The Church in the Clouds, as St. Anne’s is locally known, sits at the top of a hill and looks out over the county of Wiltshire. Wiltshire is an under sung county, it harbours many delights from Avebury, Cherhill White Horse, Silbury Hill, and of course, Stonehenge. As well as these Palaeolithic World Heritage landmarks, there are many other sites of interest, e.g. Castle Combe for the race track and quaint picturesque village, Corsham for the film set of Poldark, Malmesbury Abbey for the tomb of King Athelstan the first King of all England, and Box where one can see the famous Brunel railway tunnel.
St. Anne’s is in the village of Bowden Hill and lies a mile east from the famous village of Lacock. The name ‘Bowden Hill’ is somewhat debated, thought to stem from various derivations or corruptions, e .g. ‘bow’ meaning bow shaped, ‘dun’ meaning hill, or ‘bdl’ meaning dwellings. Nowadays it is an expensive village to live in, not least because of its amazing views and proximity to Lacock. One only has to sit in the garden of the one local pub to look out over miles and miles of countryside.
There are only a handful of houses in the village, which encompasses the small hamlet of Bewley Common. Halfway up the hill between Bowood and Lacock Abbey, is Spye Park a conservation site of biological interest and historical seat of the Bayntun family. If one drives around the edges of the Spye Park in May, you will see a dense border of bluebells. The house at Spye Park has been twice ravaged by fire and it is my understanding there are plans afoot to rebuild a Palladian style property there. In 1833 Charlotte Wyndham, the wife of John Edward Andrew Bayntun Starky declared Spye Park as ‘one of the prettiest places in the world, or in all events it has more natural beauty than most. In every description the views are so varied and the grounds so picturesque. The park is very large and one could wander about for many hours admiring and exploring’.
In the nineteenth century the owner of the estate accrued many debts and was finally forced into selling the property and land. The Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII) even offered £300,000 for the estates but John Bayntun Starky refused (the Royal Family bought Sandringham instead). However, in 1849 new attention was given to the area and Bowden Park was purchased by John Gladstone in 1849.
John Gladstone was brother to William Ewart Gladstone, Prime Minister on four separate occasions (1868–1874, 1880–1885, February–July 1886, and lastly from 1892–1894). In celebration of a son in 1856, John Gladstone commissioned the building of St. Anne’s.
The parish of Lacock was then split and the new parish of Bowden Hill served approximately three hundred people. The parish has seen been reunited and Church of England services are held both at St. Cyriac’s, Lacock and in St. Anne’s. The design of St. Anne’s is a mish mash in some respects, embracing Romanesque, Norman, and Gothic styles. The architect was S.B. Gabriel who was based in Bristol; he designed both the nave and chancel in the Early English Gothic style whilst giving the roof a Romanesque feel and the north-east tower Norman details.
The inside of the church is in remarkably good condition, although it is clear that work is done to maintain it (aside from the cobwebs on the upper stained glass windows). The church is often locked though, so this is not a place you can just turn up and visit. There are regular services held and more so since 1958 when it re-joined the Parish of Lacock. The services vary but on occasion there is a Schola service for Compline – this is a sung liturgical service and in with the acoustics of St. Anne’s on a warm summer evening it is a wonderful atmosphere, one could consider it a performance if nothing more.
Although the church was built in the 1850s, at a time when the Pre-Raphaelites were well established, it is curious to note their lack of influence. Whereas St. Anne was a figure the Pre-Raphaelite did, on occasion, depict, there is none of their sharp lined glass work to be found here. The figures are more conventional, obviously Victorian, but the willowy, androgynous look of Pre-Raphaelitism had yet to spread to the churches of Wiltshire (and it did, there are plenty of examples, e.g. the St. Nicholas’ Church, Bromham which is a five minute drive from St. Anne’s). The designs are clear, bright and sensitively drawn but they do not have the awkwardness or catholicity of the Pre-Raphaelites.
The St. George figure does not shock or excite us, but he does exude a power and a strength, the command one would expect from a Roman leader perhaps. The brightness and colour of his shield and robe is impressive perhaps because of the clear glass from which it leaps. The whole church is surprisingly light, it is no darkened, highly patterned work such as that of the later Victorians. There are traces of such styles creeping in, e.g. the organ and the tiles all of which remind us of places like All Saints’ Church, Cambridge or even the late High Victorian fantasy found in Castell Coch, Wales.
As you would expect in a Victorian Church there are angels a plenty in one window but again these lack the harmony of the Burne-Jones or Morris workshops. They are nonetheless, beautiful and the detail is itself more for being less. In fact, the whole church provides a sense of harmony, of clean and pure morality which no doubt appealed to the Victorians at the time it was built. If one remembers the congregation for which it is built, it perhaps helps to explain why the sense of high Victoriana is lacking. This rural, pastoral community had yet to meet the laborious over worked architectural Gothic designs of Bodley or Burges; as such the clean bright, instructive message of the church is yielding, comforting and inviting. The design of the church is no doubt, a combination of the clean living attitude of the Gladstone’s but also a reflection of S.B. Gabriel’s architectural practice.