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 St Mary's Church - the new Vestry and Choir School

November 2004 

Many churches have been altered or extended  over the years – more than 800 years of change in the case of Horsham Parish Church, and this is part of its architectural and historic attraction. The roof of the Church was raided and the clerestory inserted in the 13th century, the chancel arcades in the 14th, the porch and side chapels in the 14th and 15th, and the existing vestry or sacristy also in the 15th century. There were numerous structural changes in the 19th century, including extending the south aisle and remodelling the whole south elevation in 1865. 

Within this broad historical picture, the new vestry is, perhaps, nothing unusual. The architects, Clive Mercer Associates Ltd, have produced a reasonable enough building in itself, although the bright zinc roof and its shape do not sit happily with the existing roofs and the smooth ashlar limestone will not weather like the original sandstone (not least because the overhanging roof will protect it from the maturing effect of rainfall). It would probably pass the tests of the Charter of Venice (a code established for the treatment of ancient buildings) in that it bears a ‘contemporary stamp’ and the SPAB (Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings) manifesto (1924), in that it is ‘in the natural manner of today ……… and not a reproduction of any past style’.

So that’s OK then? No, it certainly is not – far from it. The new vestry is, in my view, an act of architectural vandalism. It is an unacceptably large intrusion on the wrong site adjoining and ruining the most ancient part of the church building. The Parochial Church Council has ultimate responsibility and it should not have treated the heritage in its care with such disregard. If this had been a private developer all hell would have been let loose. No Listed Building Consent was required because church developments have ecclesiastical exemption.

In a sense, of course, we are all responsible. The Council’s planners and their committee, and English Heritage, could have stopped it in its tracks but did not. I made two phone calls to question the proposals but regret that I failed to pursue the matter further. The Horsham Society accepted the concept and siting – only worrying about the details when it was the siting and basic principle of the thing that was so insensitive.

It is instructive to look at the way the church was extended in the past – side chapels always as parallel additions to the side aisles and the nave. The new extension on the tower breaks that established discipline, when previously each new addition played a subsidiary role to the nave and aisles, with no new part diluting or dominating the character of the older parts or individual elements.

Externally the stone tower below the broach spire was the best known feature of the Church; it dates from the 12th century with heavy 13th century buttresses. The new vestry challenges and undermines the identity and special nature of the tower as a principal feature of the building as one approaches from the river and the south. Critically the stonework rose sheer out of the ground to support the wooden spire above. It had an extraordinary massive quality and dignity that contrasted with the intricacy of the rest of the church. That simplicity and contrast are now lost. There is even a large and wholly inappropriate lean-to roof against the tower’s south wall.

There is little doubt in my mind that if this new accommodation were really needed, and there had to be an extension of the actual church, it should have been constructed as an almost free-standing pavilion south of the Victorian façade that runs along the south side of the south aisle. Access would have come naturally through one of the 1865 arches. The clue lies in the way chapter houses were built at, for example, Salisbury, York and Wells Cathedrals and Westminster Abbey. Whenever one extends an historic church or builds on a graveyard, there are inevitably losses to be suffered and compromises to be made, but at the very least, in our case, nothing should have been done to wreck a fundamental element of the special architectural and historic character of St Mary’s. It is, after all, Horsham’s only Grade 1 listed building and it should have been treated with greater respect. 

Roy Worskett