The architect Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin (1812-52) wrote: “There is nothing worth living for but Christian architecture, and a boat.” For him, both came together on top of the West Cliffs at Ramsgate in Kent, where he built his ideal house – the Grange (1843-4) – and next to it his ideal church, St Augustine’s (1845-1851).
Threatened with closure in 2010, St Augustine’s has now been triumphantly restored and was reopened last May by the Archbishop of Southwark. It is now the national Catholic shrine of St Augustine of England, whom Pope St Gregory the Great sent to convert the men of Kent in 597. The restoration of the church and the Pugin and St Augustine Visitor Centre have gained more than a million pounds of Heritage Lottery Funding.
Pugin became a Catholic in 1835, 10 years before the Oxford Movement converts. In 1843 he moved from London – where he was building Southwark Cathedral – to the very un-Catholic Ramsgate. In 1846 he began the Catholic mission there with the school chapel and cloisters, hiding the church from the road and Protestant hostility. It is only from the sea side that the church is fully revealed, built of local flint with stone dressings and plain-tile roofs.
The style is “Christian” (that is, Gothic) and in the rich Decorated Gothic of the 14th century. The asymmetrical plan form, pivoting around the crossing tower and south transept, is Kentish, with nave and aisles, transept, sanctuary and side chapel all under separate gabled roofs. Entering low through the south door, Pugin advised: “The Faithful do not mind bending their heads … sightseers and heretics must take their chance.”
Internally the walls are lined in rich, warm Whitby sandstone ashlar. Some roofs are “open” – that is, with scissor trusses exposed – others are panelled and painted. The nave, aisle, sanctuary and Lady Chapel are divided by a richly detailed arcade.
The substantial crossing once again boasts its rood screen, now re-fixed in its historic position and with its answering returned stalls in the sanctuary. Alas, Pugin’s high altar was demolished in 1970 and the tabernacle, throne and spire disposed of to Southwark Cathedral. This work of art had been shown at the Great Exhibition of 1851 with the font and its spired cover by George Myers to Pugin’s design, along with much stained glass and metal work by Hardman & Co of Birmingham. A fine example is the floor brass to Alfred Luck, a lay convert and later priest, also shown in 1851.
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