St Mary's Church - The Building
The village of Welwyn is near the site of a large Roman settlement around the ford which crosses the River Mimram on the road from Verulamium (St Albans) to Camolodunum (Colchester). There was probably a church building in Saxon times in Welwyn for, in 1986, archaeologists found Saxon Christian burials just north of the present building, but the first records of a church date from 1190. By C18 Welwyn had become an important posting location on the Great North Road with Dr Edward Young, the poet, as Rector. Throughout at least 900 years the Church of St Mary’s has remained at the centre of the village, which, unlike many other surrounding villages, has not moved during the period. During this time the church building has grown and evolved to meet the worshipping and social needs of the community as a whole.
The present church building, which is Grade II listed, is within the Welwyn Conservation Area just north of the modern crossing of the Mimram. It forms an attractive visual end to the High Street at the point where roads to the north and east diverge. The church is set in its churchyard, which has not been used for burials since 1882, bounded on the south and west by a hedge with gates and a C19 low brick wall and railings which are listed Grade II. The churchyard was extended eastwards in 1858 by the inclusion of Anchor Pightle, a small parcel of land previously occupied by the first school in Welwyn, founded by Dr. Edward Young in 1755.
The northerly part of the churchyard, with its historic memorials, is now the site of Church House, a new building constructed to the highest standards which provides meeting rooms, a kitchen and toilet facilities for the congregation and the community. Completed in February 2007 it was designed by Barry Roberts RIBA. The southerly and easterly parts of the churchyard provide the main visual aspects of the church from the village. The main entrance to the church is along a pathway to the south door and to the east a memorial garden has recently been created providing opportunity for rest and quiet reflection.
Unfortunately for the antiquarian, perhaps, but fortunate for the villagers, St Mary’s church has had rich and generous patrons, in particular the Wilsheres of the Frythe. Consequently in the last 160 years the church has been so remodelled and rebuilt as to obscure every external trace of the original structure. The Wilshere family was well known for its use of Chronograms, Latin inscriptions in which a date is hidden, using letters read as Roman numerals. There are two examples of this interesting eccentricity on the outside walls of St Mary’s.
The present chancel was built in the C13, probably on the site of the Saxon chapel. The nave (now 22m×6m) built at the same time, was much altered in C15 and again in the C20 when it was extended westward by 6.5m. The south aisle and porch were built in C15 and reinforced in C19 when what is now the St Nicholas Chapel was built over a portion of the graveyard. A memorial in the chapel records the names of those whose graves were covered. The north aisle was added to the nave in C19 and was widened and lengthened in C20. A major C20 rebuild added the vestries on the north side, raised the nave roof pitch to match the chancel and rebuilt the tower. The C19 works, in the Gothic Revival style, were carried out under the direction of the architect Sir Arthur W Blomfield, while the final rebuilding carried out in 1910-11, was designed by his son, Charles J Blomfield.
The present tower, St Mary's third, built in 1910, is a brick structure faced in flint, with a crenellated ashlar top and carved stone gargoyles. There are eight bells hung on an iron frame, seven of them modern and one recast in 1760 and a tower clock, built by John Thwaites of Clerkenwell in 1803, which was refurbished and installed in the rebuilt tower in 1911. The nave roof, together with the chancel, chapel and vestry roofs are covered in plain tiles, with a C15 Sanctus bell above the priest’s vestry. The roofs of the aisles and tower are lead covered. All the walls are faced in flint with stone dressings and, together with the regular stone buttresses, present a unified whole.
Most windows date from C19 with tracery based on both decorated and perpendicular styles. On the west gable of the nave is a C16 window in the perpendicular style, re-installed into the extended nave in 1910, while the east window replaces three Early English lancets which were in a poor state following a fire in the chancel in 1952.
Approaching from the High Street, the church sits foursquare to the street, with the glass doors of the south porch inviting the passer-by to enter across the open churchyard. This is a very successful introduction of simple modern detailing into historic fabric.
On entering the porch, and stepping down into the church, one of the best loved features of the building is displayed, the lightness and brightness of its interior. Most of the interior is in view from the entrance, pointed arcades rise from octagonal columns, those to the north having been rebuilt in about 1910 to match the C15 south arcade. Directly opposite, below an arch of the north arcade, is the font, installed in 1987 in oak and stone, while the former baptistery beneath the tower at the west end of the south aisle has been recently converted to become the parish office.
Through the use of glass doors and walls, sound relayed from the church and 'foldaway' office equipment, the office space is also used as a refuge for parents with restless children who, themselves, can continue to follow the service. The underside of the roofs in the church are plain boarded and stained generally, although the chancel and chapel ceilings are decoratively painted. Floors have stone aisles with woodblock beneath pews.
The nave altar takes a simple form, set beneath the chancel arch on a carpeted platform with removable communion rail. The choir pews have been relocated to the north aisle, adjacent to the organ leaving the chancel space fairly open.
On the north wall of the chancel can be seen the C15 rood screen and nearby part of a C12 arch, while on the south side of the sanctuary is a double piscina from the decorated period. A single piscina of similar date can be seen in the south wall of the south aisle.
The high altar is in oak with fielded panels and riddel frame while the altar of the chapel is ornately carved. The C19 pulpit is of carved oak on a stone base with an oak tester of similar design. The lectern is of oak and freestanding, possibly C20. Pews are of varnished pitch pine, the lightness of which assists the interior. The Rector’s vestry is panelled with stained oak taken from the box pews which were removed in 1870.
There are memorials spanning several centuries in the church, the older incorporated into the 1910-11 rebuilding but, unfortunately, some were lost in a fire in 1952. A floor slab in the chancel marks the place of the re-burial of the Saxon remains found north of the present church. The window glass is mainly C20 with the principal exceptions of the Clayton and Bell windows to the chapel east wall (1869). The ‘Benedicite’ east window, depicting Christ in majesty flanked by the four seasons in pictorial form, is an elegant replacement following the 1952 fire and is highly regarded. The glass was designed by a St Alban’s maker, Christopher Webb.
The tracker-action organ was built by Nicholson’s in 1991 and is considered a very good example in its class. Most of the cost of the instrument was raised in one day by gifts from the congregation and community in memory of Rector Canon Terence Wenham.