Holy Trinity Church, Bellevue Road
I approached the church from the other side of the road. A road that felt like no man’s land. September’s sun’s rays were flooding the porch. I noted that the door was open. Good. My walk was not in vain. As I entered, a woman got up from a kneeling position, a child was beside her. ‘Can I help you?’ she asked in a slightly threatened way. I replied as politely as possible, ‘I would like to see the church’. ‘Oh, that is ok’, she said, surprised I think, as she turned around to enter the kitchen behind her. Church kitchens, I am realising are usually situated at the main church door. Returning with a set of keys, she added ‘People don’t visit churches anymore, so we keep the church closed’. I felt like saying that I did. She let me in to the actual church locked by another door. So, I received a warm welcome, despite her surprise. My demeanour towards her though might have appeared less warm. Her initial suspicion transferred to mine. The interior smelt and appeared to be the essence of Victorian. It was draped in objects, paraphernalia and furniture: dark brown, heavy and weighty and which would not have looked out of place in a Victorian drawing room.
‘The flowers are silk’, the lady said. I did not touch them, often a natural response when the texture of something is mentioned. ‘This is the first day of silk flowers’, she then said. I could not tell if she was pleased about this addition of silk, rather than the real. But I concluded that she might be, for if she was responsible for flower arranging and the cleaning up after, the absence of fresh growth would have been one less thing to think about. And she did also tell me that today was cleaning of toys day. As I walked round, I noted in the corner, a pile of empty buckets and vases that from today have a soon to be forgotten history of containing flowers. The lady seeing I was no longer a threat spoke to me a little more. I was delighted. She was giving me content for my blog. ‘So are you interested in churches?’ she asked. I decided that I was the shy churchgoer today. My newly acquired guide was very much the welcoming custodian. ‘Yes’, I said. Then I thought it would be ok to say a bit more. ‘Yes, I am an art historian and I am writing a blog called The Shy Churchgoer’. ‘Ah’, she replied. ‘My son writes a blog’. I did not ask what it was about, but was secretly pleased that there would be no competition there. Otherwise she might have told me that it was a blog about churches. ‘We are very proud of this church’, she said. ‘We have a service on a Tuesday evening, a Thursday and then of course on a Sunday’. ‘Where do you worship?’ she quickly asked. I told her that I was a church flirt and only went to a service from time to time. I moved on and started to fret that having left my note-book at home; I was going to forget everything I saw in the church. She went and came back and offered me a cup of coffee. In declining, I also asked her if I was wasting her time by lingering and looking and indeed taking photos. But she seemed content for me to pass more time in the company of not only her good self, but in this church that she was so fond of.
In the vestibule, as I left she noticed me looking at the board listing all the rectors that had presided in the church’s history. Only one board, as this is truly a Victorian church. The last one – Anthony, she told me had been rector for over 35 years. That is quite something I said. And I silently ruminated on the fact that I had not done anything in my life for more than ten years. He had Christened and married her son, oh and something else, but this I have since forgotten. I thanked her warmly, having written my name in the visitors’ book. Or is it visitor’s? I trust I was not the only one.
One part of the church I took to be the plausible parlour of a Victorian house. Not so a quiet chapel of prayer or repose. To the left of the altar, near where the buckets were being stored was a little area that might as well have been a junk shop. Little tables with holy cards and prayers on paper, lecterns, stools with piles of music and books on them, panels on walls and on the side of columns, chairs and items that it would seem had been pushed to the side of the church for no reason. This is like playing the tray game now, for without said note-book, my memory for details of this area serves me not. Reading the guide later, I discover that this open space is actually known as the Lady Chapel.
I nearly tripped on a long oblong box with a fairly thick stack of cards in them. Looking closer, I saw the number 1. Of course. I should have known, this was the hymn number cards. Where else does one put them? In truth, and I have been to a fair few churches in my life, I have never seen such a thing. But then neither have I looked for it. The actual object for the hymn numbers was on the wall not far from the box. But I also noticed another item on the wall with the word Psalms at the top. More long forgotten Victorian paraphernalia that would go for more than a song in architectural reclamation places. There are lots of pews to sit down in and their dark brownness was more than made up for by the bright colours of the cushions. I could thus sit down, but as this was the first church on my walk around Ramsgate today, I had no inclination to rest feet. There was a chair of evidently some importance with a sign on it, ‘Please do not stand on this chair’. I wondered if I had wanted to whether I could sit on it instead. Nearby at the back of the choir pews and by a painted white column, I saw plastic bags – always useful I am sure. I looked back from the area of the high altar and noted a huge partition dividing the church in two. Very Pugin I thought. Even though this is not a Pugin designed church, it resembled a medieval rood screen that I am sure as an architect keen to revive Gothic and medieval architecture, he would have approved of. Except that the screen was hardly dividing Choir from congregation, but toddlers’ toys, second hand books for sale and the kitchen area from the nave itself.
So, this must be the first church I have visited for a long time that is, or at least feels pure Victorian. I do not really know what I mean by this, except that the clutter, the faded colours and different coloured woods, and even the pictures, copies of Renaissance Madonna and Childs evoked a Victorian mood. Even a ragged piano stool, especially threadbare in one place reminding me of the pianist Glenn Gould’s stool – the one he sat in for most of his life. The lady of the church told me that the piano was hardly played these days, but that the organ was very good. I could clearly be a willing parishioner at this church. Although the numbers seem pretty good. She told me that there were usually about seventy five at the Sunday service.
So what is this church? It is the church of Holy Trinity, built, according to my leaflet on Pugin in Ramsgate, in 1845 by Stevens and Alexander of London. And according to another useful source (Wikipedia), the church cost £3,000 and was built on land owned by an Augusta Emma d’Este. Whether this means she was related generations back to the d’Este family of Ferrara I do not know. She was also known as Lady Truro and had a house in Ramsgate when she was not living in Eaton Square in London.
I walked to the next church. Ramsgate has lots of interesting monuments. But one needs time.
St. George’s Church
Where do you park in Ramsgate when all the streets and car parks are full? Indeed in the churchyard of St. George’s. Why not? I approached the church from the back, walked through the church-yard, where most of the gravestones had been pushed back to the fence boundary and was surprised to see that the door was open, even though my leaflet had said the church was only open on certain days. I entered and saw a vast Gothic interior. The church was open as Holy Communion was going on. I decided to stay back. But as I walked out, I noticed two men sitting in a car parked to the right, lodged fairly neatly into the space beside a buttress. I assumed they were waiting for some sort of clandestine meeting, where they could cover traces under the impressive lantern tower of the church. I surmised that I might not be too wrong, as then I saw another car turning into the gate and assumed the woman in the car was due to meet the two men. I walked on, noticing then in the small street leading up to the church gates, an NHS surgery and the so-called Micro museum dedicated to computer chips. Curiosity made me turn back though and I saw the car with the two men in it driving out, while the woman in the other car took their spot beside the church. If nothing else, there seemed to be a tacit agreement that this was a useful parking spot. Even though parking is not at a premium in Ramsgate, this is opportune for a visit to the surgery in the centre of town, or even Oddfellows Hall, not far away in the High Street, or even the street called Paradise where the nearest pub is.
So there are no shy churchgoers to St. George’s today.
St. Ethelbert and St. Gertrude
Yet, there seemed to be lots of shy Catholics in Ramsgate today. But what a plethora of papers, leaflets, Catholic Heralds, Messengers, holy books, notices and posters were out in force instead. Both the hallway, vestibule and outdoor loo area is a paean to plenty and paper and the materiality of Catholic news and views. But the Father was not in sight, and neither was any other. It was just me in one long, empty, silent church. And here, even though I was in a purpose-built Catholic edifice, there was no rood screen. The faint whiff of incense lingered. The distant memory I assume of Sunday’s service and perhaps the last time a visitor had called. I was in the church of St. Ethelbert and St. Gertrude’s in an area that in the early part of the twentieth century (when the church was built) was established to serve the Catholic community in this residential district, not far from the wide open sea that is so marked at Ramsgate. This was a Pugin designed church – well by one son, Peter Paul. As I am not an architectural historian, it is not my business here today to say why it is Peter Paul’s design and not that of Augustus Welby – the dad, the famous one. But as I read this detail in the leaflet, I was reminded of J.S. Bach and his sons. People have devoted their lives to detecting work of father over son, son over son’s brother, brother over brother and imitator over another etc. How nice it was that my objectives here were so different.
But there was nobody here to receive me at this church. But somebody’s spectacles were. In a little window niche, framed by a rather nice red bordered window were the holy vessels. The rather large one, replete with dispenser had a glass top and holder that reminded me of the trendy containers for cotton wool and candles that are now sold in Cologne and Cotton. But no, this was the large vessel for the Holy Water, safely contained. The EU would be pleased. Beside it, what looked like a container for milk contained, so it said more water. And another beaker like vessel, in black plastic, as if quality of container was moving from left to right, contained I know not what. Then besides all three, a spectacles case was open, showing the glasses of somebody notably absent. Such was the contrived quality of this display that I took to understand that these were not missing glasses, but there to use at times of particular intent. This little vignette was also a potent reminder of a real medieval painted still life – an image within an image in the Baroncelli Chapel in Santa Croce in Florence, done by Taddeo Gaddi in the fourteenth century. Art made out of liturgy. Or the art of liturgical goods and given that this passageway, as the entrance to the silent interior was full of the reminders of Catholic materiality, it seemed a suitable place for the display of artful liquid vessels and vases.
And so I departed from my third church.
Hang on. I thought this was a walk devoted to Pugin churches in Ramsgate. After all, he once declared that ‘he would give anything to get to Ramsgate’ (1844). But where are the churches that he designed in his beloved town? Never mind. I found enough to detain me in this place of extraordinary contrasts, without visiting St. Augustine’s, the church he did design beside his home – The Grange, also beside the sea. That can wait for another day. Watch out for Pugin in Ramsgate anon.
Oh actually, maybe the presence of Pugin is everywhere. See in this photo – the Puginesque type pointed arch in a residential dwelling, a small street of houses not far from St. George’s. Who knows what other architectural links I could make if I so wished.
Ramsgate Round two
St. Laurence in Ramsgate, also known as St.Laurence in Thanet, the oldest church in Ramsgate is open on a Saturday. Pugin’s house – The Grange and the Priory of St. Augustine next door are also open today as part of Ramsgate’s Pugin week, but also Open House week-end. This is the increasingly popular annual bash and celebratory event of all sorts and conditions of buildings across England. So it seemed like a perfect day to visit Ramsgate once more. The sky was moody: grey filaments interspersed with fragmentary swirls of clouds as they drifted back and forth. And in-between sea and sky, a thick black line at the horizon. The grey, turning silvery-sea becoming other colours: white, sandy, occasional turquoise, changing imperceptibly. There was promise of hope and arrival, as if some figure might emerge, pale, iridescent and alone land borne from the water. Could Venus be in town today? For a moment, I sensed a Mediterranean quality, as near the shore, where a grassy bank led down to the seashore, a thin line of trees reminded me of the parched landscape, save for rocks, and with just the odd clump of green growth that were painted into pictures by the likes of Cezanne, the painter of the sharp forms of the south. Turn one’s back from the line of cars on the roadside, face the sea, the mainly muted colours, the splatter of green and then the stone of the two buildings associated with Pugin at the seashore and one could be back in nineteenth-century Ramsgate. We see here the sort of late Victorian nostalgia for all things medieval, heavy, majestic, solid and weighty stone, flint and here to stay. Whether medieval churches really did look like Pugin’s re-imaginings we will never really know.
But what a lugubrious group that met in the church-yard of St. Augustine’s to hear the speaker on the tombs and graves. A young woman, seemingly cursorily and casually dressed: soft biker shoes, jeans, a loose fitting shirt, middle parting for slightly greasy hair falling just above the shoulders and holding an army bag with ‘Belle and Sebastian’ felt-tipped onto the side across her shoulder. Her cursory dress was matched by her cursory plain speaking literal delivery. Furthermore, her cursory dress was echoed in the small group that gathered round her and the graves. Except that the majority of them were double her age and although dressed in a similar fashion: loose clothes, anoraks dangling and a mixture of shoes: some sandals (could it still be summer?) and some trainers (yes, promise of rain today), their expressionless faces reflected the rather hesitant mood of the speaker. Or was it that she chose against preaching voice and allowed the graves’ inhabitants to speak out today? Francis Burnand, editor of Punch, Sarah McTavish, Bernard Valentine Clutterbuck, Frederick Maher, Father Thomas Costigan: some of them devout Catholics, many of whom who died in tragic, early circumstances, mothers, fathers, pillars of Ramsgate society, some seafaring souls resting now by the shore. The girl, our speaker, who perhaps had a small motor-bike round the corner read from her notes. I wondered if Wikipedia had provided the script. I was anxious to hear more names, but decided that I would be waiting a long time for her delivery to inspire me. We ended up taking a tour of the churchyard on our own. My partner commented that he too had noticed the army bag. And instead of listening, it allowed him to recall a childhood sweetheart.Judith Cotterell, a girl from school. She too had an army bag, emblazoned with Pink Floyd and 1970s vocabulary on it, as well as some embroidery, which she had no doubt sewn carefully and lovingly onto the bag. So did Judith Cotterell hold her bag in such a way that it became the focus of attention more than her,her gait or her voice? Such was our tour that it made my boy-friend think of those he once fancied. Never mind those once living. The churchyard was big enough for me to escape notice. I walked down towards the seashore. There at the bottom I saw the remains of Ramsgate port – rafters, bars, and horizontal and vertically laid pipes and structures abandoned. It was a sorry state. I looked back towards The Grange. Pugin did not have a perfectly formed view of the sea when he got out of bed in the morning. Or for that matter, do the Landmark Trust guests who pay much money to spend a few days in his old property. But what with the grandiose quality of both church and house and indeed the sea, he must have felt dwarfed, as I did, by the mass of stone and water that surrounded him.
I continued to be uninspired. That is until I saw a sign on the church door by the graveyard that said ‘enter graveyard at own risk’. Yes, I could not help thinking that was what I had done this afternoon. Except that the sign was on the door which would be seen on entering the church, not the graveyard. I had in fact wanted to enter the church. But a lady, who was at the front entrance, had asked me if I wanted to go to the graveyard tour. And that is what she assumed. She had not made it easy for me to disagree. As we stood at the threshold, I heard chanting from within the church. It was made plain that I could not attend the service then as well. Too many church doors closed, too many officious custodians at the door. I could become even shyer about this church-going yet. I asked when I could visit the church. I was told tomorrow – but surely there would be services on then I thought. I persisted. What about in the week-day? Oh yes, that is fine, they said. But at what hour I asked? I was not able to keep returning to Ramsgate. Not for a closed door at any rate. Oh, 10-4 they said. At last. I received a definitive answer.
And so to Vale Square. A stunning square of large houses, all delightfully different, all gregariously Georgian or early Victorian. And all recently done up, I guessed, as many had been painted with the current craze for grey paint, matching the sea not so far away. We walked up one side to see the enclosed, gated area where the hope of an open church was. Another Pugin church. Now, besides, an over-grown garden with plants threading through the railings that surrounded the church. But there were two very closed doors and a church-yard without any graves in it. We walked round the other side and saw what preoccupations there were in Vale Square instead this Saturday afternoon. A small white van had drawn up outside one house, partly covered by tall bushes. A man, clearly the owner of the house was talking to the man of the van who it seemed was delivering wine as the vehicle’s doors were open. From a tall gateway, we heard the cries of children. And beside the pillar attached to the entrance the man had put down his tablet. There must have been a very important game on. Oh well, I thought. There was only one more church to visit today.
So on we went to the church of St. Laurence, now there but for the grace of God at the junction of three very dangerous and busy roads in north Ramsgate. This was one of the first churches built in what would have been the small hamlet of Ramsgate then. And now we beheld a very Victorianised version of the Norman original. This church is notable for the large stained glass east window, with small scenes devoted to the Life of St. Augustine, who, as the narrative goes, landed at Ebbsfleet in 597 AD in order to evangelise the pagan King of Kent – one King Ethelbert. His wife, Bertha was already a Christian. Maybe she called for some more help in persuading her husband to convert. Here too is the coat of arms of Queen Victoria nestling in the corner of the left pane. This is dated to 1902 and commemorates the fact that the Queen worshipped in the church when she was a child. Today, as it was Open House day, there was a tea urn and a welcoming lady sitting beside it, who asked me if I was local, as she offered me coffee! There were a few people seated at tables and chairs in one of the many areas of the church. As with so many churches I have seen lately, much of the interior is devoted to our temporal pursuits such as sitting, drinking, leaflet and sign reading, messages to distract, things to buy and the earnest hope that there were still spiritual messages to gain from. I was less than keen to engage with this woman after her direct question about whether I was local or not. For she then asked if I was local to Ramsgate. The question seemed to be associated with surprise, surprise that I would actually visit a church this day. Or even any day. So was my mood grey today? The woman in the other church could have asked me as many questions as I had time to answer. But I was in no mood for friendly interrogation today.
Outside an over-grown grave-yard. Swathes of ivy conquering and submerging the stone of the tombs and graves. Long-standing neglect of this extensive tract of land and its occupants. Had ancestors been forgotten by Ramsgate residents, or was the grave-yard indicative of the greater mobility of people from the Isle of Thanet over the years and those descendants who had no time to come by and visit. And what strange shaped covers. They reminded me of Egyptian tombs, as if the shape was meant to represent the shape of the body underneath. And even one end of the stone was upturned as if to represent un-modelled feet.
I presumed this sort of gravestone has a name, a history. These are notable enough to find out more. Is the tomb upright, slant, bevel or ledger? And what type of stone? Are they field-stones, granite, sandstone, marble? Of course St. Laurence was a martyr and was burnt to death on a grill in 258 AD. No stone for him. Just flame and pain. According to The Golden Legend, the legendary source for saints’ lives and deaths, after St. Laurence had been roasted on one side of the grill, he said, ‘That is fine, you can turn me over now’. The saint’s fiery death is fitting for Ramsgate. I read in the guide that the word Thanet, from Tanet, derives from tene – the ancient British word for fire from the warning beacons burning to alert the town to easy (or is that early?) invasion.
Still, Ramsgate town does not seem sure of whether to spell St. Laurence with a u or a w. The spelling changes are visible in the literature, signs and names that take this saint into the present day. The school here for example is spelt with a w. But then spelling is not a strong point in the church. I suggest that we should dedicate a saint to be a St. Apostrophe. Grocers’ signs seem to be partly responsible for this epidemic confusion. A notice advertising coffee mornings in the church say that they take place on Monday’s and that family’s are welcome. Well that is good, but apostrophes perhaps should not be so welcome!
Lest I end on a negative note, we must also remember that Augustus Pugin, this great architect associated with the town, said in 1844, ‘I would give anything to get to Ramsgate’. But I must get myself to London to write about more churches there.
This church going in 2015 inhabits desire, curiosity, timidity, contemplation, repression, customary friendliness and at times the opposite: loneliness, reaching out, assumptions, things unsaid, stories and narratives of old, gesturing, timings, moving,walking, weight, loss, gain, money, love and quite a bit of patience.