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‘Worth being sick for’

Lilian Ladle and Ken Ayres visit St Stephen’s, Bournemouth

The exterior of St Stephen's
The exterior of St Stephen’s is relatively plain; the tower should have had an intricate spire

According to John Betjeman in 1952, ‘it was worth travelling 200 miles and being sick in the coach’ to view the inside of St Stephen’s. Located not far from the Square and the busy shopping centre in Bournemouth, it is said to be the finest church in the town. The church was built from public subscription to commemorate Alexander Morden Bennett, the first vicar of nearby St Peter’s. The foundation stone was laid a year after his death in 1881 and the church was completed in 1908. Bennett’s son, Alexander Sykes Bennett, who had been a curate at St Peter’s under his father, became the first vicar and ensured that the Anglo-Catholic tradition of the Church of England pioneered by his father was continued. The noted architect, John Loughborough Pearson, was commissioned to design a building which reflected the principles of Anglo-Catholic worship. Even minus the spire, which was intended but never built, St Stephen’s is the epitome of English Gothic revival which Pearson largely based on elements of early 13th-century French Gothic.

The building is best viewed from the east, where the windows, gables, roofs, tower and three small slender spires resemble a French rather than an English medieval church. Entrance is through a south porch and the baptistry is sited just inside the doorway. Set within an ironwork enclosure designed by the architect’s son, the font bowl is cut from a solid block of marble and its canopy in oak is an intricate replica steeple.

The view down the nave to the magnificent east end
The view down the nave to the magnificent east end

Stone vaulting is a particular feature of this church, as is the high triforium gallery above the nave arcades which runs around the building. Unusually, the aisles of the nave are double-vaulted. The interior is relatively plain and calm; however, the east end is without doubt the architectural and visual glory of the building. With a backdrop of slender, soaring columns and three stained glass windows, each of three lights, the 45-foot-long chancel is separated from the main body of the church by a fine wrought iron screen. This was also designed by Pearson’s son, as were the finely carved choir stalls of Baltic oak. A sumptuous floor which incorporates about 60 different types of coloured marble, some of them very rare (from Ireland, France, Sweden, Greece and Africa), extends throughout the choir and into the sanctuary. Here, within a semi-circular apse, is the high altar with triptych (or reredos) above. Both are carved, painted and gilded, the front of the altar bearing the adoration of the Magi and the triptych having a central crucifixion with the Virgin Mary and St John. Biblical figures with St Stephen and early bishops accompany them. An ambulatory runs behind the high altar: this feature is rarely seen in parish churches but is not uncommon in cathedrals.

 The marble pulpit
The marble pulpit carved with three New Testament scenes

To the left of the chancel within the north transept is the Chapel of Our Lady, again with a coloured marble floor; here at the altar, weekday masses are spoken. Benjamin Clemens carved the serene statue in alabaster of the Virgin and Child which stands within this chapel. A large rose window dedicated to the first vicar is a striking feature of the north transept. The stained glass windows in the church are particularly good and are reputed to be the finest in Bournemouth; they were made by the noted Newcastle-upon-Tyne firm of Clayton and Bell, probably the best Victorian ecclesiastical stained glass makers. On the left of the choir screen is a cream marble pulpit carved with New Testament scenes. Opposite is a gilded and painted statue of St Stephen, the church’s patron saint and the first Christian martyr, who is depicted wearing vestments derived from Roman dress. This 20th-century statue is by Martin Travers. The life and death of Stephen are charted in stained glass in the west window.

spectacular rose window
The stained glass is reputed to be the finest in Bournemouth; the windows in the north transept, including this spectacular rose window, form a memorial to St Stephen’s first incumbent

To the right of the chancel in the south transept is the Chapel of St Michael and the Holy Souls, otherwise known as the Calvary Chapel. The simplicity of this chapel contrasts with the other devotional areas of the church. A stone altar with a dark green marble inset is inscribed with a gold chi rho symbol, flanked by alpha and omega, signifying the first two letters of Christ’s name in Greek and the earliest beginnings of the Christian faith. The altar, which stands on a white and black marble floor, was placed here in 1964 and is a memorial to a much-loved incumbent. Above the altar is a crucifix which was originally located outside the church in the Calvary garden. Beyond the chapel and near the vestry is an unexpected gem, a framed 14th-century illuminated music manuscript containing part of the Candlemas service.

The 20th-century bronze Madonna at the west end of the north aisle
The 20th-century bronze Madonna at the west end of the north aisle

At the west end of each aisle are two statues of the Madonna. Placed near the porch door is a life-size bronze, made and gifted by sculptress Dianne Gorvin and dedicated in 1986. In a niche at the west end of the north aisle is a small painted statue of Our Lady of Walsingham; her feet rest on what appears to be a very large, contented frog! This however, represents ‘toadstone’, a fossilised fish jaw which symbolised the ‘uncleanliness of evil’.

Since 1997 the church has hosted a three-day May Festival when Anglican choral tradition and Christian heritage is celebrated. Initially organised to commemorate the life and music of Percy Whitlock, a former St Stephen’s organist and talented composer, the festivals are now an important fixture in the life of the church. The music is of a very high standard, attracting musicians, choirs and soloists from all over England.

The church is part of the Bournemouth town centre parish of St Peter, St Stephen and St Augustine. Father Robin Harger has been vicar of St Stephen’s since 1999 and is only the twelfth incumbent since 1881. Worshippers at this town centre church come from a wide area, attracted by the Anglo-Catholic liturgy and music, the inclusive welcome and the concise and often challenging preaching. A 21st-century element is a comprehensive website, www.ststephensbournemouth.org, with details of all aspects of the church, its parish and the music. The ‘Oxford Movement’ ethos which was instrumental in the foundation of this church 127 years ago still has meaning for church-goers today and architect Pearson’s building provides a magnificent and meaningful setting.

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