Tea with the vicar

On a sunny Sunday in July we were delighted to host a tea party as part of the celebrations of the life of the wonderful Victorian, Vicar Gray of Helmsley.

Martin Vander Weyer spoke about him during Evensong at neighbouring St Mary Magdalene at East Moors and then everyone came back for victoria sponge, flapjacksand gallons of tea!

Vicar Grey of Helmsley

Martin writes:

'St Valentine’s Day 2013 marked the centenary of the death of one of Ryedale’s most remarkable residents. Charles Norris Gray arrived in Helmsley in 1870 aged 29 as the town’s new vicar, and was its dominant personality for some 43 years.

The Eton-and-Oxford-educated son and grandson of bishops, bearded like an Old Testament prophet, driven by unstoppable righteous energy, as keen on hygiene and sanitation as he was on high-church devotions, Gray could ‘hold his own in a boxing match against any of his parishioners with one arm tied behind his back’, according to one historian.

He was a prolific writer and campaigner in addition to his work as a priest, using his parish magazine (of which copies fortunately survive) to hold forth on topics ranging from beekeeping to the Boer War, from alcoholism to women’s fashions. When it came to parliamentary elections, he did not hesitate to tell parishioners which local candidate met with his approval. For Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897, he organised a Pageant in Helmsley Castle that was attended by 3,000 people and conceived on a scale no modern Festival director would dare to contemplate.

The spirit of Vicar Gray still looms large in All Saints’ Church, Helmsley. If you visit, take note of the austere St Aelred’s Chapel which he created in memory of his father, and of the elaborate murals he designed in 1909 for the north wall, mapping out his dogmatic view of the structure and history of the established church — and Helmsley’s place in it.

Both his parish and his vision were much wider than the town itself. Gray was fortunate to have as his patron William Ernest Duncombe, 1st Earl of Feversham, who owned most of the town and vast estates around it. Feversham had many projects of his own but was also willing to fund Gray’s — despite spats such as their disagreement over the building of Helmsley’s tiny Roman Catholic church, which the vicar abominated.

Gray’s determination to provide a place of worship in every hamlet under his sway left an architectural trail that can be enjoyably followed today. He inherited a passion for church-building from his mother Sophy, who took a hand in numerous projects during her husband’s tenure as bishop of Cape Town. Stern advice was forthcoming from the bishop himself: ‘The parish is quite a little diocese,’ he wrote to his son. ‘You may in your strength and zeal be able to have for some years a network of services all around; but fifty years hence will the living be able to support a staff of curates for these?’

Nevertheless, Gray pressed on. A grand scheme to rebuild Rievaulx Abbey came to nought, but from 1876 a series of smaller projects moved forward. Involved in all of them were the architect George Gilbert Scott Jr — who had been at Eton with Gray — and his pupil Temple Lushington Moore. Their first commission was to turn a chapel of ease at Pockley into the church of St John the Baptist. Next they supervised the moving of a 17th Century chapel from West Newton Grange (a settlement whose population had dwindled) to become St Chad’s Sproxton, opposite the Nelson Gate of Duncombe Park. Both in Sproxton and in All Saints Helmsley, Gray also brought in carvings from Oberammergau in Germany.

In the remote hamlet of East Moors, Scott’s design for the tiny church of St Mary Magdalene was completed in 1882 by Moore, who later added the panelling between the nave and the south aisle — where the curate would sleep the night in a hammock when despatched by Gray from the town to take services.

Scott having been declared insane, Gray commissioned Moore in 1885 to build St Aidan’s Carlton, noted for its simple Early English detailing. After the opening of the new church, at Whitsuntide 1886, Gray wrote of the appropriateness of the dedication to Aidan, the 7th Century missionary who went about the moors and dales ‘civilising and Christianising the people’; there’s no doubt that Gray saw himself in that role too. 

There were more hamlet churches to come. In 1894, Gray and Feversham commissioned St John’s Bilsdale Midcable, ‘midcable’ being a contraction of ‘middle chapel’, the chapel sitting in the middle of this wild dale. In Rievaulx, the old Gate or Slipper Chapel of the ruined abbey, dating from the 13th century, was handsomely restored as St Mary’s church in 1907, with the addition of a chancel and a steeple.

Meanwhile Gray set Moore to work in Helmsley itself, refurnishing the chancel in All Saints and the remodelling Canon’s Garth, the medieval clergy house which had fallen into delapidation. In 1889, Feversham had given this property to Gray as trustee on behalf of the parish; it later served as a sanatorium run by nuns, and is also now undergoing meticulous refurbishment under new owners, Hugh and Elisa O’Loughlin.

Gray’s home for 30 years was the half-timbered house that is now part of Helmsley’s Black Swan hotel, but in 1900 Moore designed for him the ‘model’ vicarage that is now the headquarters of the North York Moors National Park. The great vicar died aged 72 — of over-work, it was said — and lay in state in his vicarage, silent at last, clad in Eucharistic vestments with chalice and paten in his hands, for parishioners to file past his coffin. What a formidable and overbearing figure he must have been in his prime — but what a legacy of lovely little churches he left behind.'

For more about Moore’s work, see www.templemooretrail.co.uk