special furniture for St Christopher’s Church, Stonehouse Barracks

“I  like to highly recommend Bates and Lambourne for their superb craftsmanship in creating these special pieces of furniture for St Christopher’s Church, Stonehouse Barracks, as well as the excellent customer service from start to finish.” Rev Mark Allsopp, RN.

It is autumn 2015. In the workshops of Bates and Lambourne, senior cabinetmaker John Preston is building new furniture for the Chapel at the Royal Marines Barracks Stonehouse, home of the Royal Marines in Plymouth. Two buildings down the former prison camp, oversized wooden dagger handles are being turned on the lathes of RedKite Woodturners, whilst two further buildings down, a brass sconce is being made for a Paschal candlestick. In a garden shed in West Wycombe, Mick Atkins (carver par excellence) is carving a laurel wreath and a wooden globe, whilst in another garden shed in Cuddington, Jessica Ecott (glass sculptor) is etching a laurel wreath around the rim of a new glass font bowl, and planning designs for a globe to be etched onto a pair of semicircular glass doors. Meanwhile somewhere under the North Atlantic Ocean, a submarine is gliding towards Plymouth, carrying a weighty chunk of the Rock of Gibraltar requested to be ‘roughly the size of a human head’…

It was in March 2015 that we were contacted by Rev Mark Allsopp, Padre for Stonehouse Barracks, Plymouth, the home of the Royal Marines. It was clear from the first conversations with Mark that St Christopher’s Chapel was a place of particular significance for the Royal Marines, and that it deserved a properly individual approach to the design and construction of the furniture. Although Plymouth is well over two hundred miles away and our usual work comes within a radius of around 30 miles from the workshop, I was certainly not about to pass up the opportunity to create furniture for such a significant venue.

Globe Globe Draft

Our involvement in church work over the last few years has often been for seating, but in the case of St Christopher’s they had relatively recently had new upholstered seating supplied. The east end of the chapel however, having had a number of donated items from various churches, lacked a coherent style. The particular pieces requiring replacement were the communion rail, font, lectern, paschal candlestick and remembrance book cabinet. Having ascertained the general requirements and measured up the overall space, as well as dimensions of existing furniture where relevant, Mark and I then talked about the Marines’ origins and history, their involvement with Gibraltar, the iconic symbol of the Globe and Laurel, the Commando dagger.

The basic functional requirements of the pieces were quite straightforward to achieve; the lectern would need to be a certain height, the remembrance cabinet had to store a certain number of books, some items had to be moveable, the communion rail would need to double as a barrier to keep toddlers from the mother and baby group away from the altar, and so on. What took more consideration was how to really root the work into the Marines’ history without just resorting to sticking the emblem of the Globe and Laurel onto otherwise generic work. A good starting point for the style came from the fact that a rather fine panelled frontal was going to have to be removed to make way for the remembrance book cabinet. This seemed a shame as it was one of the few items that had actually been designed for the church, so instead I proposed that we build it into the front of the new cabinet, giving plenty of storage behind, and a firm base for the new display casework above. As it also had a carved version of the globe and laurel central to it, it gave us something to work from on other pieces where we wanted to echo the motif.

Detail Carved Detail

Mark’s initial ideas for the font included the possibility of having the bowl made from Gibraltar rock. Having also required the font to be reasonably moveable, we came up with the alternative of having the font bowl itself made in glass and etched with the laurel wreath around the rim, whilst a more modestly sized block of the stone would be contained within the base. To emphasise the rock as a symbol of the Marines’ roots as a fighting force, I felt it best to give it a rough hewn appearance but for a single carved cross, beautifully worked for us by Giles MacDonald. Giles is not only an excellent local stonemason who specialises in letter-carving, but is also churchwarden at St Mary’s church Banbury, in which capacity we met him during the making of an altar some years ago. As the marines still retain a presence on Gibraltar, I suggested to Rev. Mark that he was far better placed than I to acquire a suitable piece of stone. Naturally, they sent it by submarine, complete with detour to Faslane due to rough weather outside Plymouth. Sadly they did not sail up the Thames and into the River Thame where I could have picked it up as I went past Cuddesdon Mill on my way to work in the morning. Just because the water’s only three feet deep – where’s their sense of adventure?

Draft of Font: with glass bowl and Gibraltar Stone Font: with glass bowl and Gibraltar Stone

I brought glass into the design elsewhere too. I was keen that the communion rail should have a central focal point, whilst also not wanting it to get in the way too much visually. To this end it seemed that glass, etched as a flat form of the globe, would work well, being both striking and translucent at the same time.

The Commando dagger is a potent symbol for the marines, taking on many variations across their insignia, but always pointing upwards. I was advised that this was an image they were keen to incorporate. In my initial draft of the designs I modified the idea of the dagger into a somewhat abstracted design of a blade form, as I felt that a long row of very obvious daggers might look a bit too martial in a church, even for the Marines. Generally, response to the designs was extremely positive, but this I got wrong: that balustrade looks too much like spearheads – they need to look like THE dagger. Sample dagger through the post, back to the drawing board, scale up three times, and there it is – a far finer communion rail than I would have designed otherwise, and truly unique.

Balustrade Draft of Balustrade

The other main element of the design came from my background reading of the copy of the Royal Marines’ Prayer Book that Rev. Mark was kind enough to give me. Above all, a line of the Royal Marine Prayer: “And may our laurels be those of GALLANTRY and HONOUR, LOYALTY and COURAGE”. These four words, in all their commanding simplicity and uncompromising integrity, leapt off the page as an ideal text for inscription on the altar rail.

Considering the image of the globe, it occurred to me that we could also employ the idea of the compass in the construction of some of the pieces. The lectern, font and candlestick are all laid out with a base structure of four upright components, arranged as if the four points of the compass. A similar structure is repeated along the communion rail. By stretching them up from the four-points footprint, the arrows of the imagined dial become blade forms, echoing the daggers. So the compasses represent knowledge of one’s position in the world, and at their centre on the lectern we have the globe and laurel, image of the Marine’s worldwide reach and responsibilities, and on the font (at which new beginnings are celebrated) we have the Gibraltar rock, symbol of their own beginnings.

We installed the furniture in early March 2016. A little over four hours in a rather ancient Ford Luton was a fair slog and I was extremely grateful that we were able to borrow the muscular services of eight marines to actually get the furniture up the winding two flights of stone staircases and into the chapel. We certainly couldn’t have done it on our own. On which subject, thanks also to the many other skilled people whose contributions of carving, glass, stonework, metalwork and turning, added so much to the finished project. And thanks of course to the captain and crew of the submarine that delivered the rock from Gibraltar, that story made my year.

By the time the of delivery, the Padre of 30 Commando, Rev Mark Allsopp, who had fought for and ultimately commissioned the furniture, had been re-deployed to 45 Commando at Arbroath. Final thanks and last words must go to him:

“I would like to highly recommend Bates and Lambourne for their superb wood craftsmanship in creating these special ordered pieces of furniture for St Christopher’s Church, 30 Cdo RM, Stonehouse Barracks, as well as the excellent customer service from start to finish. Josh, I can’t thank you enough for taking my suggested ideas and designing some of the most beautiful pieces of furniture I have seen in a long time, and which clearly demonstrates the high-end furniture makers and wood craftsman you all are. The furniture compliments and truly demonstrates with its symbolism and Royal Marines insignia that this is the Senior Corps Church. In addition, it has enhanced and raised the profile of St Christopher’s and turned it into a church future Royal Marines can be proud of as well as conversational pieces! All the pieces have detailing that one never sees in furniture stores today. You are all perfectionists and it shows in all your products. I can’t wait to come up with something else for you to build for me! Many thanks”, Rev Mark Allsopp RN

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