A Surprisingly Cosy Church for the Rich

Having explored Tunbridge Wells’ “poor cathedral” of St Barnabas during Heritage Weekend, and having learnt about its history as an offshoot of the rich parish of St James, the natural next step was to cross town to visit the parent church.


I grew up quite close to this church and had always liked its exterior which seemed warm and inviting in the way a traditional village church should be, but once again I had never actually been inside.


A review of the history of this church on their website, shows that my hunch was sort of right- when St James was built in 1862, it was on a new posh edge of town in an area, Calverley Plain, which likely would have felt quite village-like as the town was only just starting its sprawl outwards.

The website tells the story of a terrible hail storm on the day of its foundation stone being laid with local worthies being knocked off their perches and scaffolding collapsing- sure enough, you can see on the left in the picture above, some of this work being memorialised for the heritage weekend- or maybe I misunderstood somehow!


When I stepped inside, my first sense was quite surreal- the church was completely deserted, but to welcome the heritage visitors they had suitable Victorian music playing over the speakers- as I wandered round I heard the likes of Land of Hope and Glory which jarred somehow with a colour scheme which reminded this colour Blind photographer of the dream sequences from Twin Peaks.


But as I got the true feel for the place, I once again regretted having missed it for so long- this is a really cosy, warm space with none of the snobbish exclusiveness I had imagined when reading of the religious war with St Barnabas.






I resolved to get into as many of the local churches as possible during the rest of the weekend and beyond.



Who knew? We have a cathedral!

Since starting this blog a couple of years ago, I’ve been meaning to get into the town’s Victorian churches. In particular, I’ve always been fascinated by the sheer size of St Barnabas’ -a church that I had never even been into.


Last week’s Heritage Open day gave me the chance and it didn’t disappoint. My title may be a typical exaggeration, but this is a surprisingly large and impressive building inside. I take most of my photographs normally in landscape mode, but in every one of these, I found myself flipping the camera round to take in the height of the structure.



There was an interesting historical exhibition, but in my excitement taking pictures I did not get an explanation of why the Victorians chose to make this church, the one built for the poor of the town, the biggest and most ornate.


Local historian Geoffrey Copus was there helpfully guiding people around. He has written an interesting history of the church on their website which gives me my answer. St Barnabas’ was a successor to an earlier short lived Church called St Stephen’s. This last was built by a wealthy Victorian Reverend for the town’s poor who felt unwelcome amongst the rich of nearby St James’. The congregation soon outgrew the original building and so a replacement was constructed.


In Geoffrey’s history there is also explanation of religious strife in Victorian Tunbridge Wells. The town’s church life was dominated by a fire and brimstone protestant preacher called the Rev Edward Hoare who was the vicar of Holy Trinity (now the arts centre.) Tunbridge Wells at that time was being dragged by Hoare and his followers away from it’s reputation as a party town for hedonistic visitors from London. Hoare tended to his parishioner’s souls with low protestantism with little ostentation. St Stephen’s and then St Barnabas had a very different version of protestantism with candles and elaborate vestments which made it seem to Hoare and his followers as dangerously “popish.” So the size of this heretical church in their midsts was maybe partly a deliberate irritant to the local protestant worthies.


The heretical vestments are still on display in 2016:


If I’d read his helpful article first, I would have talked about all of this with Geoffrey. Instead he showed us around the mortuary beneath the church, a surprising feature again thoughtfully built by the worthy Victorians as a place where the poor could lay out their dead with dignity:




Waking up again in Dunorlan


Each summer, as I return back to Tunbridge Wells after a visit to some amazing place, I have to re-start my photography a bit. Often this starts in that most familiar of places-Dunorlan Park.

This summer, I have just been to the Norwegian Fjords (hint hint- you can check out the first part of my adventures in my other blog at this link)

How can Dunorlan compete with this?


Well for me a big part of what makes the park work for me photographically is about my own attitude. When I go to a worldwide location for the first time, I often tend to take my least risky or original shots as everything is new to me.


Back home, the opposite happens. When I go back yet again to Dunorlan, I have no choice but to try something new. It is why when I look over the past of this blog I see so many failed experiments, but also all of the pictures where I have moved my technique on. Most of what I have actually learned about photography has happened in this town.


The pictures that follow probably mix failed experiments with successes. they are all taken with my favourite old Russian lens, the Helios 44-2 which creates those lovely painterly blurred backgrounds. I have messed with it even more by putting it on a tilt shift adapter- a strange contraption which allows me to bend it from side to side on the camera so that it focuses on just a strip of what is in front of it- you can see the effect most clearly in the first picture below of the bench.

I’m not entirely sure whether it all works- I normally only decide these things after a few weeks when I look back at my shots, but I’m glad I tried.