Tuesday, 22 April 2008

Watts Cemetery Chapel

After we'd visited Watts gallery the plan was to visit Watts Cemetery Chapel just along the road and naturally we drove there instead of walking! Mind you, we might have been run over by passing traffic if we had attempted to walk because there aren't any pavements along the roads.

This small chapel has a reputation for its design and I had heard about it from my friend who I was with and lately colleagues too. To be honest I didn't know what to expect and you might like it and you might not. It is set on top of a small hill so your first view of it is from below. It is surrounded by the graveyard which is well tended and at first sight you might wonder where the occupants of said graves had once lived as there doesn't seem to be any housing nearby. You enter the cemetery through the Lych Gate, also designed by the Watts', and it ever so slightly has the feeling of a film set. Apparently this is a sort of overflow cemetery which was constructed in the 1890s when the parishioners ran out of burial space in the churchyard at St Nicholas Church in Compton which may explain why it feels so isolated. The Parish Council bought the plot of land on Budbury Hill from the Loseley Estate. Later on G F Watts and his wife, Mary offered to design and build, at their own expense, a chapel in keeping with the site. The exterior was completed in 1898 and the interior was finished in 1904.

The exterior is covered in highly decorated terracotta tiles. The tiles were designed by Mary Watts and she took her inspiration from Christian Celtic art and although the design is a bit fanciful it is also very cohesive and works well in three dimensions. The tiles were produced by more than 70 villagers, friends and craftsmen and women using clay from a seam that was discovered in the grounds of the Watts' house called Limnerslease. This story gives the impression of a community working together towards a common goal which is all very nice but for all I know the participants might not have been given much choice in the matter.

The exterior is a complete contrast to the interior and it left me momentarily speechless when we went inside. I didn't notice the floor which is made of oak parquet because I was too busy gawping at the decoration on the walls which is a blast of art nouveau intensity. The space inside is circular with just enough room for a coffin, a minister and a few mourners. There is a bell rope for tolling the single bell which rings the note 'C' which was tempting to pull but a notice asks visitors not to as it is solely for the use at funerals. As I spun round to look at everything I had the feeling that I was being drenched in a waterfall of symbolism. It included winged messengers (angels), cherubim and the Tree of Life spreading its branches and roots around the space. Bunches of grapes wrestled for space with various flowers and to top it all there are two scrolling wrought-iron arched doors.

Our exit from the chapel was hastened by a bad tempered cat that seemed to be living there and it was quite a relief to get back outside. We wandered around the graveyard and pondered the inscriptions on the stones and enjoyed the feeling of peace and tranquility which was present. Just before we left we walked up and down the cloister, also designed by Mary Watts, which had a Mediterranean feel to it and led me to feel I was back visiting Pompey! Oh it was good to get back on the train because I knew where I was and where I was going.

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