The church of the Holy Angels at Hoar Cross is one I had tried to get into before. The first time it was a summer’s day, but I did not manage to get inside until the rain highlighted the stark colours of a winter landscape and reflections shimmered on wet stone.
It is not the usual age for the churches we visit, being a mere babe of a place.I have to be honest, it was the name ‘Hoar Cross’ that had made me curious in the first place, indicating, I assumed, a place of some antiquity, so I was a little disappointed on my initial visit to find that the church is a Victorian edifice, but if Betjeman could call it a masterpiece, it had to be worth a visit.
The pink sandstone echoes the red brick of the Hall beside the church and the history of the two is intimately linked through the Meynell Ingram family… and the Ingram history I knew in part, having spent much time at their principal seat of Temple Newsam in Leeds. The Meynell family had added their surname upon inheriting through marriage the Hall at Hoar Cross.
The Hall stands close to the churchyard and I caught a glimpse of a very underdressed bather who seemed totally oblivious to the scurrying squirrels all around her preparing for winter. The house had been rebuilt in the 1860s by Hugo Meynell Ingram, who married Emily Charlotte Wood, daughter of the 1st Viscount Halifax. Hugo died just seven years later and Emily chose to build the church in his memory.
Emily engaged George Frederick Bodley with Thomas Garner, his partner, to build the church and the stained glass is by Burlison and Grylls. It is a grand building, carved with statues and medieval-style grotesques, with bands of Latin script running around the outside. The building was begun in 1872 and the church dedicated in ’76. Inside it is magnificent, almost out of place in the quiet of the Staffordshire hills.
Around the walls are the most ornate and detailed depictions of the Stations of the Cross that I have ever seen. They were made around 1890 in Antwerp. You cannot help but admire the detail and workmanship, though on a personal level I prefer the simpler ones that leave room for the realisations that come through contemplation. Here it seems as if the necessity for thought is obviated by the meticulous craftsmanship.
The font, too, is a towering affair, carved and gilded, like the vaulting of the Narthex … a small antechamber facing the altar down the length of the church to where the Rood sits atop the screen that separates chancel from nave.
Both within the chancel and Lady chapel, as well as in the grounds, are the tombs and memorials to the family from the Hall. A delicate filigree of stone covers every inch of the chancel with statues and carvings and they and the alabaster of the tombs themselves means that the chancel and chapel are kept locked behind their screens. I was not therefore able to look closely at the intricacy of the work, but contented myself with the zoom lens while a guardian dog watched from his master’s feet.
It truly is a splendid building, a testament to the stonemason’s art. Amongst the carvings too numerous to count, a St Michael took my eye… holding the Scales in which the Good and those destined for warmer climes were held. Though perhaps the most memorable moment for me was a purely natural one when I noticed the best fairy ring I have seen in many years behind the Calvary in the churchyard. My one regret, that I did not have the time left to go looking for the Gospel Oak a tree at least a thousand years old that I was told about by Julian Beach who knows it well.
The name Gospel Oak seems to derive from the fact that services were held at the tree on Rogation Sundays, but its history may go back a little further. Francis Redfern wrote in his 19thC History and Antiquities of the Town and Neighbourhood of Uttoxeter that “until Hoar Cross Church was recently built, funerals halted and set down the deceased, on their being conveyed to Yoxall Church for interment. With respect to a similar oak and custom near Penallt Church, Monmouth, Roscoe states. “Here is an evident continuation of the oak of Druidic and Celtic custom altered into Christian forms.” This oak at Hoar Cross seems also to have been one of the Copt Oaks with the top cut off to admit of a cross piece of wood being fastened at the apex to render the tree an object of Celtic worship. The circumference of the oak at the base is about 32 feet.” I can see I will need another trip…