Parish of St Leonard with Holy Cross and St Michael’s Methodist-Anglican Church Centre

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St Leonard’s Church, Hythe, Kent


You have only to step over the threshold of St Leonard’s to know you are in a Church which was re-furbished in Victorian times: the colours and patterns in the floor tiles, so like those laid in thousands of suburban 19th Century houses, indicate that.  Until these were laid, our floor was plain grey slabs.The walls on the other hand, until the Reformation, were a riot of lurid colour, and told the Bible stories to an illiterate congregation.

Capitals, mouldings, statues, the life-size tableau of Jesus, Mary and John, which probably stood on the Rood Screen in the Chancel arch, all were bright with colour, and the glowing stained glass cast over all a ‘dim religious glow’ (in Pugin’s approving words), and an atmosphere of mystery and awe.  Henry VIII should not receive all the blame for sweeping away this glorious artwork: it was his young and fortunately short-lived son, Edward VI, a convinced Lutheran, who sent out the iconoclasts on their mission of destruction, so that Elizabeth, a reign later, inherited churches bare and stripped of their age-old finery.  We have in consequence in Hythe, a grey building – grand and imposing certainly, but (apart from some glass) grey and austere.

Yet Victorian taste was far from austere – it enjoyed fussy decorative details, it liked to provide objects galore to interest the eye.  Look at Folkestone’s Parish Church, for example, ‘half a ruin’ when the Rev’d (later Canon) Woodward arrived there in 1851 from Hythe where he had been Curate; the re-building and decorating of St Eanswythe’s became his life’s work, and how well he was supported by the gentry of the town who were happy to contribute to a scheme which so matched the taste they exhibited in their own homes.  Look at Holy Trinity too, consecrated in 1868, a prime example of Victorian Gothic, and paid for by the Earl of Radnor as part of his project to expand Folkestone westwards along the new ‘Sandgate Road’.  Interesting that the Church came first, as part of the project – no one has suggested a church for the new Nicholls Quarry estate to the west of Hythe!  Interesting too, that so out-of-favour was Holy Trinity’s style between the Wars that the decision had been taken to demolish it and centre the Parish on Christ Church just down the road – until German bombers reversed the plan.

Back to St Leonard’s.  Do we regret the loss of colour?  Our many visitors seem to find our Church grand, but above all, peaceful, and this may be because it is not restless, not relentlessly obtruding its personality, but leaving it to the worshipper or viewer to fill in the emptiness for himself.  Just to illustrate that thought, I find those much praised swirly blue sea-pictures in the windows of Winchelsea Church a complete distraction – they make me sea-sick!  How styles of worship change, and how furnishings and decorative fashions change with them; after the introduction of the English Prayer Book in 1549 the laity were encouraged to take part in services for the first time.  Indeed, they understood the services for the first time!  The removal of the Chancel screens had brought priest and congregation into the same room, and Parliament abolished East Altars and rails as Communion was taken at a wooden table set up in the choir or even in the nave.  Pulpits became ‘three-deckers’ from which Priest and Clerk could conduct the entire service and no need even to enter the Chancel; seating was introduced (benches first, and later box pews).

The Victorians hated the ‘Prayer Book Churches’ of the 17th and 18th Centuries and very few of them (around 70 is one estimate) survived the ruthless restoration carried out under the influence of the High Church Movement emanating from Oxford in the 1840’s, which re-introduced ancient (sometimes pseudo-) medieval rituals requiring vestments, deep chancels and ‘proper’ more highly decorated altars with candles, and often dignified with a reredos; those dominant pulpits were replaced with smaller ones, and family bench-pews were installed and rented out.  Pictures and prints of our Church over the years show all these changes have happened here.

Before becoming a novelist, the young Thomas Hardy trained as an architect, and his work concentrated on church re-furbishment; later in life he regretted what he had done, and in 1881 he joined the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings which tried to prevent architects (and vicars) from ‘spoiling’ churches in their Tractarian zeal, and he wrote that such buildings ‘hold together memories, history, fellowship, fraternities.’  He makes a vital point: if we are to keep our bearings there has to be a thread of continuity – we can take only so much change.

So we may regret the widespread ‘vandalism’ which occurred under the influence of the Camden Society, the Ecclesiologists, and the doctrines of Pugin, but St Leonard’s is representative of a tradition of layout and furnishing we are comfortable with because – those 70 exceptions apart –  it is the only form we normally ever see when we visit churches, and familiarity breeds content!  Moreover, in our case, we have a special reason to be thankful to the Victorian architects who worked here in the 1870’s and 80’s, for whatever they did to the floor and the pews, the pulpit and the altar, they also completed our Nave roof and Chancel in the form which its 13th Century creators intended.

Mike Umbers