This is going to be a slightly strange post in that, I can’t actually show you the most jaw dropping part of the day. I’ll get to that, and it will all make sense. But anyway…a village walk and a small-but-special place. Come with me.
Sandham Memorial Chapel
Set back from the main road in a Hampshire village, stands an unassuming red brick chapel. A pretty apple orchard to the front, a tidy garden to the rear. It isn’t ultra-modern, but it isn’t the old stones you’d expect to see along these leafy country lanes either.
In fact, this 1920’s Grade I listed building was once affectionately known as ‘the biscuit factory’ due to its unremarkable exterior. But it is also home to something very special; a series of floor-to-ceiling murals by acclaimed British War artist, Stanley Spencer.
It is now cared for by the National Trust.
The History Bit
There really is no history of the chapel in its own right; the back story is Spencer’s own. Born in Berkshire, Stanley was one of eight children. Artistically gifted, he was accepted into art school in 1908 aged 17. He graduated in 1912 and was nutruring a promising career when WW1 broke out.
Keen to do his bit, he joined the Royal Army Medical Corps and was posted to Beaufort Military Hospital in Bristol. Not front line, but traumatic, nonetheless. A demanding role of long hours amongst injured and dying men. Here, Stanley began exploring the idea that hard work and service could bring him closer to God.
Later, Stanley volunteered for overseas service and posted out to Salonika, on the border between modern day Bulgaria and Greece. He worked on the battlefield and in field hospitals, under difficult and dangerous conditions.
He must have had some real grit. Despite his insights as a medic, he joined the Royal Berkshire regiment. He saw the front line as an infantryman, lost his brother Sydney on the battlefield and contracted malaria three times. Ending the war in a field hospital, he vowed to design and build a chapel.
Once home he returned, with difficulty, to painting. He kept sketching his chapel but lacked the funds to bring it into existence. Until 1923, when a chance meeting changed everything.
Stanley was visiting friends in Dorset when he met John Louis and Mary Behrend. Patrons of the arts with a personal connection to the Salonika campaign, they agreed to fund a chapel and a series of paintings within. Land was purchased from the Highclere estate and the idea of Sandham Memorial Chapel was born.
Stanley Spencer went to work pouring his experiences of war into a series of large-scale oil paintings. The smaller were completed on an easel within the chapel, the larger sections painted in situ, over a period of six years.
Stanley was married with children by the time he came to Burghclere. The Behrends arranged for the Spencer family to move into a home near the chapel. The murals might have taken less than a decade to complete, but at the same time, they were his life’s work. He called the chapel his, ‘Holy Box’.
The paintings focus on the daily life rather than the horror of the battlefield. Convoy arriving with the Wounded shows the gates of Beaufort Hospital. Ablutions and Filling Tea Urns depicts everyday activity. The final painting, Reveille, shows soldiers announcing the war is over.
I can’t show you them. No photography allowed in the chapel. A good thing- this is a place to experience first-hand. The UK’s only memorial to the Salonika campaign.
I have included a video that gives you a glimpse, but if you get the chance do go and see them for yourself. If you have them, take binoculars. It’s the only way to get detailed look at the higher points. National Trust volunteers are usually on hand with guide sheets to the paintings and a torch; useful for picking out details.
Sandham Memorial Chapel: The Almshouses
The former almshouses once housed those who cared for the chapel. Now they are home to a small exhibition. The work on display is the result of a project between Sandham and a group of military veterans supported by the charity Alabaré .
Exhibits produced by the project include a small filing cabinet of quotes from each generation. Fascinating reading. Everything changes and yet nothing does.
Also, if you’re into vintage interiors, take your time through the almshouses. Look up, down and all around. The fireplaces. The light shades. The switches, the skirting, the old window frames. Things of glorious, historical beauty.
Burghclere & Beyond
The quiet village and surrounding countryside are worth exploring. A circular walk takes you round the village via the village church, some pretty old homes and the former station. For added Famous Five style adventure, take the extended route which involves following a set of steps built into the bank named, ‘Jacobs Ladder’ down through a small woodland and then crossing a stream using a footbridge improvised from an old railway sleeper. Full details of the route here.
Sandham Memorial Chapel has limited opening times, check the website here for up-to-date information. The Chapel is open limited dates in November, including on Friday 11 November for the annual Remembrance Service at 10:55.
If you liked this post, you might like to read about another little chapel with connections to Highclere, the real-life Downton Abbey: The Victorian Cemetery, Highclere