Sat in an otherwise empty field, Heath Chapel looks to be a fairly plain and unassuming building. If it wasn’t for the ornate doorway, it could easily be overlooked.
Heath Chapel, a stone’s throw from Clee St Margaret, is all that’s left of a medieval village sat beneath Brown Clee Hill. Surprisingly, the chapel has remained virtually unaltered during its lifetime.
Alongside a photo of Heath Chapel (similar to the one above), The Talk of The Midlands column in the Birmingham Daily Post on 4th November 1958 reports: “Heath Chapel, on the west side of Brown Clee Hill, Shropshire, built 1090, which has received a grant from the Historic Churches Preservation Trust. There is no more perfect specimen of an early Norman chapel in England.”
Heath Chapel consists of just a nave and chancel. Its windows are few in number and small, the one in the north wall being enlarged around 300 years ago. The pulpit and box-pews are more recent additions, dating from the 17th century. The entrance door retains some 12th century wrought ironwork and the doorway is perhaps the only decorative feature on the outside.
In the Rambling column of the Birmingham Daily Post on 11th December 1971, an article entitled In the shadows of Salop’s highest hill describes the area as “The bracken-clad head and shoulders of Brown Clee (1,772ft), Shropshire’s highest hill, rise above an undulating patchwork of fields and woodlands whose hidden folds shelter villages little inclined to move into the 20th century.”
It goes on to describe Heath chapel: “The gem of the district is the simple but serenely lovely little chapel-of-ease, at the Heath, one of the best preserved Norman shrines in Britain, and virtually the same as when its builders completed it nearly 900 years ago. The only recognisable alteration has been the widening of one narrow lancet window behind the pulpit, presumably to brighten up dull sermons. It still serves a faithful few with services twice a month, and the Rev. Lewis, of Stoke St Milborough, in whose parish it is, tells me that the chalice he uses there dates from the early years of Queen Elizabeth I.”
The whitewashed interior walls look messy and untidy, but they hold something precious. Medieval wall paintings were discovered in 1911 having previously been covered in plaster. I believe the walls are currently awaiting conservation.
Heath Chapel hasn’t always been in such good condition. In 1793 Archdeacon Plymley found the walls to be cracked with ivy growing into them, the roof in bad condition and some of the pews decaying. Some windows had glass missing. In 1863 a family of pigeons had taken up residence in the roof, and the chapel was said to be in a state of “melancholy neglect”. A stained glass window was mentioned to be “beautifully executed”, but this medieval glass seems to have sadly disappeared. In 1903 an architect’s report commented on the deteriorating condition of the walls through damp and inadequate drainage.
The chapel was very much in use at this time, with articles in local newspapers mentioning seasonal services. On 29th September 1893, the Shrewsbury Chronicle reports “On Sunday afternoon last a harvest thanksgiving service was held in this church, which for ecclesiastical purposes is joined to that of Stoke St Milburgh. Heath Chapel, as it is commonly called, is a quaint old building of the Norman era, and is probably the only specimen of those ages for miles around in which divine service is held. It was a happy thought of the new Vicar’s to hold a service, and subsequent events fully proved it, for not only was the old edifice thronged with worshippers, but many could not obtain admission. The church was prettily decorated by some of the parishioners, and reflected much credit upon the workers.”
An article in the Wellington Journal on 30th December 1893 describes a Christmas service at the chapel: “The sacred building was decorated for the occasion. A Christmas service at this church is an event of note here, as in the knowledge of any of the residents around no such event is chronicled. Services were formerly held in this place of worship only once a month, whereas, since the advent of the new vicar, two, three, and sometimes four are held.”
Restoration of the chapel began in 1911/12, with parts of the chapel said to be in danger of imminent collapse. The walls were found to be without foundations, but work was made to remedy this. However, it is said that archaeology beneath the chapel was undoubtedly destroyed during the work.
I don’t know if any of my family members ever attended Heath Chapel, but I do wonder if my great-great-uncle sought peace there on the fateful day on which he took his own life at Harp Coppice, just a short walk down the lane, 99 years ago.