The Architecture of St. Chad’s

The inside of St. Chad's Church Kirkby looking westwards.

Considering it was built to serve a settlement of under 1,500 souls, St. Chad’s is quite a massive church. It was built to seat 650 which was around half the town’s population in the 1870s. Its high saddleback tower (meaning the tower has a roof with a ridge and two slopes) is visible from some distance away and the church as a whole is an important local landmark.

The architectural critic Sir Nikolaus Pevsner described St. Chad’s as “one of Paley & Austin’s most powerful”15 and notes the Norman detailing superimposed upon the basically Gothic design. As noted above, it is likely that the Norman elements were included deliberately to create a feeling of continuity – linking the modern church with its Norman predecessor. The most obvious example of this is the south porch with its multiple recessed round-headed arches.

Since early times it has been the custom to build Christian churches on an east-west axis, with the altar at the east end to face the rising sun. Even where a church is not built on a true east-west axis, the convention is to refer to the altar as being in the east end, deriving all the other compass points from there when describing locations within the church. St. Chad’s is built on an axis with its “liturgical east” about one minute (six degrees) north of true east.

The material used to build the church is a fairly pale red sandstone with some cream mottling typical of the North Liverpool / West Lancashire region. The variation in colour within the stone derives from the iron oxide content with a redder stone having a higher concentration than a cream-coloured one. The church’s roof is of red terracotta tiles.

Moving around the outside of the church in a clockwise direction, the west end features two large stone buttresses: in between these is a row of three windows separated by blind arcades; above these are three tall single windows known as lancets.

The north porch was originally identical to that on the south side but was filled in in the late 20th century, originally to provide a room for the choir, but more recently to provide accommodation for toilet facilities and a small kitchen inside.

Unfortunately the north side of the church, being invisible from the road, has attracted vandalism and graffiti over the years. Not only is this a shame as modern spray paints in particular can penetrate deep into porous sandstone causing irreparable damage, it is also a crime which spoils everyone’s enjoyment of the fine architecture.

The north side roof was in exceptionally poor condition by 2015. It was estimated that its replacement would cost in the region of £350,000 and so a fund-raising programme was commenced. Thanks to a grant of £225,000 from the Heritage Lottery Fund (now the National Lottery Heritage Fund), further grants from the Listed Places of Worship Scheme, Allchurches Trust and the Wolfson Foundation (via ChurchCare), and the generosity of many local people, the money was raised and the worst sections of roof were replaced in 2019/20. The final cost of the work was £333,900 and the results are clearly visible.

Beneath the tower, between the two mighty buttresses supporting the immense weight of the structure, the organ chamber projects out. Look up to the tower between late March and July and you may well catch a glimpse of our resident peregrine falcons as they fly out to hunt prey or return home with a meal for their chicks.

The east end of the church presents a noble but austere view. A row of blind arcading (infilled stone arches) sits beneath three single lancet windows and a circular window. This is perhaps the best side of the church to appreciate the subtle variations in colour between (and within) different stones. Note how the tower is not symmetrical – to the south side (the left as you look at it) there is a small turret. This is called a “stair turret” and shows where the spiral staircase runs up giving access to the ringing chamber and bell tower.

The cross visible to your left as you walk past the south side vestry door marks the location of the 1766 Chapel; specifically it marks the point at which the altar stood in the east end of that building.

Entering the church by the south porch, the first impression most visitors have is of a vast, cavernous space. Depending on whether it is a dull day or a bright one the interior may feel gloomy or it may sparkle with colour as the light streams through the clerestory windows on to the mellow red sandstone. It may take a minute or two for the visitor’s eyes to become accustomed to the gloom on a dark day. No two visits are the same; this is a characteristic feature of genuinely great architecture.

At the west end of the church is the ancient font, the large carved sandstone bowl in which many generations of Kirkby people have been baptised. This deserves a good, close look and its story is told in more detail in a later section.

The arcades (rows of arches) on either side of the church are important both in terms of their beauty and for the strength they give to the building structure. A very unusual feature of the arcades is that the capitals (column heads) on the north side are octagonal, whilst those on the south side are circular. One explanation given for this is that, at the time the church was built, there was a dispute between the people of Kirkby and the people of Simonswood (very much a separate village in those days) as to whether they wanted circular capitals or round ones. As a compromise, the people of Kirkby who entered the church via the south porch were given round capitals on the south side, and the people of Simonswood who came in from the north were given octagonal ones on that side. Whether or not this story is actually true is lost in the mists of time.

St. Chad’s is home to an extraordinary set of windows by the noted Pre-Raphaelite artist Henry Holiday. These were installed over a period of 27 years between 1872 and 1899 and form one of the best – if not the best – collections of the artist’s work in one place. We will be looking at these windows in more detail later on.

One of the most thrilling features of St. Chad’s architecture is the tower crossing with its Gothic arches soaring up towards the vaulted stone ceiling.

To the north of the tower crossing is the organ, a fine three-manual instrument which was installed in 1909 in memory of Rev. John Leach who was Vicar of St. Chad’s from 1881 to 1906. It was built by Wordsworth & Co. of Leeds and has 25 stops – individual voices which the organist can select and combine to vary the tone and volume of the music being played. As well as producing a glorious sound in the right hands, the organ is an architectural feature of some beauty, with its solid oak panelling and rows of shiny metal pipes.

The Last Supper mosaic in St. Chad's Church.
A detail of the reredos showing Jesus and his friends at the Last Supper

Traditionally the east end, where the altar (or Lord’s table) is situated, is the most ornate part of a church. St. Chad’s is no exception. Behind the altar is a decorative screen called a reredos. The reredos is an image of the Last Supper, the final time Jesus and his twelve disciples gathered together before the Crucifixion. It was designed by Henry Holiday and executed by the craftsmen of Salviati’s workshop in Venice in 1898, and is the second version they made after the version in St. Stephen’s Church, Philadelphia. Salviati ran the leading mosaic workshop of the time and their work was very much in demand; other examples may be found at St. Bridget’s Church in Wavertree, Liverpool, and St. Faith’s in Crosby.

Detail of the Reredos in St Chads showing the face and halo of an angel

The reredos is surrounded by an exquisite frieze, also designed by Holiday, depicting angels and virtues: this is a masterpiece which shows the Pre- Raphaelite style at its best. The technique used is called opus sectile and was originally invented by the Romans. It uses pieces of glass, cut to shape and fitted together, to form the picture.

Above the frieze is a blind arcade – a row of infilled stone arches. This is another throwback to the architecture of the Norman era (original 12th century examples may be seen at Rochester Cathedral and St. Bartholomew the Great in London).

The four east windows – three lancets with a rose above – complete the architecture of St. Chad’s. These superb windows are described in more detail in the next section.

St. Chad’s is truly a box of treasures. If you already know the church we hope these notes will enhance your enjoyment and appreciation of it. If you do not, we hope they will inspire you to come (lockdown restrictions permitting!) and experience it for yourself.