On the trail of Sir John Betjeman with Surrey churches

PUBLISHED: 19:22 20 September 2012 | UPDATED: 22:08 20 November 2014

Surrey churches ~ on the trail of Sir John Betjeman ~ 10 of the best

Surrey churches ~ on the trail of Sir John Betjeman ~ 10 of the best

In the 1950s, the poet and architectural campaigner Sir John Betjeman embarked on a nationwide tour to pick out the best of the country’s parish churches. Last year, Michael Ellis worked on an update of this book with the writer Richard Surman, and found that what Surrey’s churches lack in grandeur, they make up for in rustic charm, as these ten treasures testify

Originally published in Surrey Life magazine September 2012

Photos: Michael Ellis

***

Surrey's most historic churches

***

Compton: St Nicholas Church
45 The Street GU3 1EB
The finest Norman church in Surrey, heavy round-arched arcades dominate the nave, leading the way to the chancel and small vaulted sanctuary beyond – the only one in the country with a gallery above it, presumably for singers or musicians. The Norman stone-carving is excellent, the oak beams above impressively sturdy, and overall this is one of Surrey’s best-preserved and most atmospheric early churches.

  • Opening: usually daylight hours


Stoke D’Abernon: St Mary’s Church
Stoke Road KT11 3PX
This church has a bit of everything, from a Saxon south wall to Jacobean monuments to 19th-century restorations. Here, it’s all about the details: set into the chancel floor are the D’Abernon brasses – that of Sir John, portrayed with a lance and dated to 1277, is thought to be the oldest surviving brass in England; the Norbury Chapel is crowded with monuments, including the crudely carved but colourful figure of Lady Sarah Vincent in bored repose; while the vast heptagonal walnut pulpit with tester above dominates the nave. 

  • Opening: March to October weekends, 2pm to 4pm


 

Merstham: St Andrew’s Church
Gatton Park RH2 0TG
Glance about you at the English vista of the chalky downs and grounds of the Royal Alexandra and Albert School before immersing yourself in the thoroughly Continental interior of St Andrew’s Church. The principal woodwork here – the choir stalls, collegiate-style, with expressive misericords and figurative arm rests – is from a monastery in Ghent, with canopies behind them from Louvain and an altarpiece and pulpit from Nuremberg.

  • Opening: February to October, first Sunday of the month


 

Blackheath: St Martin’s Church
Blackheath Lane GU4 8RA
An Arts & Crafts church with a pronounced Italian accent, St Martin’s sits well in Blackheath, a village that celebrates the cheerful, slightly whacky architecture of Charles Harrison Townsend (see his toadstool-like former chapel at the start of the one-road village). It was Townsend who built the church (1890s), in his trademark ground-hugging style. Inside the simple, barrel-vaulted building, the walls are covered with paintings in a Pre-Raphaelite style by Anna Lea Merritt.   

  • Opening: usually daylight hours


 

Chaldon: Church of St Peter and St Paul
Church Lane CR3 5AL
Remotely set in a small, sheltered copse, this church is a boxy little thing, with a tower that looks as if it has slipped down the roof to land on the oversized porch. Inside is one of the best and most complete early wall paintings in all of England. It dates from about 1200 and is an emphatic expressive of the medieval Christian mindset, depicting with gusto trials and punishments for the souls of the dead. Demons enthusiastically torment the condemned, while other figures climb a ladder in hope of heavenly salvation.

  • Opening: usually open approximately 10.30am to 4pm daily


 

Esher: St George’s Church
Esher Park Avenue KT10 9RQ
Sir John Betjeman calls this church ‘most loveable’, and it’s easy to see why. It’s one of those hodge-podge churches: crumbling clunch (a traditional building material) approximating a chequerboard pattern on the outside, wonky galleries and curious details within. Most peculiar among them is the private pew created by Sir John Vanbrugh for the Duke of Newcastle in 1726. With its crisp Corinthian columns and chiselled pediment, it is a delightfully awkward classical intrusion into this barn of a church.

  • Opening: usually daylight hours


 

Hascombe: St Peter’s Church
Church Road GU8 4JD
Built in 1864 in the local honey-coloured Bargate stone, St Peter’s stands on the site of a much older church. The architect was Guildford-born Gothic Revivalist Henry Woodyer, and the chancel is a riot of greens, golds and reds, recreating a medieval colour scheme; the chancel screen is from the Middle Ages, in fact, repainted and with panels of saints inserted into it. The nave is a contrast: light, aquatic and unique. A depiction of the Miraculous Draught of Fish covers the wall – 153 of them being drawn into the net of the disciples.

  • Opening: usually daylight hours


 

Holmbury St Mary: Church of St Mary the Virgin
Horsham Road RH5 6PF
In the crook of a bend in a shallow valley, St Mary’s fits perfectly into its fine setting, with woodlands above and a triangular village green at its feet. Its architect, GE Street, lived in the village, and built the church in memory of his wife. The interior is orderly and not the most charismatic of Surrey’s churches, but it does contain rather a good reredos behind the altar – a Mother and Child triptych attributed to the early Renaissance Italian painter Jacopo de Sellaio.

  • Opening: usually daylight hours


 

Compton: Watts Memorial Chapel
Down Lane GU3 1DQ
Peculiarly tall and narrow, this Byzantine-influenced chapel looks as if it has been squeezed through a funnel. The narrow windows allow insufficient light into the interior, but what gradually emerges from the gloom is an amalgam of Art Nouveau, Romanesque and Celtic imagery. Impressively, this is the collective work of the old villagers of Compton, who came together under the direction of Mary Watts, who built the chapel for her husband, the painter George Frederick Watts, whose works are in the neighbouring gallery.

  • Opening: 9am to 5pm, or sunset during winter months


 

Albury: St Peter and St Paul’s Old Church
Albury Park GU5 9BB
The Old Church is situated in Albury Park. Close to a babbling brook and surrounded by long grass, trees and sometimes sheep, this ramshackle church has one of the most bucolic settings imaginable. To the Norman tower and Gothic aisles was added an additional chapel in the 1830s, lavishly decorated (he knew no other way) by Augustus Pugin, pioneer of the Gothic Revival. 

  • Opening: open daily, 10am to 5pm

***
 

  • Michael Ellis’ book, Betjeman’s Best British Churches, is published by HarperCollins and is widely available in print and also as an app. Many of his atmospheric church photographs shot for the book can also be seen by paying a visit to his website: www.thamesidephotography.com, where you can also see his other work.

More from Surrey Life

16:16

At Sir William Perkins’s School (SWPS) the aim is to build confidence, integrity and excellence in a caring, innovative and happy community so that each student leaves with the best possible chance of achieving her full potential and ready to take on the world.

Read more
11:43

If the colder weather is making you feel like escaping to somewhere snug and cosy, you might be surprised to find some perfect rural retreats right on your doorstep. Here’s our pick of the best to discover in Surrey…

Read more
11:33

Get ready to laugh, boo and hiss, and cheer on your favourite childhood heroes in the array of pantomimes coming to Surrey theatres this Christmas

Read more
11:01

Whether you're looking for fine dining, pub grub or exotic dishes, eating out in Surrey has something for everyone. Here's our guide to the best local restaurants and pubs

Read more
Yesterday, 16:01

Actress, singer and entertainer, Anita Harris has travelled the world in an illustrious career that spans over five decades. From her home in Chertsey, she talks to Tinx Newton about the people she has worked with, her tour and life in Surrey

Read more
Yesterday, 14:13

If there's ever a time of year when a brisk, bracing walk is needed, then winter and the lead-up to the festive season is surely it. Here we round up a few of our Surrey favourites

Read more
Yesterday, 13:01

Great things to do in Surrey this weekend (14, 15 and 16 December): art exhibitions, walks, concerts, theatre, places to visit and other events and ideas.

Read more
Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Surrey is a county full of festive delights. Think cosy pubs, frosty views and long winter walks. We pick 22 wonderful reasons to spend Christmas in Surrey.

Read more
Tuesday, December 4, 2018

We round up some of the best events and things to do across Surrey this month

Read more
Tuesday, December 4, 2018

With beautiful countryside, stunning villages and plenty of bluebells during spring, Surrey is an amazing place for a stroll

Read more
Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Pupils at The Hawthorns School in Bletchingley collected over 5,800 items of food for the Loveworks foodbanks in Reigate and Merstham

Read more
Friday, November 30, 2018

We’ve teamed up with Grand Illusions to give one lucky reader the opportunity to win a £250 gift card with the stylish homeware brand

Read more
Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Celebrating its 25 anniversary, Kinghams restaurant is found at the heart of one of Surrey’s most iconic villages. Matthew Williams visits to discover the secrets of its longevity

Read more
Monday, November 26, 2018

This edition of Surrey Life features all the local ingredients to make this month special

Read more

Newsletter Sign Up

Sign up to the following newsletters:

Sign up to receive our regular email newsletter

Our Privacy Policy

Topics of Interest


Follow us on Twitter


Like us on Facebook

Subscribe or buy a mag today

subscription ad

Local Business Directory

Property Search