Growing in the Love of God
The Upper Wylye Valley Team - Church of St Peter and St Paul Heytesbury
The church itself is described in Collins’ ‘Guide to English Parish Churches’, edited by Sir John Betjeman, as ‘A noble cruciform fabric with a central tower, formerly collegiate. It was restored by Butterfield, who was less drastic than usual.’ The external view is dominated by its massive, square and rather squat, central Norman tower, typical of Norman church design. Most of the church dates from the late 12th, 13th and early 15th centuries, but, according to Sir Richard Colt Hoare, it may have been largely rebuilt in about 1404.
By the mid-19th century congregations had dwindled, like many others at the time, and the church had fallen into a sad state of neglect. It was divided in half by a solid wooden screen extending from north to south, west of the crossing, leaving only the nave available for normal worship. Here, the box pews faced west and the high pulpit, with its adjoining clerk’s desk, lectern, prayer desks and stalls were all at the west end. A small door through the screen under the western arch of the crossing gave access to the vestry in the north transept, and to the Hungerford Chapel, although this was closed off and used for à Court family burials (the coffins were moved to a purpose-built mausoleum in the south-west corner of the churchyard during the 1865-67 restoration). A second door gave access to the chancel, with its ancient wooden stalls facing east and inwards, used only for occasional celebrations of Holy Communion. The chancel aisles, which may already have fallen into ruin, had been demolished, presumably to save money. In the nave, upper galleries provided seating for Lord Heytesbury and his family, together with, to one side, seats for the twelve men (dressed in their scarlet cloaks or, later, blue overcoats) and one woman of St John’s Hospital, and to the other, for the children of the school run by the Custos of the Hospital. The organ also stood at the west end of the upper gallery.
From this sorry state of neglect the Church was rescued, in 1865–67, by William Butterfield, the well-known Gothic revival architect and member of the influential Oxford movement, who by removing the dividing barrier between the chancel and the nave, opened up the interior. He also removed the upper galleries in the nave and the high pulpit. The west facing box pews were replaced by the present open, east facing pews and a new pulpit and font were provided. The arches of the blocked up chancel aisles were re-opened and the aisles themselves re-built. Extensive repairs were carried out to the rest of the church. The quality of Butterfield’s work is evident from the fact that the slated roof slopes, laid during his restoration, have lasted nearly 150 years, some 70 years longer than could normally have been expected. On the other hand, Butterfield managed to persuade the then Lord Heytesbury, the incumbent and churchwardens, to accept his signature geometric tile decorations which, contrary to his claims, have no relationship with medieval church interiors and are not to everyone’s taste!
The Warminster Journal devoted a whole page to the opening ceremony following the restoration, which took place on 10th September 1867. A service, led by the Bishop of Oxford, accompanied by the Bishop of Salisbury, was held in the church at 12.30 pm, followed, at 4.00 pm, a lunch for 350 people. Many of the guests attended a second, evening service, after which, at 7.00 pm, 400 of the working poor sat down to a supper provided by the church wardens.
Despite this very comprehensive restoration, a number of early features remain. The east end, with its tall, single lancet window and slim Purbeck marble pillars, reminiscent of ‘the new’ Salisbury Cathedral, with which it may have shared a master builder, is the earliest part of the Church and remained more or less untouched by Butterfield who admired it greatly. The north and south arcades in the chancel date from c.1185 and in the south wall of the sanctuary is a 13th century piscina. The arches in the north and south chapels are from the 15th and 13th centuries respectively whilst the nave arcades, partly re-built and with new bases, date from the 14th century. The clerestory was added in the middle of the 15th century.
The famous antiquarian, William Cunnington, lived for 33 years in the Old Estate House in Heytesbury from c. 1775 until his death in 1810. He is buried in the churchyard. His friend and patron, Sir Richard Colt Hoare, after visiting the church in the 1820s, described it in its depleted state (History of Modern Wiltshire, The Heytesbury Hundred).
The church has a remarkable and very fine organ, provided second-hand in 1854 by the London firm of J.W. Walker, as a gift from Mr John P. Prangley of Heytesbury. It came from St Mary's Church, Bermondsey, and has been attributed to Gerard Smith, who was active between 1689 and 1725; certainly much of the pipework dates from that period. It was conservatively reconstructed by J.W. Walker during the 1865-67 restoration at a cost of £160, when it was fitted with new casework and re-installed in its present position at the head of the south chancel aisle. It has not been significantly altered since then. Its outstanding value has been recognised by the award of a Grade I Historic Organ Certificate by the British Institute of Organ Studies.
The church also has a fine ring of six bells, the oldest and largest being the tenor, weighing 191/2 cwt , cast c.1460, whilst the remaining bells range in age from 1619 to 1843, the smallest weighing 8 cwt.
There are two memorial tablets of particular interest inside the church. One is in memory of David Williams, founder of the Sunday School movement and vicar of the parish from 1795 to 1836, whilst the other commemorates the antiquarian, William Cunnington.
In 1967, a restoration project marked the centenary of the earlier restoration. The wagon roof of the nave was coloured pale blue and the 80 carved bosses, one at the end of each beam and the rest on the horizontal beams at its base, were picked out in white, blue, scarlet, yellow and green. The walls were lime washed white and most of the tiles cleaned. In 1983 the church was re-wired and wrought-iron pendant lights, which had previously hung in Salisbury Cathedral, were installed.
In 1997 Heytesbury church became part of the Upper Wylye Valley Team Ministry which includes nine other churches. The parish registers from 1653, apart from those still in use in the church, can be seen at the Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre in Chippenham.
A major two part project is now being planned. The first, to be launched, it is hoped, on 24th November, 2014, and comprising repairs to the lead roof of the tower and its supporting timbers, the replacement of slates to all sloped roofs, as well as urgent masonry repairs, and internal redecoration, is estimated to cost well in excess of £250,000. The second part, still in its early planning stages (although no plan has yet been considered by the PCC), will create a space in the west end of the church use of the wider community. The outline plan envisages the replacement of the fixed pews in the nave with folding or stacking wooden chairs; the provision of a new floor surface; improvements to heating, lighting and sound systems; the installation, within the church, of kitchen and toilet facilities; and the creation one or more smaller meeting rooms. Routine worship will take place in the east end of the church which will be divided off from the nave by a sliding screen across the western arch of the crossing so as to allow worship to extend back into the nave for special occasions.
Address and Contact information:
Church of St Peter and St Paul
Churchwardens: Tina Sitwell 01985 840556