Life after death
Ingestre near Stafford is no more than a hamlet, down a cul-de-sac that ends at a manor house and church. The house, Ingestre Hall, retains its Jacobean front but is otherwise much altered; the church, St Mary's, is largely as it was when completed in 1676.Which is all to the good, for this is the one church outside London convincingly attributed to Christopher Wren.
Four years ago, however, the small congregation of St Mary's was dismayed to learn that the roof of the building was infested with death watch beetles - so severely that the splendid plaster ceiling might at any moment have crashed into the nave. The church was closed immediately and for a time its future was in doubt. Now, with grants from the Heritage Lottery Fund, the Historic Churches Preservation Trust and Stafford Borough Council - as well as many private donations - St Mary's has reopened after a £580,000 restoration.
John Cunnington of Matlock has been the architect.
No documents survive to confirm Wren's involvement with St Mary's but the circumstantial evidence is persuasive.
We know that Walter Chetwynd, the then-owner of Ingestre Hall, won permission from the Archbishop of Canterbury in 1671 to build a new church on the site of the existing medieval one. Like Wren, Chetwynd was a fellow of the Royal Society, so they certainly knew each other, but a drawing that survives in the Victoria &Albert Museum suggests something more than acquaintanceship. Depicting a lantern on the top of a church tower, it is annotated in Wren's hand with the words 'Mr Chetwynd's tower' - though it was never built, either at Ingestre or elsewhere.
Wren was immensely busy with his royal and City of London commissions - could St Mary's perhaps be by someone in his office, such as Robert Hooke? In the end it's an educated guess, but in his Staffordshire volume of the Buildings of England, Pevsner trusts the evidence of his eyes and opts for Wren himself - 'the exquisite quality speaks unequivocally'.
St Mary's is neither huge nor grandiose but very much of a piece. It is built of local Hollington sandstone, which cuts easily in the quarry but becomes much harder when exposed to the air, holding carved detail well.
1Predominantly pale grey in colour, the ashlar of the church exterior is finely jointed, with decorative enrichment confined to garlands round a shield on the second stage of the tower and the clock on the third, while the pedimented west-door entrance is framed by three-quarter Tuscan columns.
The overall impression is of plainness and precision, encapsulated in the sharp-edged rusticated quoins at the base of the tower.
There is a surprise immediately on entering the church, in that the vestibule inside the west door is round - a circle inscribed in a square. Beyond that lies what Pevsner called 'a room of blissful harmony'. Four bays long, the nave is a double cube with a lower aisle on either side. Though there are some later coloured windows, and the pews were cut down in Victorian times, the scene is familiar from Wren's churches in the City, with sunlight falling through clear glass on to white walls and mellow woodwork. The nave's flat, panelled plaster ceiling has relief decorations, as does the shallow barrel-vault of the chancel; between them is a richly carved wooden screen. While the chancel suffers from a crass late-19th-century east window, and its monuments are a little intrusive, its black and white marble floor is a compensation. In sum, the church is surprisingly refined for such rural surroundings.
Putting that refinement in jeopardy, however, was Xestobium rufovillosum, the death watch beetle. This creature may only be miniscule, just 6-9mm as an adult, but it has a hearty appetite and loves tucking-in to an old oak roof. 'The beetles were very active and widespread but there was no clear explanation why, ' says Cunnington. 'They were even audible while we were carrying out tests - you could hear their little tapping sound.'
After the initial discovery of the problem, Robert Demaus of Demaus Building Diagnostics surveyed the roof, using microdrilling to take small core samples of the timbers to determine how badly the structure was impaired. As the infestation was so severe, he was surprised to find no evidence of a fungal attack - Donkioporia expansa (oak rot), which thrives when moisture levels are high, usually when a faulty gutter or suchlike lets water through the roof. There was an attempt to deal with death watch beetles once before at St Mary's, in the mid-1960s, so perhaps the treatment then - though otherwise ineffective - had eliminated any fungi. Alternatively, the original tree may have been affected by fungi before it was felled, making its timber more vulnerable to the death watch beetle.
'What alarmed us was the extent to which the roof timbers had lost their structural integrity - as much as 80 per cent in places, ' says Cunnington, 'and we knew that would only get worse. You can kill the adult beetles when they come out of the wood, but it's their larval stage - which lasts from six to 12 years - that does the damage, and there's no sure chemical remedy for that. So the roof was seriously at risk if we didn't strengthen its existing elements in some way, or introduce a new independent structure to counter any failure.'
Because the timbers were so affected and were bound to be further undermined, the restorers chose to do the latter, which also minimised disturbance to historic fabric.
They inserted a new steel structure, bearing on the masonry walls, to support the damaged roof - the steel forming a series of 'ring beams' between each existing truss, the beams spanning the width of the nave and sitting on their own new wall-plate, and each original ceiling joist and purlin connected directly to the steel. On top is a new lead roof-covering, which resembles the 17thcentury one, and replaces a copper substitute installed in the 1930s.
Cunnington hopes that improved natural ventilation will help keep the roof free of infestation in the future. Meanwhile, any death watch beetles exiting from the stillinfected timbers will now be 'zapped' by ultraviolet insectecutors.
The ornate plasterwork was repaired where necessary and totally redecorated.
Apart from the pristine white of this new paint, the restoration of St Mary's is more or less invisible, but members of the now-returned congregation no longer risk concussion from chunks of falling ceiling, and visitors can again enjoy the 'harmony' that Pevsner found. All the main elements of the church cohere; lucid and unmysterious, it's the epitome of Anglicanism in the late17th century.
To emerge from St Mary's, though, is still an odd sensation: you expect to see Swiss Re or the Mansion House or some other City sight - not fields.Wren may or may not have been the church's architect, but certainly at Ingestre his spirit is there.
References 1.'In its figreenfl state, Hollington stone is extraordinarily soft; large blocks can be cut out like cheese, ' says Alec CliftonTaylor in The Pattern of English Building (Faber,1972) CREDITS ARCHITECT John Cunnington Architects STRUCTURAL ENGINEER Ward Cole: Adrian Dempster ARCHAEOLOGICAL ANALYSIS Bob Meeson, historic buildings consultant ROOF SURVEY Demaus Building Diagnostics: Robert Demaus MAIN CONTRACTOR Sandy & Co CEILING DECORATION A J Godwin & Sons PLASTER REPAIRS Luard Conservation: David Luard