Two things stand out: the sheer size of the church, and especially its massively buttressed tower which feels like something out of the Cornish space programme, and the use of killas stone whose regularity and pointing makes the whole ensemble appear C19.
In many ways it is C19, however for, as a leaflet makes clear, ‘virtually every stone in the building was re-cut by Street’ in 1862 ‘so that to a degree what is seen is in some ways a C19 facsimile of the C13 or C14 original.
The interior is tall and, without any side aisles, feels narrow. This effect is relieved by the cream-coloured plaster and general lightness.
Entering St Michael’s is like entering the set of Kind Hearts and Coronets for it has become a monument to the Boscawen family whose memorials cover almost every possible wall space. One can almost feel the shade of Dennis Price wondering which Boscawen (played by Alec Guinness of course) to remove next, over-awed by their accomplishments and achievements.
One of the earliest is Hugh who reclines uncomfortably on his elbow at the far west end. Close by is the great Admiral who gets a bust by Rysbrack on a memorial by Adam, protected by a too-close iron railing.
The Admiral’s wife Hon Frances (d Feb 1805 aged 86 thus narrowly missing the Battle of Trafalgar) is on the wall opposite. After the usual explanation of her Christian virtues, there is an extract from Boswell’s Life of Johnson: ‘Her manners are the most agreable (sic), and her conversation the best, of any lady of whom I ever had the happiness to the acquainted.’ Why does she feel like a cross between Margaret Rutherford, Judy Dench, and Alastair Sim in drag?
The church originally had three chantry priests and so the two transepts have separate altars (a third is apparently up in the tower). Each has a sepulchre and three sedilia much repaired by Street, a small door to nowhere and a gothic stone grid, one of which has been taken over by yet another memorial. All this takes some disentangling, not helped by the orientation of the pews which face the church and not the side altars.
The altar slab in the North transept is a lovely stone slab with five crosses, found incorporated into the floor and replaced by Street.
There is much to enjoy: the lectern carved by Belgian refugees; several brasses (look under the scruffy carpets); the window glass, the re-used oil lamps; the carved regal figures; but perhaps not the Victorian pulpit. The font is probably a C19 replacement. What looks like the original is in the porch harbouring an empty plant pot.
The empty plant pot was not the only thing to destroy the harmony of the church. As well as this, we noted the palm cross left over from Easter (we visited in June), the Christmas tree stand and decorations in one transept, the Christmas crib in the other, and some mid C19 bibles and prayer books whose covers were falling off as they sat on a stone-dusty shelf. All needed new homes.
We did not spot until we were leaving the bossy notice in the porch saying that photographs inside or out were only allowed with written permission of a Canon at the Cathedral. It was too late.
- Consecration stone on the North Chancel wall says 1261
- Porch C13-C14
- Transept may be C14 rather than C13
- Rebuilt 1863-5 by Street
- Stained glass by Morris and Burne-Jones
- As well as featuring in Keeping Mum, the church itself was used in About Time.