The Towers, Buckden, Huntingdon, Cambridgeshire, PE19 5TA
A post-war church designed by Burles & Newton for the Claretian Missionaries, who took up residence in the former palace of the Bishops of Lincoln in 1956 and adapted the medieval and later buildings for use first as a junior seminary and subsequently as a conference and retreat centre. The church is a typical structure of the 1950s, not inherently of high significance, but occupying a site of considerable architectural, historical and archaeological importance and sensitivity.
Buckden Palace was one of the residences of the Bishops of Lincoln from the late twelfth century until 1838. Much of the palace has been demolished. The principal survivals are the outer gateway, the inner gatehouse, some stretches of walling and a massive three-storey tower, all of red brick and dating from the fifteenth century. In 1870 the property was acquired by Arthur Marshall, owner of the Huntingdon Brewery and the son of James Marshall, one of the founders of the London drapers Marshall & Snelgrove. The younger Marshall intended to convert the buildings into a private residence, but instead built a new house on the site, to the designs of the architect Robert Edis. After the First World War, both palace and house came into the possession of Dr R. H. Edleston, an antiquary who carried out some excavations and also began to reconstruct the destroyed chapel of the palace. He died before this work was completed and his sister gave the palace to the Diocese of Northampton, which in 1956 passed it to the Claretian Missionaries for use as a junior seminary.
The Claretians took possession in 1957 and embarked on restoration work, which included the roofing and flooring of the great tower. In 1958-9 a new chapel, designed by Burles & Newton and dedicated to St Hugh of Lincoln, was built to the west of the site of the original chapel, linked on either side to the great tower and to the Victorian house. The seminary closed in 1965, and in 1974 Buckden Palace became the St Claret Centre for conferences and spiritual retreats. Further extensive restoration of the historic buildings was carried out in the 1990s.
The church is in a simple modern style typical of the 1950s. It is longitudinal on plan and constructed with a steel portal frame, clad in two-inch red brick laid in stretcher bond and colour-matched to the adjoining fifteenth century tower. The shallow-pitched roof is covered in a corrugated material. Below and flanking the gabled main front is a shallow-arched cloister, linking the church with the great tower and Victorian villa and forming an open lobby to the church. Above the cloister is a single large widow with triangular head and flint panels above and below. Brickwork on either side is subtly diapered, echoing the adjacent Tudor tower. The main front returns for one bay and then steps down to the church, which is four bays long with modern square windows at clerestorey level, except in the easternmost bay, which has three tiers of square windows lighting the sanctuary. To the east of the main church and attached to it is the lower brick-built Lady Chapel, which occupies part of the site of the former chapel of the palace, and dates partly from the 1950s and partly from the seventeenth century. It has a three-light window on the south side and another in a projecting eastern bay. Beyond the Lady Chapel is a stone structure, lower again, with a curious pediment at the eastern extremity and modern rectangular window openings in the side walls. This structure was built up after 1921 by Mr Edleston, using salvaged old masonry. It is now the Claret Chapel.
The interior of the church is fairly utilitarian in character, with end walls of red brick and side walls of barefaced white brick, divided into bays by the upstands of the portal frame trusses, which are cased in red brick. The roof is ceiled between the trusses. The floor is of parquet. Across the west end is a shallow gallery with a simple modern handrail. There is no structural division between the nave and sanctuary, but the eastern bay is raised two steps above the level of the nave and has a simple modern forward altar and other modern sanctuary furniture. The windows in the side walls are clear glazed, apart from the single windows on either side of the sanctuary, which have glass by Paul Quail depicting St Hugh and St Anthony Claret, installed in 1986. The large window in the head of the west wall has stained glass panels depicting the Life of the Virgin, originally at The Immaculate Heart of Mary, Hayes, Middlesex, another Claretian parish (the church of 1961 is also by Burles, Newton & Partners).
The Lady Chapel is a simple space with plain plastered walls and a ceiling with moulded timber beams. It contains more windows by Paul Quail, commemorating Katherine of Aragon’s time at Buckden Palace and illustrating the mysteries of the Rosary. The Claret Chapel has bare stone walls, a low boarded ceiling, a carpeted floor and modern loose furnishings. The east window has stained glass by Paul Quail on the theme of The Resurrection, and the small side windows have abstract coloured glass.
Buckden Palace is a scheduled Ancient Monument (no.1006855)
Architect: Burles & Newton
Original Date: 1958
Conservation Area: Yes
Listed Grade: Not Listed