‘The ultimate in splendiferous estate churches.’
Edward Hubbard, ‘The Buildings of Wales Clwyd’ (1986) p. 324
It used to be known as the Pearl of the Vale, and it must be said that this earlier name seems so much more satisfying than that which it became later known as - The Marble Church. Viewed from afar, perhaps from Rhuddlan Castle for instance, it seems just that - a pearl, its gently wondrous white limestone, quarried and dressed in Anglesey, gently luminous in any light.
St Margaret's at Bodelwyddan - The Pearl of the Vale
And while now St Margaret’s is more commonly known as The Marble Church, there is very little about it, in fact, which can be said to be common. That is, apart from the common means by which it is generally seen, by those travelling along the A55, perhaps at speed, to some other intended place. Bodelwyddan and The Marble Church are very much between places. Viewed through the glass of a car windscreen and mirrors, there is no vale to see and its still startling beauty is fleeting. Perhaps it finds itself in a ‘to visit next time’ list, somewhere in the mind.
It is a curious thing, that the fame of St Margaret’s rest on the 14 varieties of marble that were used within, while the very many that drive past, that are struck by its exterior beauty and now as the Marble Church, see no no marble, see in fact a gleaming, seemingly isolated island of beauty with its tall, achingly delicate 200ft spire. No, to me it has always been the Pearl of the Vale - and always will.
St Margaret’s owes its foundation to Margaret Willoughby de Broke, the third daughter to Sir John Williams, 1st Baronet Williams of Bodelwyddan. In 1829 she married Henry Peyto-Verney, 16th Baron Willoughby de Broke and lived in Warwickshire at his ancestral home. On his death in 1852, Margaret returned to North Wales and it would seem fairly quickly decided upon working towards Bodelwyddan becoming a separate parish within the diocese of St Asaph. This would, of course, require the building of a new parish church, one which she wished dedicated to her late husband as a memorial. The Bishop of St Asaph, the superbly named and actually rather wonderful Thomas Vowler Short, was entirely supportive, as was her brother, Hugh Williams, 3rd Baronet.
Together, Margaret and her brother toured the British Isles, looking for inspiration for their new parish church. However, it would seem little of what they saw fitted with the ideal they had - and perhaps this was due to their ideal being particularly grand. At the end of 1855, John Gibson was asked to submit a design for a new parish church. Gibson had come to the attention of Margaret through his work designing country houses in his native Warwickshire. In 1836, after the bankruptcy of Joseph Hansom (who had rather wonderfully and entirely coincidentally, worked on the renovations of Bodelwyddan Castle in the early 1830s), to whom he was first articled, Gibson entered the offices of Sir Charles Barry. Together they worked on the plans for the new Houses of Parliament, which had burnt down in October 1834. Gibson worked with Barry until 1844, when his design for the National Bank of Scotland in Glasgow was successful. He affirmed his reputation with a number of impressive designs for further financial institutions. Other than his work on St Margaret’s, Gibson is also remembered in North Wales for his lesser known work as architect of the delightful St Mary’s Church in Bersham, on the Plas Power Estate. In the matter of what would become St Margaret’s at Bodelwyddan, it would seem Gibson was assured that money would be no obstacle.
A view towards the chancel from the nave
Work began in July 1856 with the laying of the foundation stone and was completed in 1860, the Church being consecrated as St Margaret’s, this at the wish of Vowler Short, on the 23rd August of that year. It’s not known with any certainty what the motivation was for the naming of the Church after the canonised 11th century Anglo-Saxon wife of the Scottish king, Malcolm III, but it is hard to see past a profound nod to its most important benefactor.
St Margaret’s was built in the Decorated Gothic style - a popular practice in the mid 19th century. For all their faults, the Victorians were as likely to look to the past for inspiration, as they were to look to the future and all the technological wonders they favoured and championed. The exterior is a wonder, as has been said, but, it rewards further examination, especially that of the slim tower with its wonderful spire, inspired, according to Hubbard, by the Church of St Peter and Paul at Kings Sutton in Northamptonshire, and described by him as having, ‘icing-sugar delicacy’. Above the western entrance is a stunning circular window, above which you will find the coat of arms of the Barons of Bodelwyddan. At either side you find the faces of Margaret and Henry. More will be said of the churchyard a little later.
St Margaret’s is known as the Marble Church for no small reason. Within, you will find 14 different varieties of marble - some native, some from the continent. At the entrance you will find two nooks of Aberdeen granite - a possible nod to St Kentigern, the first Bishop of St Asaph, who is also represented in stained glass within the porch, along with St Margaret. Entering the nave, you will pass between two pillars of Anglesey marble, while Belgian red marble is used for the pillars of the five bays, while there are also slim pillars of Belgian red in the spandrels reaching up to the hammerbeam roof. It is said that no nails were used in the building of the roof - pegs only. A look up at the roof will also allow for a view of the small ‘cusped triangular clerestory windows’. The nave also contains examples of red griotte marble - a wonderful cherry (griotte) coloured stone, and black Kilkenny marble, used most recently as the plinth to the tomb of Richard III on his internment in Leicester Cathedral. The lighting seems to be intentionally low, giving the marbled whole a sense of warm depth.
The nave looking towards the western entrance
The chancel is achingly beautiful. The flooring is of Sicilian and Belgian Red marble, with Irish Kilkenny black marble also visible. There are panels of English alabaster and ogee crocheted canopies of Caen stone, supported by beautiful French Languedoc and Dorset Purbeck marble. The Sanctuary panels are of Povey marble upon which you will find the Lord’s Prayer, the Ten Commandments and the Apostle’s Creed etched in gold lettering.
The chancel, looking towards the O'Connor window
The lectern and pulpit are astonishing. Hubbard curiously describes the former as being subject to ‘bombast’ but to this mere mortal, it is rather wonderful. It was carved by T. H. Kendall (1837-1919), a luminary of wood working, who’s work elsewhere was described by Ruskin as being worthy of Michelangelo. It depicts an eagle perched upon a rock, etched with wild flowers. It was commissioned by the children of Sir Hugh Williams and dedicated to his memory in May 1876. Kendall is said to have spent some 6000 hours in its making and cost £600.
The Kendall lectern
The nearby pulpit is just as extraordinary - a work by the sculptor and architectural carver, Thomas Earp (1828-1893), who became famous for his reproduction of the Eleanor Cross at Charing Cross in London in 1863. Huge and imposing, it boasts five panels. In each is a figure - Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, along with the Lord. All are supported by a base of kneeling angels.
The pulpit is a delight - a detail
Special mention should be made of the font - a work of genuine wonder. It depicts the daughters of Sir Hugh Williams, Mary Charlotte Lucy and Arabella Antonia in Carrara marble. It was fashioned by Peter Hollins (1820-1886), who seems to have come to the attention of Margaret through his work in the Chapel at Compton Verney.
The font - sculptured from Carrara marble
The stained glass windows are a delight, largely by father and son, Michael and Arthur O’Connor. Based in London, the O’Connor’s were well known and had collaborated with A. W. N. Pugin. Michael O’Connor’s work had been displayed at the Great Exhibition in 1851, and it’s likely that his reputation was such that he was first choice for the stained glass of St Margaret’s. Even Hubbard was impressed. And it must be said, that the quite glorious East Window by the O’Connor’s is breath hitchingly fabulous. But there are also stained glass windows by Ward and Hughes and possibly Burne-Jones (although there remains some doubt as to whether the window attributed to him is definitely his).
The O'Connor east window
The churchyard is of real interest, which perhaps may come as a surprise, given its fairly recent foundation. It is noted as being the resting place of 116 Commonwealth soldiers - the legacy of its nearness to Kinmel Park Camp. There are 83 Canadian soldiers buried here and 33 British. The vast majority of these died in the Influenza Outbreak of 1918, otherwise known as the rather misleading but more famous name of the Spanish Flu. The disease also claimed the lives of two nurses that worked to treat the infected - they too are buried at St Margaret’s. Four of the Canadians here were part of the Kinmel Park Riot in March 1919 - a result of the frustrations of not being able to return home, the living conditions they were subject to, as well as the fear of contracting the Spanish Flu. Having made it through the horrors of the War, one can only imagine the terror these men must have felt that they may end up dying of the Flu.
St Margaret's Church is indeed, The Pearl of the Vale and worthy of your time. Perhaps as you next approach Bodelwyddan, racing down the A55 on a good day, inching along on any other, you may consider looking to exit the expressway, and taking some time to explore this memorial wonder. I feel confident that you will not regret the time you take to wander amongst the alabaster, limestone and marble of this beautiful church.
E. Hubbard, The Buildings of Wales Clwyd, London (1986)
A Handbook for Travellers in North Wales, J. Murray, London (1868)
D. R. Thomas, A History of the Diocese of St Asaph, London, (1874)
St Margaret’s, Bodelwyddan, The Marble Church, Guide Book, Norwich, (1997)