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Purely for novelty value, I’m writing about something unusual today (there are only so many things you can eat for the sake of a review), taking inspiration from Wednesday’s visit I went on to the Ancient Chapel in Maghull, near Liverpool. The great thing about visiting when I did (Wednesday night), in a group (a local family history society) is that we got chance to hear a brief talk about the chapel’s history. I don’t know whether talks are available to everyone, but it would be worth asking in advance if you wanted a bit of extra information.
Through The Mists Of Time
It’s supposedly the oldest place in Maghull, and also the oldest ecclesiastical building in Merseyside (which, of course is a much newer county than Lancashire, which Maghull was once classed as). Due to improvements and renovations, the only original bits left are the interior pillars holding the roof up, which is quite impressive after over nine centuries; the gallery was built in 1711 (for the princely sum of £3 5s). It’s sometimes known as the Unsworth Chapel, after Thomas Unsworth; he wasn’t technically lord of the manor, but his family lived at Maghull Hall. Today the chapel is tiny, but early in the nineteenth century it had been extended to seat two hundred people; these extensions were later pulled down and, by 1880, the nearby St. Andrew’s Church was built to accommodate the growing population.
The Ancient Chapel
From the door it appears to be one room, supported - and partially divided into two - by three stone pillars (which form two archways), but it turned out that the original chapel was the side furthest from the door; the small space facing you on entry is apparently a “gallery”, and it would be quite possible for anyone sitting there to view anything going on in the original chapel. I definitely felt there was a mediaeval feel to it, with the walls being stone and the ceiling featuring white plaster and wooden beams, so it didn’t surprise to me to learn that the original building dated from somewhere between the eleventh and thirteenth centuries.
Personally, I thought it seemed more spacious from the inside than the outside suggests. There was enough space for our group of around twenty (as long as we were all sitting down; once people
Pictures of Ancient Chapel, Maghull, Liverpool
began to mingle and move around, it did feel a bit crowded!) - but essentially it’s small and it’s obvious that it wouldn’t take long to look around. I think you would have to have an interest in religious or historical buildings to want to visit it, but anyone who appreciates such ancient architecture might find it worth a look; I could imagine it being seen as something of a curiosity.
Some features are worth looking out for; realistically, they’re all things that you would expect to find in a church or chapel, but I felt that some were quite unusual. One was a cresset stone, a small pillar topped with a hollowed-out square block; it looked like a very small font but originally held fat or oil which was burnt to provide light, and today holds a standard church candle.
As the building is so small, it seemed easy to forget that - from the outside - there is a tiny bell tower in the corner of the room (so tiny, it looks like a chimney), but in one corner there’s a bell-rope hanging from a trapdoor in the ceiling. There were no children in our group, but the rope was long enough and thin enough that a small inquisitive hand might have tried it out, so it might be best to watch what any small visitors get up to!
In many churches the windows are all the same size, at the same level and - in the case of stained glass - feature a similar design style, but Maghull’s Ancient Chapel is a little different in this respect. From outside the building, it’s clear that the original chapel is larger and has a higher roof than the gallery (the building is definitely not symmetrical) but to me stained glass always looks better from the inside, in daylight. Actually, the chapel windows are a bit of a mixture; a large leaded one at one end of the gallery, a decorative stained-glass one of similar size at the end of the original chapel, a series of tiny leaded ones so high up in the opposite wall that you couldn’t possibly look through them unless you found a ladder and two medium-sized leaded ones either side of the step dividing the altar from the seating area. From a design perspective, it sounds like it should look disorganised or thrown-together, but in practice it looks perfectly normal.
Around the altar are a couple of interesting additions. You might expect the piscina on the right hand wall (it’s one of those built-in dishes that holds holy water), and a stone in the floor is marked “E.S.” with the date 1740 on the floor (it marks the burial place of Elizabeth Sherdley, wife of the then minister, Ralph) but I thought the chain hanging from the wall was unusual; it had been used to keep the Bible chained inside the building, although the Bible itself is now in Preston, apparently.
What struck me about the chapel was that, even with the odd bit of literature and wall-mounted memorial stones to different families, somehow the chapel still had a certain simplicity.
Virtually all of the ground around the chapel gets taken over by bluebells each spring, so they can be slippery to walk on, especially after it’s been raining, but it does look quite eye-catching. There are a number of gravestones and monuments in this small section of the burial ground; possibly the most famous one - on the right side of the chapel (or the left, if you’re facing the main door) - is dedicated to the memory of Frank Hornby, the Meccano inventor and inspiration behind the recent Hornby Festival, held in May 2013, his wife and daughter; it’s very tall and off-white, so difficult to miss! (In case you’re from outside the north west, or missed the local news in May, the festival marked the 150th anniversary of his birth; although he was born in Liverpool, he lived in Maghull by 1911 and died there in 1936.)
There is an additional, larger graveyard, which serves St. Andrew’s Church; the church grounds are next to the chapel grounds so, to all intents and purposes, it looks like one large, slightly rambling burial ground.
Admission Costs and Opening Times
There is no entry charge, although there is a donations box just inside the door, should anyone wish to give something, and there seemed to be a variety of books and leaflets available on the table by the door. From the information I’ve been given, it seems that the chapel doesn’t hold regular services (a logical decision when the far larger St. Andrew’s Church is less than a hundred yards away) but special gatherings and services are organised from time to time. I would say, therefore, that it would be best to contact the church to find out when the chapel is open, rather than turning up on the off-chance.
Being an “occasional” place of worship (and a tiny one at that), there is no gift shop, cafe or - indeed - any toilets/baby-changing facilities. There is, however, an ASDA just over a mile away, near Switch Island (M58/M57/A59 giant roundabout), or - if you’re heading north-west - there’s a Morrisons and various eating options in and around Ormskirk, under three miles away. I certainly wouldn’t claim that the ancient chapel has been developed with visitors in mind; in fact, I suppose that’s the beauty of something that dates back nine centuries - it’s hardly changed at all.
How To Find It
The Ancient Chapel is in the grounds of St. Andrew’s C of E Church, on Damfield Lane; St. Andrew’s comes up on Google Maps, or the postcode on the church website - L31 6DD - will get you there if programmed into a sat-nav. (I’ve tested this, largely because I have trouble finding this particular church and chapel.)
There is plenty of car parking - a small area next to the churchyard and a second (slightly hidden) larger parking area round the back, alongside the graveyard wall. Both are on level ground but it’s worth bearing in mind that, although the path to the chapel is fairly flat, there are a couple of small steps here and there that could be problematic for pushchairs and wheelchairs.
The nearest train station (at Maghull) is about half a mile away, and there are also bus stops on either side of Damfield Lane, just before Northway (the A59).
Worth A Trip?
Maghull’s Ancient Chapel is probably somewhere you would only need to visit once, as it isn’t big enough to miss anything - I certainly didn’t think I’d missed anything - but if you’re interested in ancient buildings and you happen to be in the area, I’d suggest contacting St. Andrew’s Church to see whether it was possible to arrange a visit, as there don’t seem to be set opening times. From a personal viewpoint, I appreciated the chance to visit, partly because it was where my 4xgreat-grandparents got married in 1840; I had always wondered whether the chapel was big enough to fit the couple, the vicar and the witnesses in, but now I know there was plenty of space.
There is some further information online at http://www.ancientchapelmaghull.co.uk/ and St. Andrew’s Church website can be found at http://maghullstandrew.com/