26 October 2017
With our coffee and cakes finished we bade a last sad farewell to the Costa in Portswood and walked on towards Highfield. Like most of the city, outside the centre, this was once a rural area and the name, at least according to old maps, originated from a bastardisation of Hayfield. That there were fields is in no doubt and, as the road rises up towards the Common, they were undoubtedly high fields too so the name is quite apt. Today Highfield is home to the main University Campus, built on an old brickfield. This was not what we’d come to see though.
The pretty metal signpost for Highfield is dominated by a church, officially called Christ Church but known as Highfield Church. Commando and I pass the little church of Purbeck Stone with mouldings of Caen Stone regularly and I’ve been meaning to have a closer look at it for some time. Today seemed like as good a day as any.
The church was built in 1847 as a chapel of ease for the parish of South Stoneham. The architect, Joshua Brandon, died before it was completed and is supposedly buried in the churchyard. I thought we might try to find his grave. The graveyard is small so it seemed as if it would be an easy enough task.
When we got closer though, I noticed the church door was open, something that only seems to happen when I have CJ with me. Seeing this we decided to leave the churchyard for the time being and go inside while we had the chance.
As with any church of its age, it has seen many changes over the years and it is still undergoing work at the moment. The west porch, built in 1955 and designed by Ernest Barry Webber, the architect of the Civic centre, was surrounded by barriers and workmen. This may well have been the reason the door was open but we took full advantage and went inside.
We didn’t get very far. Inside the little porch we discovered two tiny but lovely little trefoil windows. The stone around them was marked by graffiti, mostly scratched initials but a few dates told us the majority was more than a century old. Obviously defacing things, even churches, is nothing new and I couldn’t help wondering who the scribes were and what became of them?
Once we’d dragged ourselves away from the porch we discovered an arched nave filled with green seated chairs rather than the wooden pews I’d expected. Later I discovered this was part of renovations carried out in 2011. While I imagine the chairs are far more comfortable than the old pews, they don’t quite have the same sense of history.
The area around the west porch was blocked off and covered in dust sheets, so we concentrated on the things we could see and kept out of the builders way. The beautiful wooden beams of the arched roof and the candelabras hanging from them more than made up for missing out on the porch. We also discovered a little side room, more cupboard than room really, filled with shelves, clutter and a tiny sink. The small space was dominated by a beautiful stained glass window and, on the sill, bunches and bunches of flowers.
Further on, just beyond the font, we found another open door, less interesting and presumably leading to the bell tower. Beside it were the organ pipes. Many church organs have a long and interesting history. If this one does, it’s one I haven’t been able to uncover, although the pipes looked quite impressive. Behind them, at the eastern end of the church, were some stained glass windows I wanted a closer look at.
One of my favourite things about churches is the stained glass and, in this church, there is a story to tell about it. During the southampton blitz the lovely windows were coated with a rubber solution to protect them and help to stop the glass splintering in the event of a bomb dropping nearby. The clergy and other members of the church also kept watch with a stirrup pump, buckets and shovels in case an incendiary bomb fell on the church. As it happened, the neighbouring church, St Barnabas, was destroyed but Highfield escaped serious damage. The windows at the east and west end of the church were shattered though, despite the rubber. The replacement eastern windows were dedicated as a memorial to those who died in the war.
Beneath them was a rather beautiful altar, complete with a mosaic of the last supper all gold leaf and bright colours. This and the little flower filled room, trumped even the stained glass and made the walking to get to the church worthwhile.
By this time the builders were coming in and out, discussing the painting of some new doors so we thought it was probably time for us to leave. Before we did, there was one more window I wanted a closer look at. It was almost hidden by some violet voile draped above a large cross. What that was all about was anyone’s guess. With a little shuffling, I did manage to see the window though.
Although we had by no means seen all there was to see inside the church we felt we’d pushed our luck with the builders as far as we could, especially as the door was probably only open in the first place for them rather than for visitors. With one last look back at the flower filled room we went back through the door. Now it was time to see if we could find Joshua Brandon’s grave.
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