Imagine Ilkley as a tiny and quiet rural settlement back in 80 AD. Then came the Romans. To control a crossing point of the River Wharfe, the Roman Governor Agricola ordered the Fort of Olicana to be constructed.
When the fort was abandoned years later, the building materials were then re-used to establish a church within that same site, probably in the time of St Paulinus. Later still, the church and a priest are mentioned in the Domesday Book; the list of parish priests begins in 1170, and continues to this day.
The present church building of All Saints Ilkley is partly medieval. It was largely rebuilt in Victorian times but retains its medieval appearance. It is built mainly in a Tudor-Gothic style with dressed sandstone in regular courses and graded-slate roofs. It sits close to the major intersection on the A65 in the heart of Ilkley town centre.
Today, it is designated as a Grade II* listed building, and it houses three Grade I listed Saxon crosses and several Roman altars of regional importance. Also on the site is Church House, a Grade II listed building, which provides the Parish Office as well as meeting rooms and a hall used by a wide range of community organisations. Adjacent to All Saints Ilkley is the Grade I listed Ilkley Manor House. The church represents one of the most historic places in Ilkley and as a result it already attracts a large number of visitors and tourists, for whom the church is kept open every weekday.
At the base of the tower, the Saxon crosses are thought to have come from a stone-masons’ workshop in Otley c770 to 870. They are significant in the quality of their carving and their symbolism. The imagery is both pagan and Christian, reflecting the traditional time of their origin. Adjacent to the crosses are several former Roman altars, of great regional importance having been carved out and re-used as Anglo-Saxon window heads in an earlier building, providing a good example of the re-use and modification of Roman artefacts within Christian buildings.
The church as it stands today is still partly medieval and the earliest part of the present building is the re-set thirteenth century south doorway, with fine dogtooth-work ornamentation. The tower arch is fourteenth century and the tower is fifteenth century. In the late fifteenth or early sixteenth century squareheaded windows were inserted into the aisles and south side of the clerestory.
In the 1830s there was a report which described the church as “very simple with a soil floor and in need of improvement.” As the village grew, an extensive restoration and enlargement project took place in 1860-61. The nave was lengthened by one bay, the south porch was rebuilt ten feet out and a new chancel with organ chamber and vestry was added. The aisles were laid with stone and new open pews were put on low wooden platforms. Much of the existing building remained, the old stone was reused and the general medieval appearance of the church was retained.
The vestry was extended in 1927, part of which was subsequently converted to a 1939-45 war-memorial chapel.
In 1880-2 the Lewis of Brixton organ was put in which was the basis of today’s much respected organ. The fine oak organ case was made by Robert Thompson (the Mouse-man of Kilburn) in 1953 and is reputedly the last piece that he himself worked on.
In the north chapel is a whitepainted fourteenth century effigy of a knight, probably Sir Peter Middleton (d 1336). The font is old – perhaps Anglo-Saxon, perhaps medieval – with a Jacobean cover. At the west end of the north aisle is the Watkinson family pew, an enclosed box pew of the type often made for families of note, dated 1633. The present stained softwood pews, originally introduced on a temporary basis, date from 1861. There are many small commemorative brass plaques of the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries. The crucifixion east window is by William Warrington (1861). One north aisle window shows the Angel of the Resurrection by J. Henry Dearle for Morris & Co (1922).
The buildings are also of social and community value. The church continues to provide an essential heart and focal point for the parish of Ilkley with regular worship for all, with services in a variety of styles. In addition, it is widely used by the community including support of the towns’ literary, art and music festivals. Church House is a valuable community resource and the hall is used for meetings and one-off events by a wide range of local groups, engaging people of all ages.
The church today enjoys good relationships with people, businesses and schools in the town. Recent examples include a Saltmine theatre production, a performance by Masai warriors and the Ilkley Trail Race, an annual charity event.
The church’s work with families is a key element of expanding community work. For example, since starting a year ago, 85 families now regularly attend one of the three weekly Joining-the-Dots playgroups which support all parents and carers, including those who might be struggling or feeling isolated. Practical care extends to including friendship, mentoring and meals (for example following bereavement or a new baby).
Regular educational visits and events for local primary and secondary schools are organised, and the church is developing its work with older people, offering friendship and a place to meet, and have run workshops for the community.
As a consequence of growth and breadth in its wide range of activities, the church is now at risk of no longer adequately meeting the needs of tourists, visitors and our community. The toddler group has had to resort to a waiting list due to demand, as well as there being pressure for more educational events with local schools and holiday clubs.
The building is not satisfactorily accessible, both physically (as a result of uneven floors and changes in levels), and visually (with the current entrance looking dark and unwelcoming, and little in the way of heritage interpretation or signage).
All Saints Ilkley has embarked on a major development project which is now well under way. The plain Victorian pews and pew platforms will be removed and the existing stone flag floor will be excavated, carefully setting aside the flags for reuse. Insulation and underfloor heating will be installed and the stone flagged floor will be re-laid, including new stone to make up for the areas beneath the pews. The pews will be replaced by chairs to create a flexible open space which can be used in a variety of different layouts. By removing the pews and installing uniform, level flooring in church, this more flexible space will become available for use for current activities as well as to other community groups, bringing more people into contact with this historic building. New lighting will be installed to highlight and draw attention to features within the church. External lighting will showcase the medieval church building after dark. The new lighting will highlight the historic beauty of the church, enhancing the visitor experience. The latest technology will be used to ensure brilliant results, whilst also reducing energy costs.
Although there is currently some heritage interpretation available to visitors and tourists, this is limited to pages on the church’s website and leaflets available in the church; this is planned to be significantly improved. This will greatly enhance the potential for extended use by the community, e.g. for concerts and exhibitions, thereby bringing more people into the historic church.
In addition to the redevelopment inside the church, the hall and meeting rooms in Church House will be totally renovated, and a new glazed building will link across the current open space between the two buildings… all with one single floor level throughout, suitable for wheelchairs, pushchairs and people with walking difficulties. The link building has been specifically designed as a welcoming and inviting structure which will form the future key entrance to the church building, as well as to Church House. While the design is modern in approach it is respectful of the architectural context provided by the church building and is a modern interpretation of cloisters with a predominance of glazing to the front and rear which allow a visual connection with the neighbouring Manor House. It has met with strong support from Historic England and the local councils. It will form a heritage link with the Manor House and the Roman Fort site to the north.
The project will develop the church into a fully accessible, flexible, attractive, light space which will enable people to fully engage with the heritage of our setting. The link building will provide a welcoming, highly visible entrance. The heritage interpretation will engage new audiences with the church building, Saxon crosses, former Roman fort and the stories they tell in an exciting way, ensuring that more people understand their value and thus protecting their future.
Overall, the development project for All Saints Ilkley currently stands at around £1.6million, plus VAT where payable, plus fees. This is a challenging target, but even in the first year of generosity the church members have raised more than £400,000 themselves through generous giving, pledges and fundraising activities including an Auction of Promises, sales of plants, sweets and cakes, social events, and this autumn organising a concert with Bobby Ball. This has been supplemented with a number of grant applications.
There was a recent great boost when the Heritage Lottery Fund gave their initial support, together with development funding of £22,700. The Head of HLF Yorkshire, Fiona Spiers, said “This initial investment will support All Saints Ilkley in developing their plans to open up the church and share its long and varied history with the wider community. This significant site tells
the story of over 2000 years of history and is an important part of our local and national heritage. We look forward to receiving a second-round application in the future.”
The fundraising continues: more grant applications, more appeals for donations and pledges, more fundraising endeavours. By seeking to provide a fully accessible, flexible, attractive, light space and high quality heritage interpretation, the people of All Saints Ilkley are committed to enabling neighbours, businesses and visitors to engage with the heritage of their setting, as well as providing for the long term future of their historic buildings and enhanced use by the wider community.
By Derek Twine