This image comes from our Victorian Picture Library (www.victorianpicturelibrary.com).
During the early Victorian era there was scant respect for old churches, and the fabric of many was allowed to deteriorate. The walls were damp, ivy invaded the mortar and prised apart the stones, and slates fell from the roofs during storms, leaving the rafters exposed to the skies. The churchyard paths were often impassable because of the invading ranks of stiff nettles, and many old neglected headstones and monuments slumped and toppled.
In some unlucky villages ‘restorers’ were called in. Their remedies were invariably worse than the disease they had come to treat: they removed the patina of age, ripped up old stone floors and replaced them with brightly-coloured industrial tiles, demolished arcades to raise roofs or to create further aisles, and installed stained glass bought from a jobber’s pattern book. They saved their direst deeds for the chancel, for the fashion was for garish decoration, and the plain old stones were not considered holy enough.
Bonchurch on the Isle of Wight is a strikingly picturesque village between the sea and a steep down smothered with deep green trees. Dickens stayed close by at Winterbourne in 1849 and praised the landscape fulsomely: ‘There are views which are only equalled on the Genoese shore … the variety of walks is extraordinary.’ From the early 19th century Bonchurch was highly fashionable with well-to-do visitors, and it expanded quickly, with villas marching relentlessly over the down.
The ancient church of St Boniface, just 48 feet long and with space for just eighty worshippers, was not able to seat all those who wished to attend. Its minuscule size mercifully spared it from the restorers: in the late 1840s it was found more convenient to build a new church on ground close by, part-bequeathed by the poet Swinburne’s family.
St Boniface was built on an ancient site. The atmosphere is romantic and sublime, bosky and damp, with a stream purling by, and water cascading noisily down to the sea far below. After the old church had been deserted it fell gently into a long sleep. Ivy colonised the porch and roofs and creeper wound its way over the old fabric.
Algernon Swinburne was born at East Dene, a long, low house set close by the church. He spent many hours wandering the paths of the old overgrown churchyard and the wooded slopes of the down. Phrases from his evocative poem A Forsaken Garden summon up the deeply romantic atmosphere:
In a coign of the cliff between
lowland and highland,
At the sea-down’s edge between
windward and lee, …
If a step should sound or a word
Would a ghost not rise at the strange
guest’s hand? …
Through branches and briars
if a man make way,
He shall find no life but the
Night and day.
Swinburne died in 1909 and his funeral took place in his beloved church. He was buried beside other members of his family among tall grasses in the old overgrown churchyard.