The Chancel


        A tour of St John the Baptist

The Chancel

The Chancel arch, straightened in the 1860’s, used to be surrounded by the words “Thy throne O God is for ever and ever”. This appears on a photograph of about 1920 and the hymn boards look remarkably familiar!  So step through the oldest part of the church structurally not changed much from the 1200’s apart from the monuments blocking the lancet windows. Just inside the arch on the left (north) side, the memorial to Frank Whittuck, 5th son of Captain Whittuck of Ellsbridge House who died at Candahar, Afghanistan emphasises just how long there have been troubles in that area. The other monuments nearly all belong to the Bridges family.

The roof with Hammerbeam construction was extensively repaired/replaced in the ‘Battle of the Beetle’ 1951-57. The corbels are Angels playing musical instruments taken from Psalm 150. Take a little quiet time-out to try and identify them from the psalm. The chandeliers were given in 1951 by Mrs Dodge (Christobel Cooksley) in memory of her husband and family. She lived in Priory Road and taught speech and drama.

The choir stalls came with the Victorians, but the screen behind bears the arms of Charles I and was given by Sir Thomas (II) Bridges and his wife Elizabeth Hyde just before the tower fell in 1632. It is quite roughly carved but noted for two green men with foliage growing out of their faces.

We have seen that the choir used to be in a gallery at the other (west) end of the church moving here in the 1860 restoration. The choir has long had a good reputation. In 1751 Lady Caroline Bridges in describing her visit to Keynsham wrote “We were received at Keynsham with great rejoicings, ringing of bells, bonfires, squibs, serenades, dancing, staring, gaping etc. The church is a very fine one for a country parish and what surprized me excessively there is about 14 common people that sing in the church all of Handel’s anthems and without any instruments sing just as ever I heard then in my life and some of them with very fine voices” (Letter in Huntingdon library, California).

In 1866 a new organ was built almost in its present position, the pipes occupying the floor space of much of the present vestry. A bellows blower was employed as well as the organist and the console was on the right hand side of the screen. An electronic blower was installed in 1939.

The very dark congregational pews came right up to the chancel arch. By 1963 some of the pews had gone and so under the direction of Peter Gibbons the pipes were raised to create the vestry as we know it today and the console was moved to the north-east corner of the nave. Since then the present updated moveable console was installed in 2006.

One of the church’s alms plates bears the inscription “St John’s Church Keynsham G F Handel 1720.” So did Handel present us with a brass alms plate? Or rather two, because two were stolen in the 1920’s but one was found in a dealers shop in Bristol and returned to us. Handel certainly knew the Bridges family - for he wrote the ‘Chandos Anthems.’ Was the ‘Harmonious Blacksmith’ inspired by the local brassmills? It is quite possible he visited and maybe he played the organ but no-one has found any documentary evidence – yet!

The high Altar – rarely seen - is a fine Jacobean table similar in colour to the pulpit and screen and probably of similar age. The most used altar frontal, the green one was made by Freda Lenton in 1989. She describes some of the others as very old, probably pre-war. Elizabeth White mentions a new frontal in 1920 and a purple one in 1923. Some of the coloured ones are used for only a short time each year but at that age they need handling with great care and take a fair amount of looking after.

On either side of the large East window are wooden boards with the Ten Commandments written on them. Behind the altar, out of sight are similar boards with the Lords Prayer and the Creed. I assume that when they were put there the altar was not standing on the dais/steps as at present. In the recent replacement of cracked tiles, the tiles of the lower levels were found to continue underneath the steps. In the right hand corner is a mediaeval double Piscina, or sinks, one for the Priest to wash his hands, one for Holy Vessels; the drainage holes are now blocked. On or rather in the left (north) wall is the remaining lancet window with a nice stained glass depiction of our patron saint – St John the Baptist.

The large East window dated 1961 replaced an earlier one. It depicts the opening verses of the ‘Te Deum’ – ‘We praise thee, O God – and as such illustrates why the church is here. A full description of the window, designed by Arthur Walker and made by the firm Mailes, can be found in the Friends stand at the back (west end) of the church. Amongst the symbols in the upper part are those of the four Gospel writers as already seen on the font and south-west window. In the outer left light showing ‘The Apostles’ look for St Andrew with his diagonal cross (part of the arms of the Diocese of Bath and Wells) - Inner left ‘The Prophets’ with Jonah and the whale. Centre light, Jesus crowned and seated in Glory, inner right ‘The Martyrs’ include St Catherine and the spiked wheel of her martyrdom and in the outer right ‘The Holy Church’ with St Jerome and the lion who did not forget the man who had come to his aid.

We may not sing Te Deum very often these days, but our services still resound with songs of praise as they have done in this church for over 800 years.

 Edmund Prideaux