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Blandford’s crowning glory

The centrepiece of Blandford’s re-building after the town’s disastrous fire of 1731 was the church of St Peter and St Paul, the crowning glory of the careers of its architects, the Bastard brothers. Over the last few decades, however, its visible deterioration has been the cause of much concern, but now a major project has been launched to revive the building. Tony Burton-Page reports on an ambitious scheme which will take at least seven years and need £3 million.

The centre of Blandford Forum is described in Nikolaus Pevsner’s The Buildings of England as ‘one of the most satisfying Georgian ensembles anywhere in England’. At its heart is the church of St Peter and St Paul, and there can be few who have passed through the town and not been impressed by this magnificent building. But over the last decade it has become more famous for its decay than its beauty, causing comment and controversy in the media: a lack of attention in recent generations has left it looking a neglected shadow of its former glory. So the PCC has launched the campaign to raise the necessary funds for its restoration, which have been estimated to be as much as £3 million. It has been named the Cupola Project – a reference to the church’s most prominent feature, the cupola which tops the building and which has come to be a symbol of the town. Indeed, it is the very visible sorry state of the cupola which has brought the condition of the whole building to the attention of the general public.

The imposing facade of the church of St Peter and St Paul in Blandford. The monument to the 1731 fire is in front, and behind the parish notice board can be seen the obelisk in memory of the Bastard brothers, who designed and built the church.

Ironically enough, the cupola was not even part of the original design. The brothers John and William Bastard had been placed in charge of the re-building of Blandford after the devastating fire of 1731, which destroyed the entire centre of the town. They completely re-built the Market Place: every building was new, hence its stylistic coherence. The new church was on the site of the old medieval one, and it was intended to be a statement of Georgian grandeur, complete with a spire on the 80 foot high western tower, which, according to John Bastard’s drawing, would have added another 70 feet to the structure. But the money ran out (‘there is no new thing under the sun’, as Ecclesiastes puts it) and in 1758 a wooden cupola, adding a mere 25 feet in height, was used instead. It was almost certainly the work of Nathaniel Ireson, an architect of Wincanton who had already worked on Stourhead House. Despite this respectable pedigree, John Bastard was disgusted by this ‘temporary wooden structure’ and commented that ‘it will keep neither the wett nor the water out’ – perhaps a little stern considering it has lasted for some two-and-a-half centuries: it was only poorly executed repairs to damage from a lightning strike in the 1960s which brought about its present plight. There are many who think that the cupola is more in keeping with a Georgian structure than a traditional stone spire would have been.

The church was extended in 1895 by the interpolation of a chancel

Whatever the Bastards thought, their church is today recognised as being the finest Georgian church outside London. It took six years to complete, being eventually opened for worship on 8 April 1739. The cost was £3092, a huge sum at the time, even though for the main constructional work the brothers had attempted to economise by using a soft Wiltshire green sandstone (probably from Tisbury or Chilmark) with its natural bedding plane set vertically instead of horizontally, thereby reducing the masonry costs. They used the more durable Ham Hill and Portland stone for their typically elaborate dressings, such as quoins, window frames and pilasters, but unfortunately the sandstone used elsewhere has been less effective and there has been evidence of its flaking for many decades, although it is only recently that it has become so noticeable. The repercussions of the Bastards’ cost-cutting are echoing louder than ever in the
21st century.

This close-up of rotting timberwork on the south-eastern corner of the cupola shows that it is near to a state of collapse

But they did not stint on the interior, which Pevsner finds ‘exceptionally fine’. At first the eye is drawn to the magnificent Portland stone columns with Ionic capitals which support a superb vaulted ceiling with decorative groins. And then there is the woodwork – masses of it, from the boxed pews to the pulpit (designed by Sir Christopher Wren, originally for the church of St Antholin in London) to the ornately carved Mayor’s Chair, made in 1748 for the use of the Bailiffs of the Borough of Blandford – John Bastard himself occupied it in 1750 and 1752. The organ and its gallery are later additions, though: it was not until 1794 that the organ built by George Pike England was installed. The story goes that it was originally intended for the Savoy Chapel Royal in London but proved to be too large – which would account for the carving of the Prince of Wales’s feathers above the towers of the organ. Whatever the truth, it is a fine instrument, admired by organists all over the world.

The east end of the church before the extension of the chancel in 1895. The galleries above the aisles were removed in 1971 - Pevsner calls this ‘a visual blessing’.

The Victorians, as was their wont, made plenty of changes and additions, the most extraordinary of which was the addition of a chancel in 1895. Originally the nave ended with a small apse at the east end. With great ingenuity, this apse was moved back on jacks and rollers by a distance of 25 yards and a new chancel was interpolated in the gap. The whole project took almost a year to complete; the skill of the builder, Charles Hunt, was such that the join is seamless. The 19th century also saw a reduction in the height of the box pews (they were lowered by eighteen inches) and the addition of galleries to the north and south of the nave so that all those who wanted to attend could be seated; but a century later congregations had become considerably smaller, so in 1971 the galleries were removed – which Pevsner calls ‘a
visual blessing’.
Other additions include the Julian Chapel to the north aisle (now used as a crèche), the vestry and parish office to the north of the chancel and the conversion of the west ends of the aisles into a reception area and a kitchen. So the church is different in many ways to the one the Bastard brothers knew, although they would undoubtedly recognise it today: the centre of Blandford has changed remarkably little over nearly three centuries. But they would almost certainly be distressed by the present state of their church.

An unusual shot of Blandford church: this is the top of the chancel added in 1895

They would not be alone: more and more voices have registered their concern in recent years. So on 29 June this year the PCC launched the Cupola Project – thus named because, despite the scheme’s intention to restore the whole church, the cupola is the most visible sign of its decay. In fact, the amount needed to restore the cupola is a mere 12% of the total which architects have estimated the restoration will cost: a staggering £3 million. But a glance at their shopping list explains this sum, for it covers re-roofing, replacing lead gutters, re-wiring, redecoration, and repairs to plaster, stonework and windows – not to mention the levelling and raising of the floor, which has to be done to comply with the Disability Discrimination Act.
The Chairman of the Project is Sara Loch, a Churchwarden and a former Mayor of Blandford. She is a passionate admirer of the building and is as distressed as any outsider by its present sad state. ‘We hadn’t realised quite how bad it was, because so much of the deterioration is hidden from view. For example, we discovered that one of the hoppers which collect rainwater from the gully drains on the roof had split, and so water had been running down the outside wall for years and no-one had realised it until it finally came through and was seen on the inside. We knew several years ago that a big restoration project was inevitable, but then the old Parish Rooms behind the Old Rectory were condemned because of their asbestos content and had to be demolished and replaced by a new Parish Centre. The PCC gave that top priority because of the need for two spaces for the Church to use. We couldn’t run two big projects simultaneously, so the restoration project had to be put on the back burner.
‘Well, the Parish Centre is now complete after four years, but in that time there’s been further deterioration to the fabric of the church, so now the Cupola Project is top priority. It’s going to need a massive injection of funds, and there’s no way that even Blandford can raise £3 million with church events and coffee mornings alone. For instance, last May we held a festival called “A Sense of Awe”, with concerts, children’s workshops and arts and crafts – a big event involving a lot of hard work, and it raised £2000. That’s a terrific result – but it’s less than one per cent of the money we need. So we’re hoping for help from bodies like English Heritage, the Heritage Lottery Fund, the Historic Churches Trust – as well as all the local input, and we’ve re-launched the Friends of Blandford Forum Parish Church. Gail Del Pinto, the other Churchwarden, is helping me with the fundraising – but we’d love more people to come on board with us. We’re appealing to anyone who’s interested to come and help us, because the more people who get involved, the quicker things will happen!’

To join the Friends of Blandford Forum Parish Church, email friends@bfpc.org.uk
To contact the Church, phone 01258 456260 or email office@bfpc.org.uk

 

picture credit

3. John Turnbul

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