Story of St Bart's
St Bartholomew’s Church is a great landmark of Wilmslow.
It is arguably the most iconic building in the town. As a grade one listed medieval building, it is a precious and important part of our heritage.
There has been a church on the present site since the 13th century but much of what we see now has its background in the rebuilding work undertaken by Henry Trafford during the reign of Henry VIII. Subsequently, the church underwent a major reordering by the architect Brakspear in the mid 1800s. One hundred and fifty years on, we saw the third major stage in St Bartholomew’s historical development with a ‘Medieval met modern’ with an extensive restoration and reordering project under St Bartholomew’s rector at the time, Revd Paul Smith.
The Early Church
The first record of St Bartholomew’s existence is in 1264, when it is believed to have been built by Sir Richard Fitton, who held the Manor of Bollin. The site chosen for the original church was a mound with steep sides going down towards the river. It may well be that all that remains of the original building is the crypt chapel beneath the chancel. The size and structure of the church at this time is unknown, but it is unlikely that it extended beyond where the current chancel is situated.
The Medieval Church
Remodelling of the church – which is made of sandstone in the traditional cross shape with a north and south transept (the arms of the cross) – began around 1490 and the lower part of the tower possibly dates from this period.
In the graveyard is one of the oldest gravestones in Cheshire, dated 1596. Eight gargoyles are a notable feature of the tower. The beasts were the source of uninhibited architectural experiment and decoration. Before lead piping, they were also functional – to ensure water fell clear of the church by means of projecting spouts.
Major rebuilding work took place under the direction of Henry Trafford, who was rector between 1516 and 1537, and paid for the building of the chancel and its ‘rood’ screen (stemming from a Saxon word for cross) separating the clergy and choir from the congregation; while two private chapels were added either side also with screens. The work, completed around 1522, also included the building of the south transept chapel and the nave clerestory (clear storey bringing upper light and breeze into the building) and its roof.
The Victorian Church
Clearly, as records in 1835 indicate that a box was purchased ‘for the minister to stand on in wet weather’; the church was in need of urgent repair at this time. But nearly another 30 years were to pass before the sweeping restoration of 1862-1863, when the River Bollin was also diverted and the churchyard extended.
The work was undertaken by Manchester architect William Braskspear and included the addition of a north transept chapel (completing the traditional cross shape of the church) which had a gallery for children. A gallery on the south side was removed and one on the west replaced with a balustrade across the tower archway.
A west door was also installed and a lofty chancel arch was built. The nave aisle roof was panelled and the church’s first, possibly 200 year old, boxed pews were removed making way for the gentry to buy ‘the best seats in the house’.
Human remains were relocated, wall paintings, monuments and benefaction boards were also removed or completely hidden – to ‘modernise’ the building at a time when there was significantly less red tape than today. 1897 to 1898 saw further work by Manchester architects Bodley and Garner when Revd Emery Bates, to whose memory the lych-gate was erected in around 1915, was in office. This included the removal of the chancel arch when the chancel roof was raised to that of the nave -extending the clerestory – as was the east window, a major undertaking.
The choir stalls were introduced, the chancel screen was made more substantial and a gallery or rood loft added above it (later removed in 1936) making a clearer boundary between the nave and the chancel; and making the chancel a liturgical space in its own right.
Finally the organ, which was experimentally moved around the building a few times over the years, was relocated to its current position in the north transept.
St Bartholomew’s Today
During Canon Tony Sparham’s ministry (1999-2008), work was undertaken on the slate roof in 2003, and in 2008 the north side of the church’s extension was completed, providing kitchen, meeting room and toilet facilities.This was substantially funded by the sale of land on which the former St Francis Hall in Lacey Green stood (a daughter church of St Bart’s which burnt down in 1999).
2013 then saw significant, urgent work under Revd Paul Smith, as the floor of St Bart’s was sinking. The third major reordering works was undertaken at the site, enabled by the careful planning of a Manchester firm of architects, Buttress Fuller Alsop Williams.
The wooden floor was replaced with stone to incorporate under floor heating. A whole team of additional experts were involved, as St Bart’s was in need of a major clean of the interior sandstone walls and pillars, rewiring, relighting and the introduction of new audio-visual systems, movable stacking pews and a nave platform. These have provided a much greater degree of comfort and flexibility for our own generation; enhancing the worshipping life of the congregation and sustaining the building as a focus for community events.
Since the completion of the work, St Bart’s has hosted many more concerts, a Queen’s tea parties, a medieval banquet and a masquerade ball.
St Bart’s was brought into the 21st century without sacrificing – embracing even – its important architectural and historical heritage.
Evidence of medieval earth-cut burials and Victorian crypts and burials were uncovered during the work; however, all burials and human remains have either remained in situ or were appropriately relocated underneath the new floor construction. Further details of the archaeological work and its discoveries are available.
The process of reopening was brought to a conclusion at a service on Advent Sunday 2013, led by the Bishop of Chester at the time, Rt Revd Dr Peter Forster. By this time, rather symbolically, the building had been invaded by butterflies which were then present for many months.
St Bart’s was nominated for a prestigious architectural award and was one of two ‘runners up’ to the winning entry; prized with highly commended due to the range and quality of work undertaken.
A second stage of the reordering and restoration saw two projects which were completed in 2018. The most substantial of these was the refurbishment and development of the pipe organ (called Oscar!) which was coming towards the end of its working life. Because of this, and in order to have a better instrument for concerts and recitals, a new three manual organ with a detached and movable console was commissioned. This allows much greater flexibility for performance and teaching purposes.
Second was the development and marking of the burial ground of cremated remains; the grassed area cornered by the 17th century sundial at the front of church. A wedge-shaped York stone slab, for the inscribing of names, and a stone bench so that visitors can sit and reflect nearby was installed.