In the latest of his series, Mark Fox travels to West Wight to view the only thatched church on the Island, and one of only about 100 throughout the country.
St Agnes Church sits in the far west of the Island at Freshwater, on one side looking out onto the fields of the surrounding countryside and on the other looking towards the community it serves.
The arrival of the famous poet Lord Tennyson at nearby Farringford had attracted to this remote community an illustrious stream of guests which included Lewis Carroll, William Makepeace Thackeray and Edward Lear.
There are two memorial plates bearing the names of Tennyson and Thackeray in the church, giving witness to their connection to the church. Indeed the porch was the gift of Tennyson’s daughter Emily in memory of her mother.
The thatched roof is the church’s most visible and unique feature. Alone among Island churches the roof is its distinguishing characteristic. It was the vision of the then Rector of Freshwater, the Revd A.J. Robertson. When plans for the church were first being discussed he drew a picture of the kind of church he wanted to see built on land given for the purpose by Hallam Tennyson, the poet’s eldest son.
The architect, Isaac Jones, who was born at Carisbrooke, based his plans on that painting and local builders, the C & W White Brothers, were commissioned to erect the building.
Much of the stone was taken from a nearby unoccupied farmhouse, which dated from 1694, a good example of sensible recycling before it became fashionable. Even though it was built in 1908, St. Agnes has the feeling of warmth and welcome that is the characteristic of much more modern churches.
Inside there is a feeling of space and simple dignity. Over the period of its life the inside of the church has barely changed. One significant change however is the Chancel Screen. It was carved by the Revd T.G. Devitt, who was curate from 1942 to 1946. It is a remarkable piece of work and worth looking at carefully. There is further carving at the altar end of the church.
Originally the church was lit by gas lamps but they have long since been replaced by electric light. But one can imagine the rather charming light that would have reflected around the interior of the church. The first organ was originally hand pumped; today there is a splendid modern Dutch one, but its console is completely in-keeping with its surroundings.
The church is named after the Roman martyr Agnes. This is an inspiring choice because Agnes was executed at the age of 12 or 13 for refusing to deny her Christian faith. She is, among other things, the patron saint of gardeners, girls, and engaged couples – this last being particularly appropriate because in 2000 the church was granted a licence for weddings.
The beginning of the 20th Century was a time when Britain was a vibrant and outward looking nation. The building of a new church represented a confident and powerful investment in the community by the parish and the Bishop of the day. Now, 105 years later the church feels as though that confidence was amply justified.