Rev Paul Knight is on a mission to restore one of the rarest church murals in the country and mark 900 years of history… Neil Hudson reports
“It’s not St Paul’s Cathedral but it’s still a very special piece,” says the Rev Paul Knight, Vicar of Birstall. He’s talking about one of the rarest - and quite possibly least celebrated - murals in the country, which adorns the wall above the main arch of St Peter’s Church.
It was painted by E Reginald Frampton in 1901 and shows Christ in majesty surrounded by angels and saints and is the oldest of only three remaining Frampton religious murals in the UK. In the late 1990s, conservators were appointed in a bid to prevent the water damaged artwork from deteriorating any further but the church has never had enough money to pay for its restoration… until now.
“We still need to raise a significant amount,” explains Mr Knight, who came to the parish in September 1997. “But we were set off on this journey by a recent anonymous donation by one of our parishioners. It was for £10,000. I was gobsmacked. It wasn’t that we were appealing for it at the time but I think I was talking about it in a presentation and someone approached me afterwards and offered to pay half. So, after I picked myself up off the floor, we decided to give it a go and we are in the process of applying to various grant-giving bodies in a bid to raise the rest of the money.”
The timing of the gift could not have been better. St Peter’s is an imposing church for such a small village. Birstall may now be more well known for its Centre 27 retail park on the outskirts of Leeds and - most people will pass through it on the busy Bradford Road on their way to or from work and never even notice its church, which is a shame.
Wend your way down through the village, past the statue of its most famous son, Joseph Priestley and cross the Bradford Road onto Kirkgate and you find yourself in another world - and possibly another time - altogether.
A gentle tree-lined incline leads up toward the church, which stands imposing and resolute, its Gothic style echoing a bygone era, its castellated roofing blackened by time.
Go further into this snug enclave, dappled by a warming winter sun and the view changes again: an expanse of water - Longbottom’s Dam - opens up to the right, while the road ahead dog-legs and leads to another curiosity of this backwater in the form of the Black Bull Inn, where local criminals would have been tried in days gone by. It’s from here you can see the oldest part of the church, which dates back to 1120 and will, next year, celebrate its 900th anniversary.
Together with fundraising to restore the mural, it looks like being a busy year for the congregation at St Peter’s.
Mr Knight says: “The original part of the church was built in 1120 and the lower part of the tower remains, so it’s Norman built.
However, the main part of the church was rebuilt between 1865 and 1870, so next year is also the 150th anniversary of that.”
The church is planning a year of celebrations, beginning on St Peter’s Day (June 29) this year and ending on the same in 2020.
“We are planning to develop the museum corner in the church. There will be concerts, dinners, a murder mystery banquet. We’re going to plant 900 bulbs in the church yard and perform 900 acts of kindness around the community; there will also be speakers, including bishops and a ‘songs of praise’ event in May 2020, to which we want to invite church members who are in what was the ancient parish of Birstall, which stretched to Tong and Wyke and took in Heckmondwike, Liversedge, Gomersal and Birkenshaw.”
Mr Knight is no stranger to coming up with innovative ways to engage with the community. For the past 20 years, come Easter, he has dragged a 5m timber cross around the village. “It’s quite a weight,” he admits. “When we started out, the end of the timber was square but now its v-shaped. Nowadays we drag it around Junction 27 retail park on Good Friday, not to collect money but to remind people what Easter is all about.”
Mr Knight also has a very progressive view about church services and use of the building. In the past, he has set up a games room, complete with Nintendo Wii and for a time part, one of the transepts became a bowling alley. But perhaps most startling of all is that Mr Knight plays guitar before his congregation. “We have one traditional service with organ music and hymns and then do it again with contemporary music.
“I play guitar, it’s not a big band but it means we can offer a real alternative between the services; we hope more people can find a home and a context in which they can grow in faith.”
So as the church prepares to mark its 900th anniversary, there’s a sense of pride, which will hopefully be deepened by the restoration of the Frampton mural.
Frampton was a prolific pre-Raphaelite artist who painted many murals around the country but most were either destroyed during the two world wars or have otherwise been allowed to decay.
The Birstall mural is the oldest of the surviving religious Frampton murals, dating from 1901. At some point in the mid-20th Century, a coat of varnish was applied to it by a well meaning amateur, significantly darkening it.
Mr Knight adds: “The fact it’s in a parish church in the north of England from a well known artists from the south makes it special, there are not many about.
“It was created to help people in worship and when people are sitting there and they look up and see this glorious fresco of Christ in majesty surrounded by angels and saints, it’s really quite symbolic. Our hope is that once it is restored it will gleam.”