Monday, August 1, 2016

St Mark's Church

It’s not every day you come across a man climbing the spire at St Mark’s but as I stood in the churchyard taking photographs, there was one doing just that.

Trains sped by just yards from where I stood and I tried to imagine what it would have been like to stand here more than 170 years ago when the church was newly consecrated.

There are relatively few surviving headstones but there were probably never very many, this being the burial ground for the railway men and their families when the life expectancy in 1845 was an appalling 29 years.

The churchyard was closed to new burials in 1881 - after a mere 36 years it was already full. The new Swindon Cemetery on Kingshill, better known today as Radnor Street Cemetery, opened on August 6 that same year.

Here is what Poet Laureate John Betjeman had to say about St Mark’s.

'The parishioners of St Philip and St Jacob in Bristol entreated the Great Western to build a church for their workers; directors stumped up money, subscriptions were raised, land was presented and by 1845, St Mark’s church was built.

There it stands today close beside the line on the Bristol side of the station. A stone building, all spikes and prickles outside, designed by Gilbert Scott who was then a young man and who lived to build hundreds of rather dull copy-book churches all over Britain, and to build St Pancras Hotel, the Foreign Office in London and to restore many cathedrals.

One cannot call it a convenient site. Whistles and passing trains disturb the services, engine smoke blackens the leaves and tombstones, and eats into the carved stonework of the steeple. But it is a strong church and though it is not much to look at, it is for me the most loved church in England. For not carved stones nor screen and beautiful altars, nor lofty arcades nor gilded canopies, but the priests who minister and the people who worship make a church strong. If ever I feel England is Pagan, and that the poor old Church of England is tottering to its grave, I revisit St Mark’s, Swindon. That corrects the impression at once. A simple and definite faith is taught; St Mark’s and its daughter churches are crowded. Swindon, so ugly to look at to the eyes of the architectural student, glows golden as the New Jerusalem to eyes that look beyond the brick and stone…

St Mark’s parish for some reason hangs together and is a living community, full of life and spirit. Perhaps it is because Swindon is the right size for an industrial town, neither too big nor too small. Perhaps it is because the sort of work men do in a railway works – “inside” as they call it in Swindon – is not soul-destroying such as one sees in motor factories where the ghastly chain belt system persists. Perhaps it is not beneath the dignity of men. Whatever it is, I know that the people of Swindon first taught me not to judge people by the houses they live in, nor churches only by their architecture I would sooner be on my knees within the wooden walls of St Saviour’s than leaning elegantly forward in a cushioned pew in an Oxford College chapel – that is to say if I am to realise there is something beyond this world worth thinking about.

The church-crawler starts by liking old churches, but he ends by liking all churches and of all churches those that are most alive are often those hard-looking buildings founded by Victorian piety – churches like St Mark’s, Swindon.'

First and Last Loves by John Betjeman, a collection of essays on architecture published in 1952.

William Frederick Gooch, Engineer and Swindon Works Manager. Daniel Gooch's brother.

Minard Christian Rea - Works Manager

Joseph Armstrong - Chief Superintendent, Swindon Works

a life cut short

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