Watts Cemetery and Chapel is very special: my secret place. I go there just to get away from city life for a few hours. It’s a space for contemplation and getting closer to nature. Sitting quietly, all you can hear is the rustle of leaves on the breeze and birdsong.
Built between 1894-1904 as a place for remembering, its co-creator, Mary Watts (1849-1938, wife of artist George Frederic Watts), trained local community members to decorate the chapel’s interior, drawing inspiration from Byzantine and Celtic symbols.
These days, community involvement in designing buildings and gardens is touted really trendy – but it’s no new thing. Watts Chapel embodies how a community coming together can create something truly valued and unique.
Ambling around the cemetery, I’m taken by familiar Celtic designs on tombstones, some leaning over quite haphazardly. Strategically positioned benches allow pause for thought. It’s not a big place but it does have some fantastic old trees and views across rolling Surrey hills.
Approaching the red brick chapel (architecture attributed to George Tunstal Redmayne), the symmetry and solidity of the building are striking and topped off by an imposing belfry. Some day I’d like to hear that bell ring.
On the chapel’s North-West wall, a delicate frieze featuring a pelican, (bird of love I’m told), is supported by angels bearing shields.
As I walk around the building and approach the main entrance, 15 more angels invite me in. Pushing the heavy oak door carved of dragons, it creaks, spookily. Then it hits me: a myriad of colour in gesso and ancient spiritual stories stretching upwards, deep into the distant dome, linked by the Tree of Life. My ghostly footsteps on the stone floor echo around and around.
It does feel a bit crowded in here. Gazing upwards, I see four angels with hands raised wishing good luck and lots of little cherub faces that are just too cute.
The altar is the focal point featuring a human heart carried by an angel. The centre- piece, painted by Mary Watt’s husband George, depicts a hooded figure holding what appears to be a planet.
The great thing about this place is that you can let your mind go free and make up your own stories if you want: there is so much crammed in to keep you going. If however, you’re hungry for facts, the shop nearby, stocks a wealth of information about the chapel, so don’t miss it!
As one of the finest examples of work emerging from the Arts And Crafts movement, the chapel is Grade 1 listed and forms part of a larger village of artists’ galleries and studios. Run by Watts Gallery Trust, volunteers welcome thousands of visitors every year, whose donations are essential to keep it going.
Book in for a guided tour or try a demo by one of the resident artists. Once you’re done, there’s a very homely café too!
Watts Chapel is open daily from 9am-5pm. Gallery & Studios 10:30am -5:00pm Tuesdays – Sundays and Public Holidays.
To visit the artist’s village, café and shop or to book courses, all admission details can be found on the website:www.wattsgallery.org.uk