It takes a little planning to visit St. Mary’s if you do not live in Guildford, as the church opens to visitors one day a week. It used to be Thursdays, before the 2020 pandemic, when life felt normal and simpler. After a few unsuccessful attempts, I was finally able to visit St. Mary’s church located in Guilford, in southern England.
What is special about St. Mary’s you may ask. Everything, I’d say. In a nutshell, the church dates from pre-Norman conquest times. The tower alone survives from the original 10th century building. The nave and transepts were built in about 1050. The chapels and aisles were added in the 12th and 13th century. Time, historical events like the Reformation, and changing ideas have left their mark on the fabric of the building.
The outside is what you would expect from a medieval church. A squat square tower with an -albeit modern- clock, buttresses, flint and chalk walls, lancet windows, gables, and a beautifully overgrown churchyard give St. Mary’s its unique character.
So, one Thursday in September 2019, I timed my day trip to Guildford well. The church was open. I felt elated.
As soon as I crossed the porch, I heard hammering, sawing, radio music and chatter. A crew of builders was making much-needed improvements to bring the church into the 21st century. While I understood the need for the repairs, all that noise and movement marred the experience for me. The magic was gone. If I wanted to see the church, I’d have to put up with it.
I had to negotiate piles of building materials and random office furniture in order to see the interior. Not all of it, though, as some parts were blocked off, like the apse and one transept. I enjoyed discovering medieval features like the squint -a small opening in a wall between a side chapel and the main altar, so that people could see the priest, – or the fantastical figures carved on the corbels.
To the bell tower… maybe?
A narrow archway to the left of one of the chapels led to the tower staircase. The tower is the oldest bit of the church. It is made of flint with a few tiles mixed in and is crowned with a weather- vane sitting on a wrought-iron finial. I learned that the crenellated parapet is modern.
I climbed the very narrow and steep staircase to a chamber immediately above the chancel. It was an open space with a little natural light coming in through a lonely window. The timbers that form the truss looked very old to me, unlike the insulation foam between the beams. All kinds of stuff were lying around, like a table, mismatched chairs, a kettle, a length of rope, and safety helmets.
The bell chamber was directly above where me. If I wanted to see the bells, I’d have had to climb a ladder and then go through a hatch in the ceiling. I hadn’t expected such a precarious climb. How do the bell ringers do it? I guess they’re used to going up and down that ladder. I hesitated. I had visions of my feet slipping and then falling. The voices and hammering coming from the bell chamber made up my mind. If I waited this long to visit St. Mary’s, I can wait a bit longer to see the bells.
Royal and literary connections
According to Historic England, St. Mary’s tower is “the most important structural pre-conquest work remaining in Surrey”. St. Mary’s has more than one claim to fame. Since Guildford Castle was a favourite royal residence in the 12th and 13th centuries, the church was used for royal worship. Fast forward a few centuries to Victorian times. Rev. Charles L. Dodgson, better known as Lewis Carroll, preached at St. Mary’s when he visited his sisters. And this is where his funeral took place.