In the middle of the 18th century, Viscount Bateman of Shobdon Court decided to remodel the Romanesque church on his estate. Demolishing all but the tower, he created an enchanting building with exquisite interiors in the fashionable gothick style. Although later accused of ‘wanton destruction’, Bateman did at least recognise the value of fragments of the earlier church, and had them re-erected as an eye-catcher at the end of an avenue in the park.
John Bateman (1721-1802), a viscount in the Irish peerage, was kept busy at court, and actually can’t take much of the blame/credit for the work. He delegated the planning of the church to his uncle Richard ‘Dickie’ Bateman (1705-1773) who had a history of building follies, and was friends with that great exponent of the gothick, Horace Walpole.
Uncle Dickie also masterminded the creation of the Arches eye-catcher, which was complete by 1752, whilst work on the new church continued. The folly was created out of the chancel arch, flanked by two further arches of carved masonry featuring many different motifs. The arches either side of the main arch are topped with carved panels which were tympana (overdoors) in the ancient church; their subjects are Christ in Majesty and the Harrowing of Hell. The pinnacles, pediments and castellations are 18th century embellishments in the same gothick taste as the new church.
The carvings are the work of what has become known as the Herefordshire School, a workshop that produced flamboyant sculpture for churches in the 12th century (best seen today at the Church of St Mary & St David in Kilpeck). Such work was out of fashion in the middle of the 18th century, and in 1756 a visitor saw the folly and declared the two relief panels to be ‘in a very bad taste’.
But by the middle of the 19th century the style was back in vogue, and of great interest to antiquarians. In 1852 George R. Lewis, an expert on the ancient churches of the area, published an account of Shobdon Church which he dedicated to Lord Bateman. He described the ‘highly interesting remains’, which had been placed in the park, as the most ‘interesting and important collection of Ecclesiastical Sculpture and Architecture’ in the county. His publication also makes clear that the arches were already firmly on the tourist trail as the ‘chief attraction of the neighbourhood’ for lovers of art and architecture.
Lewis’s publication brought the carvings to a wider audience, and they were represented at one of the most important events of the 19th century: the Great Exhibition at Crystal Palace. Visitors to the 1854 exhibition were able to appreciate how the ‘richly adorned doorways’ might once have looked. Casts of the tympana had been made (and restored so that the eroded carving was in pristine condition) and were on display in the Fine Arts Courts. One of the casts survived the great fire at Crystal Palace, and was later donated to the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, where it can be seen today.
The last of the Bateman descendants to live at Shobdon died in 1931, and soon afterwards it was announced that the mansion was to be demolished and the service wing converted into a more manageable home. The contents were sold at auction, and then the house was pulled down: a sale of the building materials disposed of every last brick.
The Woolhope Naturalists Field Club (its members being the heroes of this tale) feared ‘that the arches will be lost as well’, and in 1933 a plan to re-erect the stones as a lych-gate to the church was explored, and then dismissed. The club continued to lobby the Ministry of Works, and in 1947 their officer suggested moving the arches to Hereford Cathedral, a plan that was voted down by the Woolhope Club members. The Society of Antiquaries was in favour of moving the stones, but most people were strongly in favour of keeping the Arches in situ if at all possible, and some kind of shelter was proposed instead. This was still under discussion in 1954, when Ivor Bulmer-Thomas, the great champion of church preservation, suggested a ‘brick and tiled building’ be constructed. Nothing happened, but the idea was revived again in May 1989 and was reported in the Observer: as a solution to the continued erosion of the stones, an English Heritage architect suggested erecting an enormous glass pyramid, 45 feet high, over the Arches. But no-one had the money to pay for a giant cloche, and the idea was quietly dropped.
A programme of recording and consolidation of the Arches was completed in 1997, and the folly remains settled in its idyllic setting. The eye-catcher is less prominent than originally intended because of the flanking trees, but some of these were planted with the express purpose of protecting the arches from the elements.
Visitors continue to ponder whether Bateman’s 18th century work was brutal or brilliant: Shobdon gained a magnificent church in the gothick style and a wonderful eye-catcher, but lost a 12th century church with carvings of the highest order. Folly expert Barbara Jones, writing in the 1970s, called this dilemma a battle between ‘crime and creation’, and although her ‘heart sank’ when she saw the quality of the carving in the eyecatcher, she concluded that the outstanding interiors of the new church were ‘worth any vandalism at all’.
The Arches are on private land, but there is public access on a path from the church http://shobdonchurch.org.uk
The Woolhope Club has been ‘exploring Herefordshire’s history, natural history and geology since 1851’ https://www.woolhopeclub.org.uk
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