Sunday, 9 September 2012

Above Us Only Sky?

Two chapels, two towns, two Spitfires ...

It’s the Heritage Open Day weekend. On this weekend in September buildings that aren’t always open to the public throw open their doors for people to visit. It’s been going for some years now and is a crackingly good idea. I never miss it. Private houses, old mills, factories, churches, chapels and lots of other things besides open their doors for people to mooch around. It’s all run by volunteers and I’m told that the event has gone from strength to strength each year. I’m also told that our own region, North Staffordshire and South Cheshire, is one of the areas where it’s really taken off.

I can’t prove that, but even as an incomer, I’d like to think it’s true. I don’t think I’ve ever known one of these weekends where I haven’t been delighted or surprised by something new. Whether it’s been a Victorian mansion, a non-conformist chapel or the leaning church tower in Wybunbury, I’ve enjoyed them all. I bet you didn’t know that experts from Pisa came over to Wybunbury to learn how a Staffordshire man had propped up the church tower to correct the lean back in the 1700s?

I love it. People taking a pride in their heritage, in their built environment, in structures that mean more to them than bricks and mortar.

Take yesterday, for instance. We decided to bob down to Hanley to take a look around BethesdaMethodist Chapel, one of the stars of BBC 2’s Restoration programme back in 2003.

The unusual apse at the back of Bethesda
It’s open at various times throughout the year but we thought there’d be more of a buzz about the place this weekend. What a place!  I knew it was the largest non-conformist chapel outside London but the galleried interior is immense. A giant octagonal pulpit with twin-staircases projects into the body of the chapel and the acoustics are superb. Unusually for a Methodist chapel there is a crypt beneath where prominent members of the congregation were buried. There are memorials to local worthies and notable ministers around the walls. These were stolid, active, public-spirited people. I had to smile at the epitaph of one of the chapel officers, ‘enterprising in business’ and whose piety was ‘unostentatious’ and sincere. ‘Unostentatious’. Blunt, direct, straight-down-the-line. They didn’t mess about.

As we were exploring the vast interior of the chapel there was a sudden hubbub and vistors made for the main entrance and a side exit opened for the purpose. Word went round that a set of Spitfires were heading for The Potteries Museum just across the road. They’d arranged a fly-past for the Heritage Weekend. There’s a Spitfire on display inside the Museum, of course. Reginald Mitchell the engineer who designed the iconic fighter plane was born in Butt Lane near Kidsgrove.  Now some working Spitfires were heading our way.

We clambered down some broken steps into a brick-walled yard, the sound of approaching engines bouncing off the walls. We couldn’t tell which direction the Spitfires were coming from as the roar of the engines seemed to surround us. Across the road people were waiting on the steps of The Potteries Museum and a guard of honour in blue berets stood to attention. Suddenly, there they were, two Spitfires, one after another, so low you could see the light gleam on their cockpit glass. They swooped over the rooftops, banked and flew into the distance. The roar of the engines diminished then resumed as they hurtled back for a second pass. I’ve never seen a Spitfire in flight before and I was thrilled. Sure, I know it’s a weapon of war but they pack an iconic punch. There’s the local, Mitchell connection, of course, but also the continuing resonance of The Battle of Britain. 

We knew a Battle of Britain pilot when we lived in Leeds, a quiet, unassuming chap, a real gentleman, far from the ‘Yoicks! Tally-ho!’ cliché of popular depictions. He’d shot down six Luftwaffe planes. A friend once bluntly asked him, ‘Did you kill anybody?’
He dropped his head thoughtfully. ‘One doesn’t like to think so, but one must have done, of course.’

I thought of him, alone amidst the throb and roar of his machine, heading dutifully towards each encounter. I remembered him telling me, too, how he’d been sent up to Newcastle-upon-Tyne by train to break the news to a family of their son’s loss. It was the hardest thing he’d ever done. As the train neared his destination his heart sank further and further. A few months later, he had to make the same journey again, with news of the loss of the second son.

Holy Trinity RC church on London Road, Newcastle-under-Lyme is the polar opposite to Bethesda Chapel. You couldn’t imagine two places of worship more different in tone. One all tiered pews and confident pulpit, with a thin communion rail beneath. The other an eccentric construction of decorated blue Staffordshire brick. One dusty and devout, the other full of an almost Mediterranean light. They have lightened up the interior of Holy Trinity over the years. Old photographs show how cluttered and crepuscular it used to be. 

Holy Trinity, London Road, Newcastle-under-Lyme
It’s now all post-Vatican II with a forward-facing altar and fresh coats of paint. I confess that I am not a fan of RC kitsch, I prefer Orthodox iconography. In context, though, it has a kind of garish appeal. The whole of the RC Church seems to have undergone a good taste by-pass at some point in its history. It's part of its charm.

Holy Trinity has a lurid replica of the statue of Our Lady of Walsingham and various competent but uninspiring sculptures. It's light and airy though and has a strangely homely feel. The parish has a fascinating tale to tell. Holy Trinity was among the first RC churches to be built after Catholic Emancipation in 1829 and the first to be built on a main road. It’s first priest, Fr Egan, seems to have been a real character.

One of the things I like about Catholicism (and Orthodoxy come to that) is its matter-of-factness. They’re completely unapologetic and comfortable in their own skins. 

They’ve got part of the forearm of the Blessed Thomas Maxwell interred in the wall of the Martyr’s Chapel round the back. They make no bones about it. Groan ...

They ‘Expose’ the Blessed Sacrament in the Chapel for the faithful to venerate and also use it for the Sunday school. I imagined mischievous and screaming kids running around in the presence of a holy relic. We Prots are squeamish about all this stuff, of course, but I sometimes wonder whether we could learn from the everyday, kitchen-sink piety of our more Catholic brothers and sisters? They might not be as ‘unostentatious’ in their devotion as the Methodist chapel steward, but there’s something very grounded about it, in a different kind of way. I can imagine Fr Egan and the stolid burghers of Bethesda Methodist Chapel comparing notes even now and looking down and commenting on what the rest of us are up to. I hope they appreciate that people continue to care for the buildings they helped establish, and the faith they represent.

Two towns, two chapels – above us only sky? Or the same heaven overhead?

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