God's house of wonders on Scarborough's south Cliff

You have to arrive in Scarborough by train to fully appreciate the position that St Martin's Church occupies in the town. Just to the right of the station there are two landmarks.

St Martin's Church hosts fine examples of pre-Raphaelite stained glass windows

The first is a building with a tall spire, and the second, with its rather chunky tower, is St Martin’s, surveying South Cliff and the community below. Home to what is believed to be the biggest collection of Victorian stained glass and artwork anywhere in Britain, it also happens to be one of the most remarkable buildings in Yorkshire. All the great names of the movement – which attempted to emulate the major masterpieces of the late medieval world – are represented. Everyone from William Morris to Edward Burne-Jones. From Ford Madox Brown to Dante Gabriel Rossetti. It is a priceless collection and one which has withstood the tests of time, as well as the infamous bombardment of Scarborough in the First World War, when it received a direct hit from one of the German shells, scattering shrapnel along the nave.

The man who probably knows more about St Martin’s and its proliferation of treasures is Mike Bortoft. The 71-year-old, a former deputy head of the nearby St Martin’s Primary School, now leads tours around the church. Over the years and with a deal of diligent research, he has also uncovered many lost or forgotten facts about the place.

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“The Victorians, in particular, were passionate about the language of flowers, and used blooms as symbols in all sorts of ways,” he says. “Hardly anyone can remember the complex symbolism. Today we know that a red rose is for love, but they had meanings for pomegranates, lilies, even apples. They told a story.

St Martin's Church in Scarborough.

“When we look at the windows, we can tell that the Saint that is shown was pure, or had shown contrition, and was received back into the love of the church. Which becomes even more interesting because you only have to delve a little into the love-lives and relationships of that group of men, and they were anything but conventional – or chaste. There were a lot of affairs going on.”

Which makes it all the more remarkable that the woman who gave the most cash to found the church in 1861 was a lifelong spinster who never had a partner and symbolised Victorian morals and standing in thought, word and deed. Miss Mary Craven was born in Hull in 1814, and died at the age of 75 at her home at 5, Esplanade in Scarborough.

The house had been purchased by her father, a respected surgeon at Hull Infirmary, and it was to that address that he moved his wife and four daughters when he retired. It is likely that Mary chose the rising architect George Frederick Bodley to build St Martin’s, because his father was also a doctor at the Infirmary, and the two family must have known and socialised with each other. “Scarborough in the 1850s, with the arrival of the railways and the subsequent flocks of tourists and trippers, was very much an expanding community, especially in the South Cliff area, where the well-to-do tended to buy their houses,” says Mike. “As that part of town grew, it became obvious that they needed a new place of Anglican worship, and Miss Craven was the prime mover to get one built.

“I also think that part of the factor for a new church was that quite a lot of folk thought that a walk across the Spa Bridge was a few steps too far on a Sunday when a bracing North Sea breeze and some strong rain was belting in.”

St Martin's Church in Scarborough.

When Miss Craven’s church opened to its congregation in 1863, it was already bursting at the seams with remarkable craftsmanship, which only increased over the following decades. But some of it did not always meet with full approval. St Martin’s was always “High Church” – and still is – but there were things that Miss Craven and her fellow worshippers would not tolerate. The pulpit was designed by Brown and Morris. There are eight panels in all. The upper ones are the quartet of Evangelists, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. That was fair enough. The four below are of Augustine of Hippo, Pope Gregory, Jerome and Ambrose of Milan – pillars of the Roman Catholic Church. They were swiftly hidden with a cloth until 1873 when Archbishop Thompson of York relented and the figures went on public display. Mike has a fund of tales about the development of the church over the centuries.

“The rood screen only got built in 1894, which was quite a few years after Miss Craven’s death,” he says. “She had put her foot down about that issue. She said that such a screen, between the congregation and the priests and the choir, would be an obstruction for her, and everyone else. She specifically stated that she wanted to see precisely what was going on from her seat in the pews. They waited a decent time after she was buried in the family vault in Hull before it went up.

“Bodley again designed it and it is one of the many glories we have here. I suspect he and Miss Craven must have clashed over a lot of things, each of them getting their own way at some points. It was one of his ideas to have the wall above the altar painted, as it would have been in the medieval churches and it was him, with his brushes, on top of a rather rickety scaffold, who did all the work.

“It nearly caused his death, because a temporary gas-jet, set up to give him a little light, flared up into his face at one point, singeing his beard, and he staggered back, almost falling onto the steps below.”

Bodley was, in fact, a bit of a Renaissance man. He wrote poems, he painted, he was a much-regarded architect of international standing, and he also designed wallpaper for William Morris.

Mary Craven would still recognise St Martins today, although there have been some sympathetic additions, such as the 1902 Lady Chapel. And she might be surprised to find a plaque, dedicated to James Paul Moody, on the south wall of the nave.

“It’s one of the saddest commemorative tablets that we have,” says Mick. “Moody was the Sixth Officer on the Titanic. He went down with the ship in April 1912. He was a Scarborough lad, and he was only 24 years old.”

Like all the best of historic buildings, St Martin’s is rooted in its wonderful past, but it is also going forward, moving with the times. There are plans to turn an area that used to be a chapel of ease into a small cafe for visitors.

“I love meeting people and giving them access to something like this is not only a pleasure, it is an honour,” adds Mick. “Mind you, don’t think that I have all the answers to the questions I get asked. I am still learning something new every day, or finding something that I hadn’t noticed before. And there are lots of things I want to know for myself, like why did Miss Craven never have her photograph taken. There was a well-established studio next door, but she is a woman of mystery.

“However, her legacy is pretty magnificent.”

• St Martin’s on the Hill, Scarborough, is open for Sunday services, and on Mondays- Saturdays from 10am to 12pm, and from 2pm to 4pm. To book tours of the church contact Mike Bortoft on 07554 070205..