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The White Church (Lytham St Annes)

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Address: 22a Clifton Drive / Lytham St Annes / Lancs / FY8 1AX

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      06.02.2008 13:38
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      A very interesting church in an unexpected location.

      Having discovered that St Annes is not the backwater that I had previously considered it to be, the White Church at Fairhaven is actually going to be a familiar landmark to some reading this review. However, I wonder how many of you, like me, have driven, or walked past this building and wondered what lay within, or indeed, why it looks the extraordinary way that it does?

      For those of you, the majority indeed, that are not familiar with Lytham, St Annes and Fairhaven connecting the two in between, I'll need to offer the very simplest of geography lessons. Let me take you to a lovely little spot of the English coast, where time appears to have pretty much stood still since the 1960's. This is an area that offers a more peaceful, tranquil pace of life than the much larger, neighbouring towns of Blackpool to the west and Preston to the east. Yes, let me take you to the Fylde Coast of Lancashire, where the sandy beaches stretch for miles and the sun always shines......

      ......OK, the last bit was a tad OTT, however, this area is not without its charms and attractions, prime amongst them, extraordinarily, this unique building - the White Church at Fairhaven.

      Nobody driving from Lytham to Blackpool on the coast road (A584), even in the thickest fog, could have failed to have seen this landmark building. Alternatively, should you be more adventurous and be approaching Preston Docks by boat, you too will have had a splendid view - at least of the top of the church and its magnificent tower. Indeed, the tower was (I am not sure if it still is) light at night, performing the duty of a light-house on the estuary of the River Ribble.

      I well remember my first journey along this road, I had driven up from Brighton, an intense business meeting had taken place, nearby, on the premises of our most important customer, it was 5.00pm and I was following my colleague's directions to the Fernlea Hotel on the sea front at St Annes. I remember his words to this day;

      "Turn left at the White Church".

      He was a local - living in nearby Kirkham, for whom the church was one of those think nothing of it - "see it every day" type buildings, much like our own Royal Pavilion is here in Brighton for me. I also remember thinking 'White Church - how will I recognise it?'

      Recognise it I did! You could hardly fail to - although a wide blue church notice board facing the traffic lights proclaiming "the White Church" could be taken as somewhat of a clue for those myopic enough not to be able to see the incredible building behind it.

      That particular evening, my first sighting, the sun was setting behind the church, the warm rays creating a reddish glow to the white tiled exterior and 90ft (27.5 metre) tower - referred to as a campanile, left a stunning and lasting impression.

      The main tower, of octagonal form, topped by a dome and bearing a cross, is positioned above the main entrance to the church, which is also octagonal in shape. On each of the other two front facing corners, the church is located on a corner plot, are octagonal vestibules topped by 50ft (15.2 metre) campanile towers matching the design of the main tower.

      Whilst it is the towers and vestibules beneath that draw the eye first, primarily because of the way they catch the light, the rest of the exterior is no less interesting. Designed by a firm of architects in Blackburn - Briggs, Wolstenholme and Thornley, they came up with what was widely regarded to be a great tribute to the Byzantine school of architecture.

      This is a structure deserving of superlatives, there is no doubt about that. Should I be an artist, sadly I'm not; it would make one of the most inspiring man made subjects to commit to canvas. As it is, I have to satisfy myself with photographs - which on many occasions I have stopped to take over the years.

      However, over those years I have always been dashing from place to place in the area, never having time to stop and take in all that this building has to offer. During the late 1990's when I was a regular visitor to the Fylde, the church was covered in scaffolding - English Heritage provided grant aid for church restoration, thanks, in 1994, to the Secretary of State having upgraded the White Church from Grade II to Grade II* on the statutory list of buildings of special architectural or historic interest.

      Having finished my business calls on Wednesday evening, on Thursday we had a morning to spare. A late breakfast saw us away from our hotel at 10.00am, it never occurred to me though, that I would end up writing a review on this now familiar land mark.

      Turning off the sea front, we saw that there was "life" in and around the church. On the spur of the moment we decided stop and see if someone might let us in to see the inside - something that I had never in all those years actually had time to do.

      Whilst the restoration work on the exterior fabric of the building has been completed - it looks magnificent - there was a team of decorators working in a corridor at the front and a gardener tending the rose borders around the garden. It occurred to me that I had never actually been close enough to the church to touch the white tiles on the exterior - which from a short distance look like white marble. They are in fact a type of ceramic tile and were made at the Middleton Fireclay Works in Leeds.

      An unusual detail that, until now, I had failed to notice was the Charisma, with which both front facing gables are decorated. I had always wondered just what that word meant, I now know it to be a monogram of the name Christ in which the first two letters of the Greek word for Christ are combined. The Charisma was the imperial symbol of the Byzantine Emperors and is therefore quite within character mounted on this Byzantine church.

      Whilst I was taking exterior photographs, on this beautiful sunny, autumnal day, my wife was asking the gardener if it would be possible to see the inside of the church. We were directed into the hall, where there seemed to be a daily coffee morning taking place - more of a "drop-in" really. We were offered coffee and cake by a lovely elderly lady, who as it turned out, obviously loved the church and knew a lot about it.

      Standing in the church hall on the sea side of the building, the lady serving the coffee - our "guide" explained to us that the hall was used for worship between May 1904 and 17th October 1912 when the church itself was opened. The hall, whilst impressive in scale, has none of the drama of the exterior, nor as we were about to discover, the beautiful interior of the main church.

      In church, or church architectural terms, the White Church does not have a particularly long history. In the closing years of the Victorian era, thanks to the railway, this area saw a population explosion, far more of that population were church goers in those days too. The Lytham Cogregational Church had by 1899 become well over subscribed; through their contacts in the area they were able to obtain a lease on a parcel of land at Fairhaven. A decision to build a new church on the site was quickly taken. The timing of that decision was fortuitous. The Congregational Union of England and Wales had just launched a half million guinea fund in order to expand their church in line with the increase in population. This church actually cost £12,000 to build.

      From conception to completion took thirteen years, I suspect the founders of this church must have been most pleased with the end result. It is a wonderful building today; in 1912 it must have been a sensation. Until 1972 the church remained Congregational - that is self governing. Since 1972 it has been a member of the United Reform Church, a union between Congregationalists and Presbyterians.

      Whatever your religion, or even lack thereof, it would be hard not to be moved by the unfolding glory of the interior of the White Church. My wife and I both agreed that it was incredibly difficult to come to terms with the fact that we were standing INSIDE the building that we had admired the outside of. Your senses lead you to expect it to be white inside and have some similarity of design to the exterior. This simply is not the case; even the size and proportions feel different inside the church.

      Our guide suggested initially admiring the interior without the lights on, the White Church is famed for its stained glass and obviously the best way to admire these stunning windows was with the lights out and the autumn morning light shining through them. Being relatively modern stained glass, there is a lightness of touch and sheer artistry about them lacking in our more famous "cathedral" windows. They tell a historical story of religion through the Old and New Testaments and through the history of the church before and after the Reformation. The theme and design of these windows is attributed to Luke Slater Walmsley, who was one of the founders of the White Church. Abbot and Company of Lancaster actually made them. The detail in these windows is such that you could stand and look at them for many hours and still not have taken in all the detail. They are the best stained glass windows that I have seen anywhere.

      The lights are switched on for us to admire the body of the church, more surprises reveal themselves. The interior is in the shape of a Greek Cross, deceptively spacious in estate agent parlance, a congregation of 500 can be seated here, yet the atmosphere is that of a far smaller more intimate church. The preacher and choir are seated far closer to the congregation than is usually the case. Until 1965, the pulpit was centrally located, now as in the majority of churches, it is located off to one side.

      There are today two organ consoles in the White Church, situated on each side of the chancel. The original pipe organ, manufactured by Henry Ainscough of Preston unfortunately proved to be uneconomical to restore after seventy years of continuous use. Nowadays at Sunday Service a Makin computer organ is used.

      The top of the church interior is formed by a large, graceful dome. It is far too large to be self supporting and is actually "hung" by wires from a metal frame forming part of the roof above.

      This is indeed a very peaceful, warm and welcoming church interior, I cannot help but feel that if more churches were like this one, then church congregations may well be rather stronger in number than they are today. In many respects we had found the interior of this church even more inspiring than the rather better known exterior. It is certainly a place of fascination.

      On sale at the back of the church you will find some charmingly old fashioned post cards, local history pamphlets and small church publications about the church itself and a far more detailed account of the stories portrayed by the stained glass windows. For the names and dates in this review, I have quoted from one of those publications - "The Story of the White Church at Fairhaven".

      If you do ever find yourself passing that way with an hour to kill, do pop in, it is a very rewarding experience.

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