The best of Dorset in words and pictures

A sight to see

Louise Bliss talks about the long-awaiting resurrection of the Blandford church cupola

The competition-winning shot of the cupola entitled 'Tranquility' by Ian Ferris

The competition-winning shot of the cupola entitled ‘Tranquility’ by Ian Ferris

Almost irrespective of the angle from which you approach Blandford Forum, the cupola atop the parish church of St Peter and St Paul is often the first thing you see. It has been captured beautifully by Ian Ferris in a photography competition organised by the Cupola Project, a community group set up to support the church building during its regeneration, renovation and repair. The distinctive structure topping St Peter and St Paul’s church seems to have taken on a personality all of its own in becoming the symbol and name of the church project – although one local resident thought that cupola was a disease for which the group was collecting!
The church has been referred to as the finest example of a Georgian church outside London and Dr Joseph Elders from ChurchCare – a resource centre for Church of England buildings – said that he ‘believes St Peter and St Paul to be as important a church architecturally and historically as any other Dorset churches that are included in the Greater Churches group: Sherborne Abbey, Wimborne Minster and Christchurch Priory’.
St Peter and St Paul’s church and its crowning came into being during the rebuilding of much of Blandford Forum after the devastating fire of 1731. The first of many controversies associated with the creation of the church is the story behind who designed and built the cupola. Clues could be depicted in the portrait of William Bastard which now hangs in one of the upper rooms in the Corn Exchange. During the restoration of the painting, it was observed that William Bastard is possibly sporting a black eye and cradling a spire. The spire was believed to be his desired choice of design, but due to lack of funding it could not be carried out to the Bastard Brothers’ specification. The church may have been finished by someone other than the Bastards.

The rotten horror of what lay beneath the surface of the cupola's roof

The rotten horror of what lay beneath the surface of the cupola’s roof

The church was completed in 1739 and the cupola came a while after. The people of Blandford Forum must have been pleased to have their place of worship back, but some may not have been so happy about the clock’s return: the people of the town had lived without the clock chiming for many years as some folk could not cope with the noise!
Money, or the lack of it, may have hindered many developments and caused controversy during the last three centuries, yet the Victorian era found the church in a period of larger congregations, and numbers in attendance were at an all-time high. A gallery was installed due to a lack of seating to accommodate the needs of the people. Families during the Victorian period paid for pews and if the family were wealthy, they paid for their servants’ pews, too.
This Grade 1 listed building has had many challenges over the last 277 years and is now on the English Heritage Buildings at Risk register. Its fabric is long overdue a make-over and five years ago a multi-million pound project to renovate and repair the church was launched. Leading it is a dedicated committee made up of people from both church and community who are passionate about the building. The Cupola Project team Chair is Sara Loch. Sara says that ‘A turning point in the direction of the campaign came when the right people came together at the right time.’

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Before…

The project plans have been broken down into ten phases over a ten-year period. Originally, the cupola was discussed as being part of the last phase – the icing on the cake – but early on it was identified that the cupola would in fact need to be dealt with first, as emergency work was required to make it safe. When the first tenders came in, it became clear that the £250,000 budget originally discussed was not enough. Serious fundraising kicked in and vital funds were raised from various sources, the largest injection coming from the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF). Sara says, ‘Without the HLF we couldn’t have done it; they have been an excellent support and are brilliant at getting people engaged with spreading the word about heritage in the community.’

...and after the cupola's refurbishment. Note the Apprentice Bell back in position.

…and after the cupola’s refurbishment. Note the Apprentice Bell back in position.

Emergency work and the first two stages of restoration included the original wooden frame being replaced by a modern steel one. The Apprentice Bell has been re-united with its original home. In the past, the bell was rung in the town to signal the start and end of an apprentice’s working day. Whilst local people can recall it being rung in their lifetime, a decision has been made not to return to this tradition! What have been re-instated, though, are the scrolls on the cupola, which artist Annabelle Valentine has painted back on. Standing gleaming atop the refurbished cupola is the original weather vane, which was damaged by lightning in the 1960s, and which has undergone a dramatic facelift, including the replacement of its gold leaf.
The first phase in the building’s regeneration master plan is now complete and the work carried out to a very high standard. To celebrate, a community fun day and abseil was organised and the Cupola Project team were extremely pleased to report that they had raised over £6000: their single best community fundraising event to date. Blandfordians and the Cupola Project team are immensely proud of their gleaming new beacon of hope. But as Sara is keen to point out, ‘We must remember that this is just the beginning of a long journey.’

The work in progress with the scaffolding surrounding the tower and cupola of St Peter and St Paul's church

The work in progress with the scaffolding surrounding the tower and cupola of St Peter and St Paul’s church

Various events have been arranged to meet the needs of today’s community and also to raise funds. They have included concerts, plays, exhibitions and a truly moving opera that was enhanced by the church’s wonderful acoustics. The church was also involved in Blandford’s first ‘Festival of Words’ and has been host to political hustings. An activities co-ordinator is in place to drive future activities which will be essential for the profile of the project and to continue to raise vital funds. Jazz and opera events are just two possibilities on the agenda.
The next phase of the vital repairs includes the apsidal roof (the curved part at the east end of the church). This stage is important because the decay beneath is significant and there has been a lot of water ingress over the years, resulting in damage to the plasterwork inside. At this stage, the floor and pew layout will require addressing to ensure that the building is accessible to everyone.

The sad-looking weather vane and finial balls prior to restoration and regilding

The sad-looking weather vane and finial balls prior to restoration and regilding

Rev. Jonathan Triffett, who became Rector of St Peter and St Paul’s in July 2015, says: ‘It is clear that the cupola is an iconic image that is woven into the fabric not just of Blandford Forum, but also of the surrounding area. Sitting high on the top of the church building, the cupola is the first sight that greets you as you enter into Blandford from any direction. The renovation work that has recently been completed is certainly something of which the whole town is very proud. The visible difference that it has made to the church and the surrounding landscape is stunning. Yet, as we have previously stressed, this is only one part of an ongoing restoration project.
Our vision for the building is to love it back into life, to restore and renew our wonderful Georgian church in such a way that respects its history but also creates a space that enables us to continue to tell the wonderful story of the Gospel through the beauty, space and symbols that the building has to offer.’

  • An exhibition about the Cupola Project is on display in St Peter and St Paul’s for all to see.
    If you have any ideas for events or fundraising or you would like to be involved, please contact: Sara Loch 01258 450278, cupolaproject@bfpc.org.uk, www.cupolaproject.org.uk

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