Weston's churches

PUBLISHED: 14:16 09 April 2009 | UPDATED: 10:20 25 May 2010

Victoria Methodist Church before the fire

Victoria Methodist Church before the fire

Copyright Archant Ltd

Some of Britain' s grandest Medieval church towers are found in Somerset, though not in Weston-super-Mare.

Bristol Road Baptist Church

Some of Britain's grandest Medieval church towers are found in Somerset, though not in Weston-super-Mare. Apart from Old St Nicholas on Uphill and St Martin's Worle, Weston's ecclesiastical buildings are largely lower league Victorian. At least this was the view generally held by architectural historians until fairly recently.

Both St Nicholas' and St Martin's Churches are truly ancient with definable Norman elements. Indeed they may well have arisen from earlier Saxon foundations. Although St Nicholas is no longer a parochial responsibility it is an important landmark and despite a nave roof lost to wind and rain its spiritual atmosphere remains intact. Whereas Uphill's Victorian villagers tired of the Sunday trek to church and built a new edifice on lower land, residents of Worle had no such problem and so St Martin's continues on active service hatching, matching and despatching as it has done for a thousand years.

Weston's medieval church above Grove Park, demolished in 1824

By 1824 Weston-super-Mare was developing hints of pretentiousness and wished for Sunday worship of a less rustic nature. The small medieval parish church, set on the hillside above the village, was lamentably razed to the ground making way for a new St John's to the design of Richard Parsley, a local farmer, teazel grower and Enclosure Award entrepreneur. Apart from a couple of windows re-set into a cottage behind Smith's Hotel and the stump of a preaching cross nothing is left to remind us of the previous millennium. Weston had "attitude" to history; still has!

Weston's growth coincided with increasing non-conformity, particularly after the railway arrived in 1841. Anglicans thought that by building a second church - Emmanuel in 1847 - specifically for the 'lower orders', it might stem interest in chapel worship. It didn't work and so began a tide of chapel building. Worship in those days was hugely competitive - congregation-v-congregation; church-v-chapel; high-v-low, even to the point of occasional public disorder and police intervention.

A frightening gargoyle on St  Martin's, Worle

Christ Church opened in the newly developing Montpelier Estate, followed by Holy Trinity in the well-heeled Shrubbery; both with spires - one fairly squat and dumpy, the other tall and gracefully slender. Whereas local architect Sidney Wilde was responsible for the never-to-be completed St Saviour's in Locking Road, Royal Academician George Bodley had been commissioned to build the stately All Saints with arguably the finest acoustics this side any cathedral.

Formal Methodism reached Weston in 1847 with the opening of a Wesleyan chapel at the junction of Regent St and St James St. The congregation grew to bursting point and by the end of the 19th century worshippers had decamped to a more commodious Victoria Methodist Church leaving their old chapel to become a temple of Mammon - Barclays Bank.

Old St Nicholas at Uphill

But Methodism wasn't then a single entity and different sects built competing chapels with limited life spans - Locking Road (Wyvern motorbikes), Boulevard (Saturley Garner), Burlington Street (Museum), Sunnyside Road (demolished), Hill Road (flats), Milton (funeral parlour), and Worle (community centre). Victoria was consumed by fire and rebuilt in 1936 in a decidedly 'High Chapel' style complete with a formidable though irrelevant tower.

There was an old independent chapel of 1830 vintage in High Street which on closure became Mr Thomas's ironmongery before conversion into Woolworth's. Worshippers had moved along the road into the Boulevard Congregational Chapel, another great piece of urban Gothic. Bombing destroyed this building and its post-War replacement serves today's United Reformed congregation.

High Street Chapel, site of Woolworths

Baptists arrived in Wadham Street in 1850 (now the Blakehay) and Bristol Road lower 12 years later. Here Weston's very own Hans Fowler Price seems to have added a minaret to his quirky and flamboyant interpretation of Gothic. Architects having fun with their holy creations; surely not?

Mid-19th century England had a problem with Catholicism - too "foreign" by far and so when in 1858 the 'Establishment' manorial Smyth-Pigott family gave money to built St Joseph's in Camp Road for the Roman Catholic community more than a few eyebrows were raised amongst Weston's largely Low Church and highly prejudiced population. The poor Bishop was advised to wear mufti as Weston's constabulary couldn't guarantee his safety and High Street shopkeepers displayed posters telling Catholic nuns to take their custom elsewhere! So much for the 'good old days'.

When the time came in 1929 to build Corpus Christi in Ellenborough Park, English Catholicism was viewed with decreasing suspicion and a more openly Italian style found favour.

St Paul's post-War rebuild by Clarence Park was perhaps the town's final architectural show of dominant ecclesiastical self-confidence. Nowadays new church buildings tend to encompass a variety of uses and, showing little external religiosity, might well have dropped off a supermarket's drawing board. But of course this begs the question what are churches for? Perhaps the Easter postbag will provide some interesting answers.

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