Three or four times each day I walk past the church of St Mary Magdalene in the centre of Richmond. The paths that run through its cemetery are part of my route to almost everywhere. In one form or another, a church has been there for nearly 800 years. However, despite my love of old buildings, I have always seen this one as both sombre, with its overpowering black flint bell tower straddling the main entrance, and unwelcoming, with its ten large arched windows along the length of its sides glazed with frosted (obscure) panes of glass through which it has been impossible to see what is going on inside. On most days I would hurry by – it was a building with next to no warmth!
Then things changed. Four years ago platforms were erected under the windows, security fences appeared around the site and, one by one, the 2000 or so opaque panes were removed from the windows and their leading was repaired and then filled with new, clear, shimmering, individually-cut panels. The overall effect was extraordinary. Now filled with a glass with a slightly uneven ‘watery’ surface, not only do the windows shimmer, but the inside of the church is now visible. Moreover, when the lights are on, the nave with its columns and chandeliers, is inviting.
And there was more to come. A new side doorway was built using specially manufactured red-coloured, precision-cut, ‘Victorian’ bricks which, for the arch, were all slightly wedge-shaped. In keeping with the Victorian brickwork, the lime putty jointing between the bricks was pencil-thin. For me, just recalling the care, skill and endeavour expended on the new doorway was a treat, and when it was eventually finished, walking through it felt almost regal.
Next the church floor was tackled. The flagstones together with the occasional ledger (inscribed) floor stones in the two wings and the central nave were raised and the earth, rubble and building infrastructure below were removed. The hunt was on to find evidence of the church’s age, to check for buried relics and to make way for new, underfloor heating – the old heating was ineffective and inefficient.
In the excavation, the lead linings of ten coffins, some of them for children, were unearthed, but nothing was discovered to indicate precisely when the original church was built. When the investigations were over, the new heating pipes were plumbed in and covered by a floor of Purbeck limestone slabs plus correspondingly elegant tiles. Finally the old pews were replaced by new, lighter, oak seating.
I know all these details because, on my walks each day I observed the activity in and around the church with almost obsessional zeal. The delivery and removal of materials, the erection of scaffolding, the contents of various wheelbarrow loads, and the changes in the building itself were all noted, as were the comings and goings of personnel. I would often go into the church to ask questions and check on progress with waves of artisans appearing and disappearing as the project advanced. Importantly, in all these changes there was one intriguing constant.
At the very start of the work I began to notice a face new to me wandering in and around the church. Indeed, with his smile, his rubicund complexion and his silvery hair and beard he was unmissable. Often I would pass him on the path leading up from the High Street or down from the paper shop, or see him looking up attentively with others at different aspects of the building. Most days I also noticed him either enter or leave the church itself.
Inquisitive to know more, after months of observation I introduced myself and so it was that I met Peter. As the Parish Architect it was he, a modest, quiet man, who was key to formulating the original design details for the restoration and who then had responsibility for managing and overseeing the changes.
Gradually I discovered how very central he was to the project. It was as a result of his experience and know-how that the replacement glazing was so wonderful, the new brickwork so perfect, the excavation undertaken with such care and the new tiles and paving so appropriate. He was also responsible for meeting the budget. When all of the trimmings are completed, the project, which also included a new roof over one wing, new toilets, and a renovated central stone arch, will have cost around £2.2million. The building has been looked after well, and with no compromises.
Over a cup of tea last week and with the major work now done, I congratulated Peter on making the building so useable and inviting. As I see it, he has negotiated an investment whose benefits could last for centuries. That is some legacy!
For help with this blog, I would like to thank Peter, Rohan and Vivien.