ometimes, abandoning a building can help to save it. Travel along the single-track lane between the isolated Shropshire village of Ruckley and the hamlet of Parkgate, and you’ll discover one of the county’s hidden gems: Langley Chapel. Built in the 17th century, it was practically abandoned as a place of worship by 1700, with only a handful of worshippers using it when labourers went in search of better paid work in the new industrial areas, such as nearby Ironbridge Gorge (Birthplace of the Industrial Revolution).
For decades, Langley Chapel was simply forgotten. This collective memory-loss saved it from the development other churches found themselves undertaking during the 18th and 19th centuries.
In order to survive, many English Anglican churches refurbished their interiors to make them more welcoming and comfortable for their congregations, as well as undertaking a re-ordering of their interiors to incorporate a new High Church design.
Here at Langley, time stood still. In 1915, thanks to the efforts of the then Office of Works (later to become the Ministry of Works, whose conservation role was eventually given to the newly created English Heritage in the 1980s), the chapel became one of the first historic buildings to be rescued and taken into care by the State.
This ensured the saving of one of the best examples of a 17th century Puritan church with its fixtures and fittings, and has allowed time to remain still in this idyllic Shropshire landscape.
Sitting in an arable field, the chapel overlooks a landscape that appears to have changed little. A handful of farm buildings can be spotted nearby and, in the east, stretching for 17 miles, the once coral reef that is now the heavily wooded Wenlock Edge casts an early morning shadow. Even the skylark, singing tunefully high above in a cloudless sky, allows the imagination to picture labourers harvesting corn by scythe and gathering it up onto a horse-drawn cart.
The chapel is entered through its south-facing wall, which has two doors, although only one is unlocked. A huge heavy metal key sits in the lock of the weathered, nail-studded door. Pushing at this wooden barrier reveals it has the weight of history behind it.
Inside the air is cool and still. With the door closed the skylark is silent. The white-painted rough, stonewalls reflect the light from the four windows. The south and west windows are small arched affairs and the north window is square, whereas the east stone-framed three-light window is huge and from where most of the chapel’s illumination comes.
It reveals a rectangular (rather than cross-shaped), stone floored building, with wooden pews and boxes on either side of the aisle. The box pews, along the south and north walls, would have been used by the local lord of manor and his family, local farmers and tradespeople, whereas the plainer pews behind were used by the labourers and servants of the estate.
It is these pews that reveal how the local landscape has changed. Churches and chapels that now appear to be sited in the middle of nowhere, like Langley, are often all that remains of lost settlements. Langley Hall was one such community.
The manor of Langley existed in Domesday and in 1313 its owner, Richard Burnell, was granted permission to build a chapel near to Langley Hall, enabling him and his estate workers to worship closer to home, rather than having to walk to the neighbouring village of Acton Burnell, a mile and a quarter away. A document, dated 10th November 1572, suggests the actual distance from Langley Hall to Acton Burnell church was measured at 1000 ½ paces.
Stand outside the chapel door today and the original Langley Hall is not immediately obvious to the naked eye. It was demolished in 1880 and all that remains is Langley Gatehouse, whose timber-framed frontage used to overlook the original Jacobean Langley Hall, and a large farmhouse that is labelled on Ordnance Survey maps as Langley Hall.
The original Jacobean Langley Hall was a far grander affair, whose earthworks, further along the road from Langley Gatehouse can still be spotted through the ancient hedgerows, in an adjacent field.
Back inside the chapel, the pews nearest the main door were used by servants and labourers, and are plain and functional. They feel rough to the touch, with dirt and dust from many centuries having collected in the cut grooves and natural gain of the wood.
The boxes are more ornate, with simple carvings on their upper panels, and are smoother against the fingertip. How many others have caressed the wood since it’s been here? English Heritage believe these pews have been in use since the early decades of the 17th century.
It was at this time, across the country, that many churches were removing their altars, as part of the reformation from the Catholic Church. More emphasis was made on the preaching of scriptures in English, so in 1604, an ecclesiastical law dictated that all churches should have “a comely and decent pulpit” that was “to be seemly kept for the preaching of God’s Word.”
At Langley, the pulpit stands on the south side, just inside the second door, along the south wall, and right in front of the largest box pew. Langley’s pulpit is relatively small, suggesting the labourers and servants sitting in the back pews probably only heard the sermon, rather than saw it being given, whilst the Lord of the Manor had, quite literally, a front row seat.
Opposite the pulpit, against the north wall, is the chapel’s reading desk. This is where the Bible was usually kept, and readings or prayers were made here. Langley Chapel’s reading desk is unusual in that it has a roof and seats inside.
The pews, pulpit and reading desk are not the oldest wooden structures in this simple building. For those, one simply has to look up at the roof. There, you’ll see on one of the arched collars, just above the boxed pews, the date 1601.
Interestingly, if you were to lie down in the aisle and gaze up at the roof, you would clearly see the demarcation point separating the nave from the chancel. Under the nave area, where the pews are, the beams are collar-braced, whereas under the chancel, the rafters are trussed.
On the ground, this demarcation between the two areas is also noticeable, because the chancel floor is raised and, instead of being plain stone, is lined with re-used medieval tiles.
A final upward glance at the south side of the nave will reveal the remaining section of decorated plasterwork, once part of a frieze along both the south and north walls. Their siting appears a little incongruous, sandwiched between the plain, rough, whitewashed stone walls and the roughly-hewn wooden roof struts, but then that’s Langley Chapel all over.
On the outside it seems plain and simple, yet inside, if you look carefully, there is detail to please the eye: the mosaic effect of the medieval tiles on the chancel floor, and the box pews with their simple carvings.
Time forgot Langley Chapel, and inside time can be forgotten too. The only clue as to its passing is the imperceptible movement of sunlight through the east and south windows across the plain walls.
If ever you fancy exploring one of the best 17th century Puritan churches in England, then head for the middle of a Shropshire field, and step back in time as you cross the threshold.
Simon Whaley is an author, writer and photographer based in Shropshire, on the Welsh Borders. His travel features have appeared in UK publications such as The People’s Friend, BBC Countryfile, Britain, Cumbria, This England, The Countryman and Coast, as well as in foreign publications, including Australia’s Great Walks, the USA’s British Heritage and Canada’s Celtic International. He’s also a regular contributor to Country Walking and since 2014 has written the Business of Writing column for Writing Magazine. As a keen photographer, many of Simon’s images have been used by the travel sections of the national press, including The Guardian, The Observer, The Sun and The Independent, and appeared in many regional and national calendars.