Brougham, Cumbria – St Wilfrid

We are parked on the north side of the A66 having visited St Ninian’s. We managed to turn right across the A66, and then turned left to go down into the village of Brougham. There is a car park opposite Brougham Hall, and the church is next to it. St Wilfrid’s Brougham – NY527284. The Betjeman Best Churches app – which has, sadly, since died when iOS11 updated my phone – said it was very special. Unfortunately it was severely locked and bolted, no welcome notices at all. However Clare did a bit of research and realised she knew the churchwarden, so we gave her a ring and went to borrow the key. I am very glad we did.

When I read the guidebook I read that in 1977 the parishes of Clifton and Brougham were united. 40 years later it is one of eleven. The website of the North Westmorland group is here – it is under development, so there isn’t any information about the church or the village. I think the church has a monthly service, but it did not feel very loved or cared for – sorry if that sounds rather brutal. Let’s enjoy the church, be amazed, then try to be positive about its future.

Lady Anne Clifford has been at work again. In her diary she wrote “This Summer I caused the Chappell at Brougham to be pulled down and new built upp again larger and stronger than before at my own charge and it was wholly furnished about the latter end of April 1659 for which God be praised”. It was built as a chapel of ease for parishioners living near the Hall. Within 50 years the next owners of the Hall removed the village, probably to Eamont Bridge, thus removing the congregation. For a while it was used as the village school – children were expected to walk 1½ miles in those days.

By the 1830s the estate was owned by Henry Brougham. He was a very successful solicitor who defended Queen Caroline when King George IV tried unsuccessfully to divorce her. He later became Lord Chancellor, and was raised to the peerage as 1st Baron Brougham and Vaux. He inherited Brougham Hall, pulled down most of the medieval and Tudor buildings, and built a magnificent house on the site. He is the one who put the imitation medieval brasses in the sanctuary at Ninekirks (the previous church we visited). His brother William shared the Hall with him, and became interested in Church furnishings. 1843-6 they started rebuilding the church.

Pevsner says “The interior is dark and baffling. Seated college-wise around a sunken centre, it is cram-full of carved woodwork and crusty stained glass. Both Brougham and Cottingham (the architect) were enthusiastic collectors of Continental spolia, but it is too easy to write this off as a purely C19 creation. … Carved panels and stall-ends are incorporated into C19 and older work like a mixed-up jigsaw”. Here we are looking east and west.

Let’s start at the west end and see what we can decipher. The organ case on the West Wall, the centre piece of which is now used as a reredos, is C15. The panel of gilded carvings are Flemish, representing St Martin, St George, the Adoration of the Magi, and probably St Ann and the Virgin.

Pevsner asks “What about the hall pew screen at the W end? This is a mysterious piece. It has closely set uprights, each jazzily carved in three sections with chevrons, spirals, flutes, diamond-shaped flowers, scales and leaves, linked at the top by highly stilted little cusped arches. In the spandrels, on both sides, delightfully inventive faces, figures and animals, all having to tumble or recline in order to fit the space.”

The Stalls and Pulpit have canopies “after those of c.1308 at Winchester Cathedral”. There is late Flemish work, a most wonderful mixture of wood, cherubs and leaves. The following day Clare entered the “photo of leaves” category at the village flower show – she won third prize!

This is the altar piece at the east end. C15 Flemish, I think. The original triptych or reredos is in the north transept of Carlisle Cathedra, it was removed there for safe-keeping – see my blog.

There’s more interesting woodwork – I’m running out of things to say, and given up trying to work out what’s what.

Also at the east end is an aumbry – the resurrection in all its glory.

The glass is slightly older than the wood – apparently.

Pausing to get our breath back we went over the bridge into the main part of the Hall.

The website says “Brougham Hall, just a mile south of Penrith, Cumbria, was built in the 14th century and has a fascinating history. Rescued from dereliction in 1985, today it is one of the largest country house restoration projects in England and is home to an array of arts and craft workshops and businesses.” On the website it says that the Chapel can be opened for special tours or events, but gives no indication that it is anything special. It is not mentioned on the publicity leaflet at all. Why, o why, is an amazing church like this, next to a tourist attraction, always locked, and what can be done about it?

The house has been rescued from dereliction, so can we rescue the church before it becomes derelict? The Church of England is putting all its focus on “mission” and Carlisle diocese has the strapline “Growing disciples”, but when you’ve got what I suspect must be a tiny and tired congregation, how do you do that? (I’m struggling to do that with two large (by Cumbrian standard) congregations). One service a month with a handful of people is hardly going to get the zing back. Can you get a group of eleven churches to care for each other, when there are eleven lovely church buildings that all need TLC, and more than eleven communities that need work? Is it any wonder that so many Christians have given up on their local parish church and drive to something more exciting – often in an industrial unit or a hall that someone else looks after.

So – do we flog the church and its furnishings off? After all, it’s only a building. Or do we hand St Wilfrid’s over to the Churches Conservation Trust like its neighbour down the road? Their website says they need £1.5 million to care for the churches they’ve got already – they’ll need a few more million if we give them all the important churches that communities can no longer care for. Do we ask those who restored the house, and now run it as commercial businesses, to take the church under their wing too? – although it’s unlikely to earn anyone much money.

I think most churches can simply be left open (although I have failed to persuade one of my PCCs of this), but this one can’t. Too much of value inside. So someone needs to hold the key, check those who borrow it, keep an eye on security – a big responsibility, who will take it on? Ideally we’d say the church was open two or three times a week, and have a couple of people on duty. I tried to open one of mine three afternoons a week this summer and, despite a congregation in the 50s, found we were struggling to get volunteers, especially on Sunday afternoons when people would be most likely to visit. Nothing puts visitors off like being told a church is open, then finding it locked.

Could somebody, perhaps working with English Heritage or the Tourist Authority, put together a funding proposal to pay for a couple of summer people, employed full time Easter to September to ensure that, say, five churches could be open at set times through the week? Or could we come up with a scheme – cheap rent on a cottage in the Lakes in return for two or three days a week acting as church custodians? Are there people who would take early retirement and be happy to do that? (Me, me, choose me).

I went on the Carlisle Diocese site and found they have a page on Tourism – here. You have to dig a little to find it – after all, we don’t want our buildings advertised on the home page, do we? It has lots of wonderful church trails – get them out there and inspire people to visit.

I despair at this paragraph:

“The primary function of all churches, whether pre-Norman or present day, is as places of worship; and it is hoped that visitors will spare some time from admiring the structure of the buildings to join the local congregations at their services”.

Yes, it would be lovely if you join the local congregation – the locals will (I hope) be encouraged by your presence, and you will (I hope) find a wonderful friendship. But please remember it is not their service, it is part of the worship of all creation. You are part of that worship, that rhythm of creation, and you can worship God when the building is empty. You can, and will, find God in a holy place. The job of the Church is to ensure you are welcomed in.




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One Response to Brougham, Cumbria – St Wilfrid

  1. Gordon Ridley says:

    Thank you for your most interesting items, the detail is fascinating. Yesterday, Thursday 12th I went with Adrian, whom you have met, on a walk starting at Milbourn. Excellent walk and I suggested that we eat our sandwiches at the end of the walk instead of part way through, he agreed and we went into Melbourne church yard where there is good seating. Naturally I looked at the two resting places of the boys and was pleased to see that they are well cared for. Next Tuesday evening the choir is singing at that lovely church for Harvest Festival, I particularly like the choir arrangement as it means I can hear the supranos very well. I read Hannah’s blogs each day, she’s still my favourite Director of Music. Very best wishes, Gordon.

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