I come from a religious family and every Sunday my parents would take me to church. As my father was also very interested in architecture, wherever we went on holiday we were church tourists. I probably visited hundreds of churches in my youth, so when I came to create a church for The Little Church by the Sea I had plenty of examples to draw upon.
The biggest inspiration for Cass’s church was the church of St. Stephen, Fylingdales. Built in 1822 and largely unchanged since it was replaced by an even newer church in a more convenient location the 1870s, this little old church was left behind. Walking into old St. Stephens is like stepping back in time, as if the congregation of 150 years ago have just left.
It’s a church of almost puritanical simplicity compared to the colour and richness of many Victorian churches of my experience. It’s light and bright, packed with box pews and a gallery, as well as a huge triple-decker pulpit. The seats in the pews all face towards the pulpit in the centre of the church rather than towards the altar, which intrigued me – the small altar almost feels like an afterthought rather than the focus of the service.
It’s a church of words rather than images, the words of the preacher and the words of the ten commandments on either side of the altar. There are no stained glass windows, no carvings, no paintings of saints. The only “art” that I noticed were the maidens garlands themselves and two coats of arms – the King’s and the arms of local gentry which would be carried, like the maiden’s garlands, in a funeral procession.
It’s a church of names, a church of the community – names of those who donated money to the church, names of those who served in the village lifeboat. I had hoped to find the names of the families who prayed there painted on the doors of the box pews, but these pews are numbered. Outside, the churchyard is crammed with gravestones, tumbling over each other like the cottages in the village, memorials to those who lived and died in the village – or out at sea. And in the summer, rather than try and cut the grass between the gravestones, sheep really are employed as lawnmowers!
But more than anything, it’s a church of memories.
Old St. Stephen’s Church is in the care of the Churches Conservation Trust.