I have to confess the old girl was a bit frigid to begin with. We’d tried to get her warmed up with some sort of heating contraption but she wasn’t having any of it and continued to remain distant. Meanwhile, those associated with her past and present gathered to receive royalty. I was worried her sullenness would spoil everything; after all she’s been around a lot longer than any of us even if we added our ages together. She probably felt a bit snubbed. Crowned heads had ignored her many times preferring to visit her neighbours, the Regent and that pushy upstart across the way – the Potteries Museum now all dripping with Saxon gold. They never called then; it seems they prefer the brash modern to the self-effacing antique. Come on old girl, I pleaded silently, pull yourself together.
Bethesda Chapel of course is the symbol of local Methodism. Completed in its present form in 1819 with its instantly recognisable Corinthian portico added in 1859, it stands defiantly at the heart of Stoke-on-Trent’s Cultural Quarter. You can forgive her for feeling left out in the rush to modernisation and change. Why should she be concerned that royalty were coming to visit for the first time in her 200 year history, her great glories given over to a building site? On the other hand, I would have reminded her, where would you have been if you hadn’t been rescued by your inspirational owners the Historic Chapels Trust? You could have been a Weatherspoon pub – just you consider that my lady!
The hosts lined up with their funders, project managers and heritage consultants and the wonderful Friends of Bethesda group who look after the old girl on a daily basis. She was still a little frosty even when the cheering in Albion Street heralded the royal party’s nearness. Then, as the Prince of Wales entered she bucked up, suddenly letting the midday sunlight flood through the battalion of high-reaching windows in the astonishing rounded apse that is so distinctive both inside and outside the church. At last she was ready. Bethesda was ready for the prince and I was in no doubt that Bethesda had succumbed to the company of the heir to the throne of the United Kingdom and his wife. She warmed to them and the icy cold departed unnoticed.
The Prince of Wales was stunned by the sheer space as Bethesda unveiled her beauty, glazing over the reality that this was a still an unfinished project awaiting rebirth as a true community centre. Do you think it will take long to complete the project”, he asked. The practical among us explained the pressures of seeking funds and the intricacies and complications of negotiation. He nodded, understanding. And then we climbed to the balcony and wandered among the tiers of unoccupied pews that echoed the hushed spirits of long-gone Stoke-on-Trent communities. I pointed out the remarkable roof beams brought from his mother’s Commonwealth nation Canada: 200-hundred year-old giant redwood struts that were transported in single-length beams. He was impressed. And then it was over. Charles and Camilla said goodbye. And Bethesda smiled cordially.
Written by Fred Hughes, Chairman of the Friends of Bethesda, and reproduced with his kind permission.
Pictures © Elaine Titley (a Friend of Bethesda).