English Church Architecture.
CHEADLE, St. Giles R.C. (SK 008 432),
(Bedrock: Carboniferous Westphalian Series, mixed deposits from the Lower Coal Measures.)
The model church by the foremost leader of the Gothic Revival,
Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin (1812-52).
Cheadle is an unprepossessing town, yet here, on 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 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 included. The exterior is easier to describe 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 (61 m.). The style is Second Pointed (Decorated), 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 intended 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 the S. aisle 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 excessive and doomed to failure since every feature and surface is stencilled, gilded, carved, tiled, or decorated in some other way. The five-bay nave arcades consist of arches bearing wave mouldings supported on octagonal piers but it is the painting and stencilling of them that is remarkable. (See the N. arcade, above left, and the two detailed views of the S. arcade, above right and below left.) The S. chapel (the Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament) has a stone vault, which is also lavishly painted (as seen below right). It is entered through polished brass gates made by John Hardman & Company of Handsworth, and has an alabaster altar which is essentially a scaled-done version of the high altar. The chapel is architecturally balanced on the opposite (north) side of the chancel by a sacristy of the same length, which is roughly two-thirds that of the chancel and leaves the sanctuary to project beyond.
The nave is five bays long: the roof is stencilled and has purlins halfway up the pitch with wind braces above and below (as shown below left). The chancel roof is appropriately richer and panelled in three ascending tiers, painted green and gold with carved bosses at the junctions of the purlins and principal rafters, and prominent encircled quatrefoils at the intersections of the minor ribs (as illustrated 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, while diagonally opposite across the building, a Lady Chapel was created at the E. end of the N. aisle (i.e. immediately west of the sacristy), and an exceptional altar and reredos, designed to fit this space (below left). The work was executed Thomas Roddis (d. 1845), who undertook the majority of the sculptural work in the church and lived just long enough to bring it to completion. The pulpit (below right) is also his, as is the high altar, and probably the figures of SS. Mary & Peter above the magnificent rood screen (shown in the second photograph below). Surmounted by a loft with an ornate gilded cornice, openwork quatrefoil panels in the parapet, and openwork battlements above that, it is divided into three panels on either side on the central aisle, with elaborate Decorated tracery.
Roddis carved the pulpit (below left), 'out of a single block of stone' (Michael Fisher, St. Giles' Church, Cheadle, Stoke-on-Trent, Urban Vision, 2012, p. 11); remarkably, since it stands between the nave and the Lady Chapel, the north face of the drum was also employed to house a piscina and credence shelf for use in the chapel. However, Roddis was not responsible for the astonishing triple sedilia and adjoining piscina in the S. wall of the chancel (below left), nor for the Easter sepulchre opposite (below right), which are the work of George Myers (1803-75), 'who undertook so much of Pugin's building and carving elsewhere' (Michael Fisher, Pugin-land, Stafford, M.J. Fisher, 2002, p. 97).
Yet all these items had first to be designed by Pugin of course, and this herculean task came on top of his even greater labours for Charles Barry, for whom he was designing all the significant furnishings and fittings for the new Houses of Parliament simultaneously under construction, besides the various other commissions which came his way from time to time. Here at Cheadle alone, Pugin personally designed the stained glass in all the windows (which was manufactured by William Wailes of Newcastle-upon-Tyne) and the encaustic tiling patterns on the floor. He also designed the iron gates and screens, the paintwork and stencilling patterns everywhere, and all the woodwork in the nave and aisles (see the N. aisle benches, below left, and the little table, below right). No detail was beneath his notice. Little wonder he burnt himself out at the age of just forty.
In return, Pugin's legacy includes this most extraordinary tour-de-force in Victorian church decoration to be found anywhere in the country. It presents a show that can only properly be appreciated on a visit an which it is almost impossible fully to imbibe.