Friday, August 7, 2015

Cheltenham, Gloucestershire

The church of pizza

Cheltenham has some fine restaurants, but few have interiors as striking as this one, set in a redundant church of the early-19th century.

The church of St James, Suffolk Square, in Cheltenham, was built in the 1820s, originally to plans by local architect Edward Jenkins, designer of several of the surrounding streets of houses. But Jenkins hit problems – or at least his clients had difficulties with his plans.* He’d proposed a very ambitious roof, spanning both the nave and the aisles on either side, and misgivings were expressed about its structural strength, So an independent architectural enquiry was called, and the result was that another architect, Cheltenham stalwart J B Papworth, was brought in to finish the church.

Papworth saw that the way to make the roof work was to build its supports out of iron. So those slender columns, apparently of stone, have hidden iron cores, and the dark-coloured arched trusses that sit on them and carry the roof are iron too, with Gothic detailing to distract us from their industrial origins. It’s an elegant and effective solution.

In the nave, the architecture is not too fancy but carefully detailed – the stone that clads the slender iron columns is topped and tailed with very plain capitals and high bases. The columns support balconies halfway up that have fronts with Gothic tracery on them. But looking eastwards towards the big window, the carving gets much more lively. This is in part due to a makeover in 1876–82 when the church got a new east end. No doubt this was in response to architectural and religious fashion. Whereas the Georgian and Regency periods had gone for mostly rather plain box-like churches with good acoustics (ideal for listening to sermons), the later Victorian period saw a movement toward stressing the importance of the sacraments and providing a beautiful architectural setting for them. Carving, ornate arches, and a window with filigree tracery, were the order of the day.

Now diners look towards the east end and watch priestly chefs demonstrate the craft of dough-kneading and the artful arrangement of toppings while the oven glows in splendour where the High Altar once stood. Sacrilege? Surely not. When a church falls redundant, it’s a happy day when someone finds a viable new use for the building. Against the odds, perhaps, St James’s makes a good place to enjoy a meal while contemplating the ways of architects, their engineering challenges, and the delicate Gothic architecture of the 19th century. I didn’t need much encouragement to stay for a very choclatey pudding, and I enjoyed it all the more for the surroundings.

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* Footnote Problems with Jenkins may have been exacerbated by the fact that around this time he eloped with Charlotte Balfour, the daughter of one of his patrons. By 1828 he had moved to Leamington, so perhaps he felt that discretion was the better part of valour and that his talents could be useful in a different spa town.

St James's Church, Cheltenham is a branch of Zizzi.


bazza said...

Reading this post has actually made me feel hungry. Where's that pizza menu?
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Jane said...

This elevates pizza-eating to a new level! I guess you know of Wetherspoons' conversions eg the former chapel in Darwen, Lancs Goodness knows what the founding fathers would have thought of beer-drinking in their chapel. The old Baptist church in Folkestone (the Samuel Peto) looks even grander.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Yes Wetherspoon's have done some good conversions. The Art Picture House in Bury is another belter.