As with many other major buildings in Wookey Hole, the Church stands picturesquely by the main road through the village. Simple in construction, its exterior conceals an internal beauty developed over many years. Before the Church was built the churchgoing villagers attended services at Wookey or Wells. Later, after being granted a licence by the Bishop, services were held at Wookey House and in the main hall of the new school.
The site in the village of the new Church, called Fry’s Orchard, was bought by public subscription from the Trustees of the Estate of Sir Charles Taylor for £92. The cornerstone was laid on 13th November 1873 by Lord Arthur Hervey, Bishop of Bath and Wells. The construction of the nave, at a cost of £1974, was funded by William Sampson Hodgkinson and his family. This Church or Chapel of Ease, as it was rightly called, dedicated to St Mary Magdalene, in the Parish of St Cuthbert, Wells, was consecrated by the same Bishop on the Festival of St John the Baptist, 24th June 1874.
As the Church, at that time, comprised only the nave, the choir accompanied by a small harmonium, occupied the front seats. In memory of the first W.S. Hodgkinson who died in 1876, the chancel was built, at a cost of £1438, and paid for by Mary his widow, and the family, including their two sons, the second William Sampson Hodgkinson and Thomas Ayscough Hodgkinson. It was opened the following year on 11th June, the Feast of St Barnabas. Bishop Lord Hervey and Rev. John Beresford officiated at the service, the Bishop’s text aptly being Acts 11 verses 29 and 30. Reverend Beresford was the Vicar of St Cuthbert, St Mary Magdalene forming part of his living. He retired thirty nine years later.
Apart from the vestry, the organ chamber and the three manual organ, completed in 1880, and the installation of gas lighting, probably near the end of the 19th Century, the Church remained until 1922 with little change. However, improvements were desired and the Trustees of the Fund in 1921 invited Mr F.E. Howard, a renowned Oxford architect, to propose a scheme for enlarging the vestry and decorating the interior of the Church. Work on site started in 1922.
Mowbray and Co. of Oxford followed the designs of Mr Howard closely to produce the fine oak chancel screen and rood cross. The east and west walls were clad with high oak panelling. An oak lectern, altar rails and a credence table were added as they were finished. The ornately carved oak pulpit from Bond Bros. of High Wycombe was placed on the south side. To complement the high quality of the new oak interior the men of the village spent many hours staining the pews in the nave dark brown (due to minor woodworm activity noticed in 1990 these pews were all given suitable treatment). A carved stone font, resting on three steps added to the decoration of the west end of the Church.
The colourful east window depicting the life of St Mary Magdalene, was given in memory of the two daughters of William and Mary Hodgkinson who died in childhood.. On each side of this window there are three quarter scale carved figures of St Mary Magdalene and St John the Baptist.
One of the glories of the Church is the painted chancel ceiling. The four writers of the Gospels are represented by panels each containing their initial in Gothic letters. The twelve Apostles, excluding Judas but including Matthias, each have a painted panel complete with his emblem; the scallop shells, for example, representing St James, the patron Saint of travellers. The other panels are beautifully decorated with a monogram, depicting the first three letters, in Greek, of the name ‘JESUS’.
The service of dedication, directed by the Archdeacon of Wells, Rev. Walter Farrer, was held before a full congregation on 29th July 1923.
Julia Cazalet Hodgkinson, wife of the second W.S Hodgkinson, was choirmistress and organist to the Church from 1883 to shortly before her death in 1924. The stained glass windows on either side of the chancel were erected in her memory. They depict worship and music. A highly accomplished musician herself, she had played the organ in Wells Cathedral for the annual oratorios. In addition she played her favourite instrument, the bassoon, with the orchestra of the Wells Musical Association. The two instruments are depicted individually in these windows. The inscription to her memory below the south window had become almost unreadable and was recut and repainted in 1988, the cost being borne by Mr Terence Hodgkinson, Julia’s grandson.
The Memorial Cross to the two World Wars is of Doulting limestone and is raised on steps to a height of fifteen feet. It has carved into it a sheathed sword, symbolising peace. On the front of the base a brass tablet commemorates the ten villagers who were killed in the First World War. Thirty three further names at the rear, show those who served in that War. Guy Ayscough Hodgkinson was a Captain in the Machine Gun Corps, who fought on the Western Front. The cost of £180 was donated, primarily, by the second W.S. Hodgkinson, by ‘Mr Guy’ (as he was affectionately known), and by Mr Riley who donated more than half the money, £40 being collected by the villagers. Later an additional tablet remembers those soldiers who lost their lives in the Second World War. The shaft of the Cross was later found to have a fissure, and many of the crockets were badly eroded. It was restored, by public subscription, in 1991.
The Church has lawns to the front and sides and trees to the rear; the yew trees probably being the same age of the Church. These gardens have been improved considerably in the last few years, principally by Mr David Scarth, a resident of Wookey Hole and professional landscape contractor.
The original finial, in the form of a cross over the west front of the Church, fell down at a date unknown. A new one was given by Mrs Elizabeth Rennie and her family in memory of her husband Charles, a former Church Warden. It was carved and erected by local stonemason Mr Peter Haskins in the year 2000 and was dedicated by Rev. Hugh Talbot who also lives in the village as a fitting symbol of the Church’s faith for the future.
The earlier gas lamps were replaced in 1952 by electric lighting. In 2000 the rather fierce lighting to the chancel was enhanced to give better and more sensitive illumination to the altar, the decorated ceiling and to the new banner embroidered and given by Mrs Marie Andrews, another former Church Warden, in honour of the Patron Saint.
The Church of St Mary Magdalene remained within the Parish of St Cuthbert until 1931, when it was transferred to that of St Pauls, Easton. In 1973 Rev. Henry Sigel passed the care of the Church back to St Cuthbert, under its Vicar, Prebendary Kenneth Davis, who in the following year saw this Chapel of Ease become the Church of the new Parish of St Mary Magdalene, with Mr Davis as the first Vicar. He retired in 1992, and was succeeded by Rev. Derek Taylor, and subsequently in 1999 by Rev. Peter Farrell, the present Vicar. St Cuthbert and St Mary Magdalene are separate independent parishes, but share the same Vicar.
The Organist of Wookey Hole Parish Church is Mr Richard Kerton, who followed his brother Darren, in 1995, at the age of fourteen, making him, at that time, the youngest parish church organist in the Diocese.
The Church Wardens elected in 2000 are Mr David Scarth and Mrs Elizabeth Talbot. The Secretary to the PCC is Mrs Caroline Tetley and Mrs Margaret Baddeley is the Treasurer.
J. Parsons and D. Hudsmith