Church in the Trees
St Thomas’ Church, standing as it does on the edge of a very busy highway, is a small church which punches above its weight. Built in the 19th Century to serve the needs of a few hundred in a small coal producing hamlet, it is now the centrepiece of a mixed, thriving and ever increasing community of over 5,000 souls.
In February 2012 the building received a very special accolade when it was given Grade II listed status because of its architecture, stained-glass windows and a ‘fine example of Victorian stencil work’ in the apse.
Known to thousands of commuters who pass by daily as ‘The Church in the Trees’, St Thomas’ saw its first light in 1850 when a local Victorian benefactor, Thomas Orford, gave land ‘sufficient for the building not only of the Church, but also for the Parsonage House and School, as and if required’.
Money for the building was raised by private and public subscription, the sum amounting to £729.1s.5p. The work was completed the next year but because of administrative difficulties the Church was not consecrated for another eight years, in 1859.
Unfortunately, Thomas Orford never saw his Church in its full glory, as he died suddenly in 1857, aged 57 years.
Very soon, however, it was realised that the Church was too small. More funds were raised and new parts were added to the building, including a magnificent spire on the south west side. When the new church was opened in 1866 the accommodation had been doubled and now a congregation of 300 could be seated.
Then, two years later. a new organ was installed and in 1870 a peal of six bells was placed in the campanile-like tower and rung for the first time in December 1870. The church clock, with its Westminster quarter chime, was placed in the tower in 1932.
The church building may be small, but a couple of heavy guns in the then architectural world, Charles Wyatt Orford and James Medland Taylor, were commissioned to provide plans for the two stages of development, respectively.
The design for the original part of the church, by Orford, is relatively plain in detailing, with simple round-headed windows and a semi-circular apse. This shows an appreciation of Italian Gothic architecture, which had the double advantage of not only being a fashionable, but its relative simplicity meant that it was cheaper to build. A-not-to-be-dismissed factor for the poorly endowed congregation!
Taylor, who enlarged the original building, kept to the same style so giving a unity of appearance; at the same time he embellished the church with its welcoming porch and tower.
The exterior look of the church is simple, in contrast to the far more elaborate interior. Historic photographs show the inside of the church to have been richly painted, a practice which is continued until today with apse and apsidal arch retaining their jewel-like painted decoration. A proportion of these paintings take an unusual form of being painted on tin panels attached to the walls. Similar panels, part of the original scheme and now painted over, can still be seen on the nave window sills.
All the stained-glass windows are of good quality, particularly the apse glass by Wailes and Co. whose intense colours complement the wall paintings, as do the multi-coloured painted pipes of the 1867 organ. Though the nave has been painted white, it retains a relatively plain, but well crafted hammer- beam roof and carved arcade capitals. Other good-quality features, such as the original stone font, remain.
The narrow proportions of the tower would have made it impossible to hang a peal of bells, but this difficulty was ingeniously overcome in 1870 by the installation of a carillon of hemispherical bells placed vertically on a single beam, which still ring out every Sunday. This technique, it is believed, is very rare in this country.
The church lychgate, designed in the 1880s, came a little later but is considered a good example of a 19th Century entrance.
In 2013, the church started a new phase in its history when the old Vicarage, built in the post-war years, was demolished and a new development started, which included a new Vicarage and three more dwelling houses. This work was completed in 2015. It was also discovered that problems which existed in the fabric of the church were much more serious than previously thought. With generous support from the Heritage Lottery Fund and the generosity of parishioners, the crumbling spire was rebuilt and topped with a new weathervane, and other stonework replaced during 2015. At the same time access to the Church was improved with the construction of a ramp to the front door. Thanks to the imagination of the architects, the ramp has further improved, rather than detracted from, the appearance of the St Thomas’ Church when viewed from the main road.
This small church with the big welcoming heart –you will always find its doors open during daylight hours – recently celebrated its 150th anniversary when the people of High Lane showed their love and admiration for ‘The Church in the Trees’ which is always there for them and their families, thus continuing the work started all those years ago by Thomas Orford.