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St Mary Magdalene church, Willen is described in Simon Jenkins' 'One Thousand Best Churches', published in 1999.

Robert Hooke (1635-1703), architect of Willen Church, has been acclaimed as "One of the most inventive geniuses the world has ever seen."

 

 

 

 


ST MARY MAGDALENE, WILLEN

Construction of the present church was funded by the Lord of the Manor, Dr Richard Busby, the celebrated Headmaster of Westminster School. Dr Busby was Headmaster for 58 years at the time of Charles I, the Commonwealth and Charles II and is said to have birched three generations of the great and good. Amongst his illustrious pupils were Christopher Wren and Robert Hooke, the latter being a special protégé of Dr Busby.

The church was designed and construction supervised by Robert Hooke who by then was Secretary and Curator of Experiments at the Royal Society and City Surveyor for reconstruction after the Great Fire of London in 1666.

Willen church was built around 1678 - 1680 (the date 1680 is cast into the plasterwork of the barrel-vault ceiling of the nave). Three bells were hung in the tower with fittings for full-circle ringing, they have identical rhyming inscriptions “Richard Chandler made me 1683”.

As originally constructed the church was a simple rectangular building 15 x 8 metres with a tower at the west end and wooden reredos in front of a large window in the east wall. Doors were provided in the tower on the north side (giving access to the bell-ringing chamber without the necessity of entering the church), a semi-circular canopied door on the west side of the tower (normally only used for funerals) and another semi-circular canopied door on the south side of the tower (which would be the usual entrance to the church for the clergy and congregation).

No vestry or ancillary rooms were built initially. An organ was installed on the north side of the nave, possibly the instrument that Dr Busby is known to have had in his house at Westminster.

Soon after completion of the church, vestries were built on both the north and south sides of the tower (the date is uncertain but a drawing of the church dated 1792 shows the vestries in place). The stonework of the plinths and cornices was matched up to those on the church, but the brickwork was not bonded to the brick walls of the nave or tower, an omission that has returned to haunt the congregation in the 21st century. The north vestry was originally used to house the library of theological books sent by Dr Busby from Westminster to Willen and perhaps the new rooms were constructed shortly after Dr Busby died on 5 April 1695.

The modifications left the church with just a single entrance under the west side of the tower.

The lead-covered cupola of the tower is said to have been removed in 1814 (and the proceeds from the sale of the lead used to fund urgent church repairs).

About 1861 - 1862 a semi-circular apsidal chancel was added at the east end of the nave to provide a better arrangement for the altar with the celebrant facing towards the congregation. It was probably at this time a hot-air heating system was incorporated with a chimney constructed in the thickness of the wall at the junction of the nave and the apse at the northeast corner of the church. Also at this time a new organ was installed, occupying the same position as the earlier instrument. This organ had a single manual plus pedals and six stops. Following Victorian fashion, stained-glass windows replaced the original clear glazing and the painting scheme included over the chancel arch words from Luke 2:14 “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men”. It is also likely that it was then that the library was moved to the Vicarage and the north vestry was relegated to coal storage.

Some time later the church was redecorated in a blue/white scheme and in 1931 the chancel gates were fitted in memory of Geraldine Frances Shipman the wife of the then Vicar Malcolm Parker Shipman.
On 1 May 1946 the Vicarage burnt down and, along with all the contents, Dr Busby’s books were lost (the inventory of the books is still in existence at Westminster School).

Electric lighting was installed in 1954.

After considerable fund-raising efforts major remedial works were undertaken in the mid-1960’s including recovering of the nave and chancel roofs with copper sheet, replacement of the stained glass in the windows with clear glass (1969) and redecoration with an all-white ceiling and ‘stone’ (greenish-grey) walls.

In 1972 the present organ by Noel Mander replaced the Victorian organ; this has three stops and no pedals. Peter Hurford who at that time was the Organist and Master of the Choristers at St Albans Abbey performed the opening concert on 7 July 1972.

The Vicarage site was sold in 1975 for £35,000 and subsequently the Society of the Sacred Mission established their outreach mission there. The SSM also took on the responsibility of providing a minister for the church.

About 1981 the old chimney was taken down and electric heating installed (four 6 kW fan-heaters and under-pew tubular heaters). By this date the bells were almost derelict, the headstock of the treble bell was completely rotted, the tenor bell had been chocked for safety and only the second bell could be swing-chimed.

By the mid-1980’s the SSM were no longer in a position to be able to provide an incumbent and the Bishop of Oxford was requested to appoint a vicar. In 1987 Willen combined with Stantonbury Ecumenical Parish to form the united benefice of Stantonbury and Willen.

In 1990 the church was redecorated in the current pink/white scheme with additional gilding of ceiling bosses. The heating system was fitted with improved automation and the fan speed of the heaters reduced to overcome noise problems.

In 1991 the three bells were rehung in steel counterbalanced headstocks to permit them to be used for swing-chiming. Electrical control equipment was provided for timed automated ringing of the bells, but the electromagnetic hammers were never fitted.

In 2002, after concerns about asbestos in the old equipment, a completely new electric heating system was installed, in part utilising the former hot-air duct in the centre of the nave aisle for heating elements.

In 2008, after strenuous efforts to raise almost £160,000 the copper roof, which was suffering from stress cracking caused by wind-suction, was replaced with new copper roofing. Also, major movement and cracking of the walls of the north vestry was stabilised by underpinning the shallow foundations.

In November 2009 the interior of the church was redecorated and in spring 2010 the west doors were refurbished.

Working parties of volunteers in November 2011 and February 2012 have cleaned and treated the apse woodwork, the book rests in the pews and part of the panelling on the north side of the church. More needs to be done.

It would be nice to be able install the automated equipment for the bells, which would enable them to be used more regularly. The Diocesan Advisory Committee have given their approval for this work, but at present it is considered more important to deal with other urgent matters, including upgrading the Lime Tree Avenue to an all-weather path and also making provision for future installation of permanent lighting.

Willen church is a Grade 1 listed building and will always need expenditure on maintenance and improvements, but with continuing help this beautiful little church will continue its Christian witness for future generations.

Copyright © John Figg April 2012

 

 
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