Lichfield - St Peter and St Paul

Dimbles Hill, Lichfield, Staffordshire WS13

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A striking building of more civic than ecclesiastical character, demonstrably of 1966-7 and taking full advantage of its elevated position in a contemporary housing estate. A grand glazed entrance opens into the large internal space with central altar, covered by a timber ceiling that slopes down uncomfortably close to the ground. The internal furnishings and finishes do not live up to the external drama.

The population of Lichfield grew dramatically after the Second World War, the city’s population nearly tripling between 1951 and the later 1980s. In the early 1960s the council built a large estate to the north, primarily for people relocated from Birmingham. The church of Holy Cross was on the south side of the city and the parish had bought some land here for a new Catholic church. Rather than using compulsory purchase powers to buy it, the council allocated an acre of land at the junction of Dimbles Lane and Dimbles Hill for a church. This site is at the peak of the hill, and looks directly down to the main shopping area.

In 1966 the Rev. George Smith commissioned Gwilliam and Armstrong, architects of Sutton Coldfield (whom he knew from his previous Army chaplaincy) to design a church in response to the new liturgical demands of the Second Vatican Council. Timothy Armstrong created a number of designs and Fr Smith chose this one. He was particularly attracted by the materials (black rustic bricks and tiles, frameless glazing and white concrete) as they were different to the essentially red/brown brick and tile of the surrounding houses. The interior materials were designed to be maintenance free and ‘this was achieved’ apart from the woodblock floor incorporating electric underfloor heating with polystyrene insulation (replaced in c.1980 with the present quarry tiled floor). Proctor compares the design to contemporary examples of ‘municipal Brutalism’, with echoes of Basil Spence’s buildings for Sussex University. 

The foundation stone was laid on 29 June 1966 by Bishop Gerard Tickle, Bishop to the Forces and a friend of Fr Smith. On 24 June 1967 Archbishop George Dwyer officiated at the solemn opening and blessing. The church was dedicated to St Peter and St Paul, not because that was the original dedication of the 1803 Holy Cross church in Lichfield, but because it was the feast day on which Fr Smith was ordained. J. R. Deacon of Lichfield’s tender price was £56,922 and the final cost was just under £60,000, which took nearly twenty years to pay off. It was partly funded by an innovative tax efficient diocesan covenant scheme, a forerunner of Gift Aid. 

The church actually faces northwest with the altar towards the southeast. For the purposes of this report it will be presumed to be orientated i.e. the altar at the east.

A church built in 1966-7 to meet the liturgical demands of the Second Vatican Council, St Peter and St Paul was designed by Timothy Armstrong of Gwilliam and Armstrong, architects of Sutton Coldfield. The large steel roof rises from walls faced with black rustic brick on the side and black tiles to the rear. The entrance is derived from Basil Spence’s work (such as the University of Sussex, 1960-5) with five exposed white concrete segmental arches rising from brick piers. The end piers were originally decorated with a big recessed cross in pale brick (the shapes can just be made out today). The splayed sides with tall recessed windows are similar to Spence’s Coventry Cathedral, but filled with thick frameless obscure glass panels in mastic with a slightly reeded finish.

The plan is roughly T-shaped, the central square worship space fronted by bays tapering to the west with a ridged roof. The sanctuary space is flanked to the north by the chapel of Our Lady (originally to the Blessed Sacrament) and to the south by the choir stalls and organ console. Beyond are single storey flat-roofed adjuncts housing storerooms (north) and sacristies and confessionals (south). The west bay is glazed from floor to ceiling in dark timber frames, originally housing the baptistery on the south (now a side chapel) and foyer for books and shop to the north. There is room for a west gallery above (which may have been intended) and the side chapel has recently had a ceiling inserted, to conserve heat.

The interior is dominated by the Columbian pine ceiling that swoops down to the east from the narrow horizontal clerestory at the intersection of the ridged roof of the western splayed bays and the monopitch central space. The tabernacle stands in an eastern shallow recess, flanked by even shallower recesses, all plastered. To north and south are pale brick walls rising from behind a heavy white concrete horizontal beam, below which the walls are plastered. Two rectangular windows rise above the beam each side, but there are no ground floor windows. Most natural light comes from the floor-to-ceiling recessed windows in the splayed bays.

The original spotlights are set within the timber ceiling; gas fired heating units have been added to the walls above the concrete beams and the timber boxes of a former heating system are on the largest blank wall of the splayed section.

The very large altar rectangular podium of textured concrete has curved sides and beyond, four bowed steps leading up to a further platform to the east. The pale green carpet and reconstructed stone altar are original, as are the dark wood (possibly teak) lectern and candlestick. The sanctuary was originally surrounded by a matching dark wood altar rail on metal supports (visible in figure 2), now removed. The faceted, tapering octagonal polished concrete font to the north is presumably the original one, relocated from the western baptistery. The original benches are of teak. The original Stations of the Cross have recently been given pale wooden backgrounds to increase their visibility. To the north of the sanctuary is a large painting of Christ washing the feet of the disciples, by Fyffe Christie, 1962.

Diocese: Birmingham

Architect: Gwilliam & Armstrong of Sutton Coldfield

Original Date: 1967

Conservation Area: No

Listed Grade: Not listed