Rowtor Chapel - Birchover

This is a copy of an article published in The Peak Advertiser, the Peak District's local free newspaper on 19th June 2000, reproduced by kind permission of its author, Julie Bunting.

Rowtor Chapel, Birchover

Tucked away below Rowtor Rocks in Birchover is this fascinating little church, not the first to serve the village, for a much earlier Norman chapel once stood in the neighbouring hamlet of Uppertown. A few of its carved stones - fragments of pillars, pieces with chevron moulding and corbel heads - were recovered from stone walls and rebuilt into the church's outer wall. They overlook a small paved yard where, it is recorded on a plaque, Francis and Mary Walker were buried in the mid-nineteenth century.

Today's church was built as a private chapel around 1700 by Thomas Eyre, whose home was Rowtor Hall. His will left instructions for his body to be buried in the chapel; he left £20 per year to pay a minister for twice-daily prayers, with the Sacrament to be administered every Sunday. The estate eventually passed to John Bradley who has a memorial of 1795 in the nave. Thomas himself had no memorial until 1909 when the vicar and churchwardens had one erected.

At its restoration in 1869 the 30-feet by 18 feet chapel was given a chancel, and the south wall entrance was converted into a central window in favour of a west doorway sheltered by a new porch. Today the three south wall windows are newly fitted with abstract designs in blues, sharp citrus colours and pure white, the work and generous gift of acclaimed artist Brian Clarke, who lived in Birchover for a number of years and whose skill has achieved worldwide recognition.

Carved to one side of the porch door are vines, a rose and a dragon, whilst inside the porch is a memorial which tells in gilt letters the story of Joan Waste. This young woman of twenty-two, poor, blind and homeless, was burnt at the stake in Derby during religious persecutions under ‘Bloody’ Queen Mary. Thus Protestants were punished as heretics, and although Joan Waste apparently had no connection with Birchover, in this peaceful corner she is remembered for her faith and courage.

Above the church door the visitor is welcomed by gilded wooden lettering: ‘This is the House of Prayer’, inside a stone arch of dogtooth moulding. Many, many hours of loving work have given the church a profusion of woodcarving, all the gift of Charles Summerfield, vicar here from 1917 to 1961 and whose grave lies by the churchyard gate. Oak pew ends bear delightful carvings; flowers and vines, a crown, one is shared by a dormouse and a fieldmouse, and another shows three mice escaping from a pair of cats. The south wall pews specialise in fullsize painted fruit. The same hand carved an ornate alms box displaying the names of twenty worshippers who took their first communion here fifty years ago.

A wealth of carvings reflect two years of work which transformed a dozen different types of wood into the remarkable pulpit; its panels combine figs, olives, vines, pomegranates and wild animals with simple words - ‘The Noon Watch was kept in this church and parish 1939-45. Not one was lost’. The vicar added his personal thanksgiving for the safe return of his two soldier sons and a son-in-law, who was later killed in Malaya. Elm taken from the vicarage garden supports the pulpit, carved into the form of a strange half-human figure with wings and hooves, the combined likenesses of four creatures which appeared in a vision to the prophet Ezekiel.

Memorial gifts include an oak reading desk presented in memory of Lydia Dakin, church cleaner for thirty years, the oak font cover and the altar brass. Finely carved detail borders two oak plaques hung on the north wall; one records the 1947 gift of church lighting by the Heathcote family, the other refers to curtains given some years later.

Between the south wall windows is a modern brass to Frederick William Brocklehurst, soldier, farmer and churchwarden. A ‘vicar's memorial to a good churchman’ commemorates Joseph Twyford, who fell in France in 1916, and the remaining memorials name three former vicars - Revd. John Gresley who died in 1795, Revd. James Jagger, vicar from 1891/1904, and his successor, Revd. David Steele Morris.

Carved and painted stone foliage sprouts from pillars below the wooden rafters in nave and chancel, whilst to either side of the chancel arch hang two large eighteenth century prayerboards to frame the coloured glass of the east window behind them. Installed, as was the handsome font, during the incumbency of the Revd. James Jagger, its four large panels are filled with sixteen full-length figures representing St. Michael and all the Angels, to whom the church is dedicated.

© Julie Bunting
From "The Peak Advertiser", 19th June 2000.

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