In the latest of an occasional series focusing on Shropshire churches, large and small, Shirley Tart visits a rural gem, designed by a famous Victorian architect and celebrated for its magnificent wall paintings
It is the gentle, golden glow of the left knee which gives a clue.
A wonderful wall painting — on canvas though you’d never know it — badly needs to be cleaned and restored to its original glory. So cautious experiments have been taking place to test the viability. And the gently cleaned patch on a knee of an onlooker at the great Epiphany mural, painted in 1903 by Douglas Strachan, does indeed shine like a little beacon from the otherwise darkened work. Even Joseph lurks as a gloomy, barely visible figure behind Mary and the baby Jesus.
But early investigation suggests that a clean-up is absolutely possible, if pricey, and once the money is raised all things shall be well. Indeed, as the great mystic Julian of Norwich might have gone on to confirm, ‘you shall see for yourself that all manner of things shall be well’.
Certainly they will with these magnificent paintings around the chancel — the one on the other side was created directly on to the stonework — once they are brought back to the light of life as the artist intended.
The famous artwork has even over the years given its name to the little church which is its home. And so The Chapel of the Epiphany on the edge of rolling fields in rural Peplow, near Hodnet, stands testament to the treasures within its walls.
The paintings have been cleaned before, notably back in 1962. But there were concerns in recent times that there might have been some top varnish which would make cleaning pretty impossible. But not so; investigation by experts has already shown that it can be done.
The church itself was designed in 1877 by famous Victorian architect Richard Norman Shaw, originally as a private chapel. It was commissioned and funded by the Stanier family who then lived at nearby Peplow Hall — they had bought the Peplow Hall estate in 1873 from legendary son of Shropshire, Lord Hill.
And so in 1877, overseen by the Bishop of Lichfield, the cornerstone was laid by Caroline Stanier. The famous painting was commissioned in 1903 by Beville Stanier in memory of Francis Stanier.
As with so many churches of our day, it is possible that there had been a much older place of worship on the same site. But this particular building was designed as a cruciform brick structure and has an attractive herringbone brick-and-timber framing inside, a design which is not out of place in some of today’s finer buildings. Circling and holding the 120-seater chapel, it is a perfect complement to what must be one of the prettiest sites in the county and even beyond.
Imagine: the gentle lowing of cattle across the nearby field, the unusual sight of a car on the narrow winding road, or of a person not involved with the service that day, the peaceful view across a plain which on a clear day, reaches for miles.
Vicar of Hodnet, with Weston-under-Redcastle and Peplow churches also in her care, the Reverend Charmian Beech not surprisingly loves this little Chapel of the Epiphany which stands guardian of the wonderful pastoral scene, and watches over its scattered flock of about 80 souls.
How big is the congregation?
“Well we get 10 regulars,” Charmian says cheerfully. “But that’s not a bad percentage.”
She is absolutely right. And at any rate when the wider parish thinks a much-loved church, which has seen all their baptisms, marriages and funerals, is at risk or might need attention, they are known for rallying round. And the Chapel of the Epiphany needs a bit of a hand right now.
Because the very special paintings right round the chancel are going to be cleaned and made good again for the years ahead.
Alison Reeve, who works with Reverend Charmian, has put in much painstaking work to find the best people for the job, and now has a shortlist, She reckons the cost will be somewhere between £20,000 and £25,000.
Charmian, who is also the Lichfield diocesan child protection officer, says: “We have had one or two promises, and we will of course do some money raising ourselves. Peplow Hall Gardens are opening for us this month so we are very encouraged.”
There are not too many Norman Shaw churches around nowadays and as buildings go, this little masterpiece is a county treasure.
The fittings are all by Shaw, the font is a traditional octagon and the timber pulpit is panelled with leaf carving. The roof is unusually tall where nave and chancel join and the chapel’s plan included just the single bell above the communion rail.
“It was built as a private chapel to the big house, then when it came into the Church of England a trust fund was set up which still pays for the general maintenance so we are very fortunate,” says Charmian.
Lord Newborough from the Hall is a faithful supporter of the Chapel of the Epiphany established so long ago by the Stanier family, and so the links and heritage live on in a very special place of worship.
But a small congregation, a scattered and sparse parish and many churches and other schemes also vying for help, mean these little gems can sometimes struggle more than most.
Not as ancient as some, not in a bustling urban centre, far from the madding crowd, in fact. Yet the Chapel of the Epiphany still serves as it has for more than 130 years, and in return is loved as an integral part of its local community, generation after generation.
And once the special paintings have been lovingly cleaned and restored to their former grandeur, along with the stained glass, the fascinating architecture and its century of local history, they might prove a draw for more visitors.
Alison has high hopes for the project in hand, which has been going for about 12 months, and thinks she’s already had a glimpse of how it might all look eventually. She says: “I’ve taken pictures with my own camera and the blue just looks different so we are very excited about seeing the paintings when the cleaning is finally done.
Reverend Charmian Beech has great faith in people when they know what the church is trying to do, and with some promises of help already in she believes locals will respond.
Most of all, she passes on the aims of her three churches like this: “Our mission is to bring people of every age and background into a living and growing relationship with Jesus Christ; to be a mutually supportive, caring community in which everyone has a part to play; to offer worship to God that is wholehearted, accessible and relevant; to enable people to grow in wholeness and Christ-likeness in their own lives and relationships; and to change the way the world around us goes about its business.”
That’s what lies at the heart of even little churches like Peplow’s Chapel of the Epiphany — and that’s why the paintings will surely get cleaned.
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