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English Church Architecture -



CHEADLE, St. Giles [R.C.] (SK 008 432)     (April 2018)

(Bedrock:  Carboniferous Westphalian Series, mixed deposits from the Lower Coal Measures)


Cheadle is an unprepossessing town, yet here, at a cramped corner between two rather dingy streets, rises arguably the finest of all Gothic Revival churches, designed in 1840 by A.W.N. Pugin (1812-52) and erected 1841-6 at the expense of John Talbot, the sixteenth Earl of Shrewsbury, who lived five miles away at Alton Towers. Constructed of red Hollington Stone from the Triassic Sherwood  Sandstone Group, which was dug from the village of that name, four miles to the southeast, it dominates its surroundings, the parish church not excluded. The exterior is more amenable to description than the interior, for it is formed, in essence, of a chancel with a S. chapel and two-storeyed N. sacristy, organ chamber and vestry, an aisled nave with N. & S. porches, and an exceptionally tall tower (seen left, from the west), supported by angle buttresses and surmounted by a slender broach spire with crocketed ribs at the angles, which soars to 200 feet.  The style is Second Pointed, as shown by the window tracery patterns which include squashed reticulated tracery, cusped intersecting tracery, and a variant of curvilinear tracery, and by mouldings featuring prominent and repeated bands of ball flower.  Niches for statuettes occupy every suitable position, as befitting a church devoted for Roman Catholic worship, the most striking of which rise from the broaches at the corners of the spire and are open on three sides beneath surmounting crocketed pinnacles rising at two levels.  The spire is lit by a single tier of two-light, transomed, gabled lucarnes, set in the cardinal directions, and the bell-stage of the tower below is pierced by two, two-light  transomed openings in each wall, with side shafts and reticulated tracery.  A bell-cote for the Sanctus bell, open on all four sides and topped by another crocketed pinnacle, sits on the E. gable of the nave.  The sanctuary projects one bay beyond the S. chapel and sacristy, making the chancel three bays long in total.  The nave aisles are of lean-to construction, creating an awkward junction between it and the independently-gabled S. chapel, which is nevertheless of equal width. The church has no clerestory, thus making it evident that Pugin’s extraordinary interior decoration was meant to be seen by the light from the side windows only.  The S. porch has a ribbed tunnel vault with leaf carving and the Talbot hounds decorating the bosses.


 All this is impressive enough, but the astonishing richness of the building only really becomes apparent inside, where any attempt at a comprehensive description would be tedious and doomed to ultimate failure since every feature and surface is stencilled, gilded, carved or tiled, or decorated in some other way.  The basic facts are these.  The nave arcades consist of five bays bearing waves springing from octagonal piers (part of the N. arcade is shown above left, and part of the S. arcade, above right), the tower arch comprises five flat-chamfered orders to the responds, turning to wave mouldings at the springing, and the chancel arch has a complex profile supported  on semi-octagonal responds and a “Doom” painting above.  The nave roof is stencilled and has purlins halfway up the pitch with wind braces above and below (as illustrated below left), and the chancel roof is painted in green and gold and panelled in three ascending tiers, with carved bosses at the junctions of the finely moulded vertical and horizontal ribs (as seen below right).


The S. aisle has its westernmost bay of partitioned off by parclose screens to form a baptistry containing an elaborate font and font cover.  A chapel, additional to the chancel S. chapel, has been created at the E. end of the N. aisle;  a magnificent rood screen and loft support carved figures of SS. Mary and John (shown second below on the left);  and the pulpit (seen immediately below left), reredos behind the high altar, Easter sepulchre in the chancel N. wall, and tall, stepped sedilia in the chancel S. wall (immediately below right), all provide further opportunities for further decorative work, in every case of the most lavish kind.  Moreover, lest all this be taken for granted, every window, every side shaft, every section of wall, is also decorated, with each moulding, pier, or wall space treated differently to the others.


This obviously involved a herculean amount of labour from a man simultaneously working for Barry on a vast range of designs for the new Houses of Parliament which were simultaneously under construction, as well as a host of other commissions besides.  Pugin personally designed the stained glass in all the windows (manufactured by William Wailes of Newcastle-upon-Tyne), the encaustic tiling patterns on the floor, the highly complicated wooden font cover as well as the alabaster font itself, the pulpit, high altar (shown at the foot of the page) and reredos, and altar in the N. chapel (all of which were carved by Thomas Roddis) albeit not the N. altar piece, which is sixteenth century Flemish work.  He also designed the iron gates and screens to the S. chapel, the stencilling patterns everywhere, and even the wooden benches in the nave and aisles (see the N. aisle benches, below right).  Altogether the church is, therefore, a tour-de-force which possibly only William Burges fully equalled (as, for example, at Skelton-cum-Newby, North Yorkshire, in 1871-8), though other art-architects would aspire to it (most notably Butterfield, Bodley, Sedding and Street).  The church can only be properly appreciated on a visit.  Unfortunately, it is almost impossible to photograph the church from the outside as the surrounding buildings completely preclude an unobstructed view from any direction.

( See Michael Fisher's excellent book, Pugin-land, pub. Michael J. Fisher, 2002, pg. 58 & pgs. 92-123.)