind us, our minds are blown away as we enter the main body of the Cathedral. Stunning! Spectacular! Awe inspiring! The superlatives keep on coming, and we join other visitors in cricking our necks to admire the soaring roof. And yet, as we look around us, we see other visitors focussed on matters that are more grounded: the cat I spotted earlier in the cloisters is now sitting next to the pulpit, and has gathered a bevy of doting admirers.
Standing close by the cat is a member of Cathedral staff. Or maybe a volunteer, I’m not quite sure, but she clearly has an official role in this magnificent place. And she wears a slightly weary expression. I sense she’d rather be talking to us about the glory of God and the breath-taking building He has inspired. But instead she’s filling us in on the life and times of the Cathedral cat.
His name, we learn, is Budge, and he’s around five years old. He lives in one of the houses on the close, but spends most of his days in the Cathedral where he has become a bit of a celebrity. Budge has been known to gate-crash Cathedral events and make his presence known during morning prayers. He is popular with visitors, and the Dean is reported as saying that he brings comfort to those in torment:
“Sometimes people who come in are distressed, and we often find Budge sitting with them. I think some find him very therapeutic. Budge seems to bring people a lot of pleasure, and he is a very positive presence.”
But like most cats his favourite hobby is snoozing, and it seems that there is nowhere in the Cathedral – including the altar – where he has not on occasion lain his sleepy head. A cat with a rare sense of style and a large helping of chutzpah, one Christmas he was even found sleeping in baby Jesus’s crib in the Nativity scene!
Having heard and enjoyed Budge’s story we bid him a fond farewell and continue our journey around Norwich Cathedral. Half an hour later we meet up with him again. He’s removed himself from his position by the pulpit, and is now curled up on a plush cushion that someone has thoughtfully placed on top of one of the choir stalls. He’s sleeping peacefully, seemingly unaware of his many admirers taking photos and selfies.
There’s no doubt about it – Budge is a superstar. Enter “Norwich cathedral cat” in the Google search box and the return is a massive 1.3 million hits! Like all superstars he has his own Twitter feed, and currently boasts 4,630 followers. At the top of his feed is this quote, which seems an appropriate tribute to a much-loved cat who spends most of his life in a Cathedral:
For I am possessed of a cat, surpassing in beauty, from whom I take occasion to bless Almighty God
Excerpt from Jubilate Agno, by Christopher Smart
Budge’s superstar status is confirmed by the fact that the Cathedral shop sells Christmas cards featuring him. The illustration shows him in front of a large Christmas tree, stretched out on a heating vent that is pumping warmth into the Cathedral. This is, reputedly, one of his favourite spots for a quick nap! Although it’s a bit depressing to find Christmas cards on sale nearly four months before the big day, it’s great to see the affection in which Budge is held and to know that he’s doing his bit to raise funds for the maintenance of his magnificent second home.
St Julian, her calling and her cat
Although he’s the undoubted star of the show, Budge isn’t the only cat to be seen at Norwich Cathedral. One of its stained-glass windows is dedicated to St Julian of Norwich, and in the bottom left-hand corner is the image of a cat.
The remarkable woman featured in the window was born in Norwich in 1342. The name with which she was baptised is lost to history. In 1373 she contracted the plague and experienced several mystical visions as she fought her terrible illness. After a miraculous recovery she determined to devote the rest of her life to God, becoming an anchoress (hermit) at the church of St Julian in Norwich and adopting Julian as her name.
Julian, sometimes also known today as Juliana of Norwich, Dame Julian or Mother Julian, spent all her days and nights in a small cell measuring just over 9 square metres (100 square feet). The cell had a window into the church which allowed her to receive holy communion during Mass, and a window to the street to enable her to give guidance and spiritual support to anyone requesting it. There was also a small window through which a maidservant could pass her food and drink.
Although hers was a holy existence it must also have been very lonely, and Julian is believed to have developed a close relationship with the cat that she was allowed to keep in her cell to control rats and mice. It is this relationship that is referenced in the stained glass.
Julian was controversially ahead of her time in describing God as both mother and father, and in calling Jesus our “true Mother” from whom we receive our beginning, our true being, protection and love.
One of her core messages was “All shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.” It’s an idea that we may all wish to cling to in these, the most turbulent of times.
Julian’s writings, the Revelations of Divine Love, are the earliest surviving works in the English language written by a woman. You can learn a little more about her by watching this short video that I tracked down on YouTube.
The video makes no mention of Julian’s relationship with her cat, understandably perhaps as this may be thought to trivialise a significant, holy life. Personally, however, I’m drawn to the idea that such an exceptional, mystical woman could develop a tender, caring relationship with a simple, furry hunter of rats and mice. In some circles Saint Julian is unofficially known as the patron saint of cats. I’m certain Budge would approve!
Our birdwatching has been limited this year, as a result of the Covid restrictions and our continuing caution in the face of this frightening pandemic. We’ve seen no rarities during our occasional birding forays, but one bird we have been pleased to meet up with is the Little Egret. When we started birdwatching over three decades ago these elegant members of the heron family were almost entirely absent from the UK, but they can now routinely be seen in many parts of the country. Their return is a conservation success story.
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Little Egrets were once present here in large numbers, but were wiped out by mankind’s greed. In 1465, for example, 1,000 egrets were served up at a banquet held to celebrate the enthronement of a new Archbishop of York. A century later they were becoming scarce and by the 19th century they’d all but disappeared.
Egrets in continental Europe fared little better, although here it was fashion rather than food that drove the decline. They had been a major component of the plume trade since at least the 17th century, but in the 19th century demand exploded for feathers, and other bird parts, to decorate the hats of wealthy upper- and middle-class women. We know, for example, that in the first three months of 1885, 750,000 egret skins were sold in London, while in 1887 one London dealer sold 2 million egret skins.
Seen from a modern perspective the wanton slaughter of any species to feed the vanity of shallow fashionistas is appalling. Fortunately, however, it also appalled some of the women at whom the plume trade was notionally directed, initiating a chain of events that led to the formation of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB). Today the RSPB is the UK’s largest nature conservation charity.
One of the women determined to stop the slaughter was Emily Williamson (1855-1936). At first she appealed to the all-male British Ornithologists’ Union to take a stand, but when they ignored her letters she realised this was a problem that women themselves could solve.
In 1889 Emily invited a group of like-minded women to her home in Didsbury on the outskirts of Manchester, to discuss how to the stop the vile plumage trade. The meeting established the Plumage League. Its rules were simple, and to the point:
‘That members shall discourage the wanton destruction of Birds, and interest themselves generally in their protection.’
‘That Lady-Members shall refrain from wearing the feathers of any bird not killed for the purposes of food.‘
Two years later, in 1891, the Plumage League joined forces with the Fur and Feather League. This was also an all-female group and had been set up in the south of England by Eliza Phillips (1823-1916), who shared Emily’s values and aspirations.
Their new organisation was called the Society for the Protection Birds. Led by Emily Williamson, Eliza Phillips and Etta Lemon (1860-1953), and with the Duchess of Portland Winifred Cavendish-Bentinck (1863-1954) as president, the Society grew rapidly. By 1893 it boasted 10,000 members. In 1904, just 13 years after it was founded, the Society received a Royal Charter from Edward VII, making it the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB).
One hundred years ago, on 1 July 1921, after nearly 30 years of campaigning by the Society, Parliament finally passed the Importation of Plumage (Prohibition) Act. The Act banned the importation of exotic feathers, and thereby helped save many species from extinction.
Since then the RSPB has gone from strength to strength, campaigning to protect habitats and species both in the UK and across the globe. The RSPB’s nature reserves are also a valued resource for British birdwatchers, and Mrs P and I are proud supporters (Life Fellows, in fact) of this brilliant conservation organisation.
From small acorns do might oak trees grow, and Emily Williamson can never have imagined that her humble initiative in a Manchester suburb would have such profound consequences. She and her fellow founders of the Society were remarkable individuals, all the more so when we reflect on the degree to which women were marginalised in Victorian society.
Thankfully, Emily Williamson is finally starting to receive the recognition she deserves. In April 2023 a statue of Emily will be unveiled in Didsbury’s Fletcher Moss Park, close to her former home.
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Needless to say, Emily Williamson was not at the forefront of our minds when we spotted our Little Egrets a few weeks ago. I’m sure, however, that she would have been thrilled to see them back in the UK and fully protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act, 1981.
Little Egrets first returned to the UK in significant numbers in 1989. They arrived here naturally, following an expansion of their range into western and northern France during the previous decades. They first bred in 1996, in Dorset, and continue to thrive. There are now thought to be around 700 breeding pairs in the UK, while the over-wintering population is around 4,500 birds.
Little Egrets are handsome birds, and a welcome addition to any wetland habitat. It’s great to have them back here, where they belong.
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Postscript: This essay on The History Press website provides further details on women’s role in the foundation of the RSPB