The Royal Navy (Fleet Air Arm at Yeovilton) has enjoyed a close friendship with the parish church of St. Bartholomew since 1940 with the commissioning of RNAS Yeovilton (HMS Heron). During 1940-42 fifteen victims of air accidents were buried in the churchyard before the opening of the Naval Cemetery on its southern boundary in 1942.
In February 1989 the Captain of the Air Station received a letter from the Diocese of Bath and Wells explaining that the tower of St Bartholomewís Church in Yeovilton village was in a dangerous state and that the Diocesan Architect estimated that the necessary repairs and renovation would cost in excess of £230,000. They went on to say that it was likely, therefore, that the decision would be taken to de-consecrate St Bartís unless, perhaps, the Navy would like to consider taking it on for use as the Air Station Church?
The Air Station already had its own much-loved church, St Augustineís, which had recently been adapted for ecumenical use. In any case there was no way that the Ministry of Defence Budget could be expected to fund the necessary renovations. The offer was therefore politely declined.
That would probably have been the end of the matter had not, three months later, a young Harrier pilot, been killed in a mid-air collision during aerial combat training in America.
His widow brought his body back to this country. It was not possible to hold his funeral at St Bartís as the church had been closed due to the risk of falling masonry and indeed a safety fence had been erected to keep people well clear of the tower. The funeral was therefore held in Ilchester Church after which, on a lovely sunny early summer day in May, he was buried in the Fleet Air Arm Cemetery.
After the burial both the Captain of the Air Station, and the Anglican Chaplain, came to the clear and settled opinion that St Bartholomewís Church, with its burial ground containing the graves of FAA aviators killed in the war, was such an integral an important part of the adjacent FAA Cemetery that it must not be allowed to be de-consecrated and put to other use.
Within a few days the concept of raising funds to renovate St Bartís so that it might become the Fleet Air Arm Memorial Church had been agreed.
Over the next 4 years:-
Fund Raising & lobbying
Restoration and repairs
Purchase of St Bartís from the Diocese of B&W for the consideration of £1
Order in Council signed by the Prince of Wales and the Queen Mother
..October 2003, Service transferring the temporalities of the Church from the Archbishop of Canterbury to the Chaplain of the Fleet and formally establishing St Bartholomewís as the Fleet Air Arm Memorial Church
On 11 November 1993, after much restoration work, it was dedicated for use as such. Its appeal is world-wide and many visitors are struck by the beauty and upkeep of the place. St. Bart's is primarily used for worship and this makes a profound difference between a living community and a dead monument. Historically it might be argued that St. Bart's is the oldest of all military church buildings, having its roots in Saxon times.
Like all ancient buildings, the roots lie in deep history, but St. Bart's has undergone some major changes in its long life. In many ways, it is an honest place, allowing the visitor to glimpse some of its historical background. Its change of ownership has not only allowed the church to adapt in a new way but has also enabled a very important building to be saved which otherwise would have been lost. Sympathetically cared for, many of the features were saved from destruction and neglect.
The Saxon church on this site was rebuilt by the Normans and the earliest tangible evidence of this Norman church, which was destroyed by fire, can still be seen; fragments of these earlier churches, turned pink by the heat of the fire, can be seen around the church walls with some fine examples of carved moulding set into the external south chapel wall. The nave of the present church was built in the late 13th century and the chancel in the early 14th century with the tower being added in 1486 by Richard Swanne, the Rector and also architect to Bishop Beckyngton. In 1872 the south wall was largely rebuilt and the south vestry (now the Fleet Air Arm Memorial Chapel) added. Medieval features can still be seen including the fifteenth century octagonal font, the piscina showing a fine example of local carving, carved heads either side of the Chancel wall and original wooden bosses displayed on the wagon roof. The north porch contains a water stoup and two lights; the single light probably formed part of the Norman church while the double light is of Saxon origin. St Bartís has a rarely seen stone altar and bread oven with external chimney; many churches had their stone altars destroyed after the reformation but this one was carefully hidden away for nearly five hundred years.
The Royal Navy bears the responsibility of repair under the lease, and in return enjoys a rent-free church. The Trustees are very proud of their achievements and encourage as many people as possible to come and see for themselves. With this in mind, a Custodian is employed to welcome our visitors, maintain the Fleet Air Arm memorial books and also to keep a very firm hand on the state of the building. We are clearly more fortunate than most, in that repairs are carried out efficiently and effectively. St. Bart's has captured the imagination of many and it remains a gem of a place. For the bereaved it is a place of focus, for the Fleet Air Arm it is the place to celebrate baptisms, weddings and funerals but more than that, it has an extraordinary sense of the Holy and that is what draws so many people back.
The act of maintenance is to balance the needs of a modern community with a sympathetic eye to the original vision of the medieval builders. Every age must contribute something if the building is to be alive and active and used for the purpose for which it was designed. An inspired addition to St. Bart's has been the inclusion of a stained glass window made of quality English glass for the east light, replacing some dreary 100 year old over-leaded windows, lacking in colour or imagination. The Chancel is now filled with a blaze of coloured light that the medieval builders would have understood. This new window, created by local craftsman, John Yeo to celebrate the Millennium, is called 'Resurrection Light.'
The main changes made during the initial renovations in 1992 were the removal of a temporary plastic chancel screen, the old organ and pulpit, repositioning of the font, the conversion of the south vestry into the Fleet Air Arm Memorial Chapel and the provision of a new vestry and bell ringing platform in the base of the tower. At the front of this platform is a screen bearing two glass engravings by Captain Chester Read presented by the Telegraphists and Air Gunners Association and the HMS Victorious Reunion (1941-1945) Association.
The Memorial Chapel houses the Fleet Air Arm Roll of Honour listing all those who have died serving in or with the Fleet Air Arm. The Roll was dedicated on November 10 1995. The Chapel is lit by a stained glass window given by HMS Daedalus to commemorate the dedication of the church and includes the crests of the Royal Naval Air Stations in commission at that time. The chapel is enclosed by an oak and glass screen presented by the New Zealand Fleet Air Arm Association. Its New Zealand crest was also engraved by Captain Chester Read.
Other major donations include the chandeliers and porch gates made at HMS Daedalus, the communion table and other wooden furniture made locally, the embroidered kneelers, the wooden gate at the road and the stone cross of the Naval Chaplaincy Service atop the porch. Funds for the renovation project were raised by donations from many sources including individuals and the various Associations who have links with St. Bartholomew's. Later the same year the church commissioned a stone statue of our patron Saint, Bartholomew, and this was installed in its original inverted niche at the base of the tower. Also in 2001, the font was relined by kind donation of the Eastbourne Fleet Air Arm Association in memory of Major Cheesman. Details of all donations to the church are listed in the Book of Benefactors, displayed in the Memorial Chapel.
St. Bart's is one of the few military churches to house a very fine ring of six bells. The Treble bell, the latest, was a gift in 1993 from the Royal Naval Guild of Bellringers; the second, from Roger Perdue of Closworth in 1628; the third of John Kingston of Bridgwater in 1820; the fourth made in Exeter is the oldest of 1435. Robert Wiseman is mentioned on the fifth in 1591 and the tenor was made by Petter's of Yeovil in 1872. Petter founded a heavy industrial plant, which eventually became Westlands, and subsequently GKN Westland. The fourth bell, known as the Maria bell, bears the inscription 'Protege Virgo Pia Quos Convoco Sancta Maria' - 'Holy Mary blessed Virgin, protect those whom I summon.' It is not unusual to see a microcosm of church history in the bells, for whilst they are noisy for some, their detail remains a mystery in a tower locked away for hundreds of years. St. Bart's is no exception. The bells and tower, which were designed to allow the sound to carry across the fields, saw some poor advice given in the 1990's by a national heritage advisor. To preserve rotting beams, the bell frame was lowered by some 20 feet, and the sound has lost most of its medieval glory. Needless to say it would now be expensive to restore the original vision. Improvements to the ringing chamber in 2000 included removal of the old ladder access and opening up a doorway onto the turret stairs.
The steps from the pavement to the porch were removed and a new path and retaining wall were laid. In 2001 an extension to the Naval Cemetery was purchased by the Ministry of Defence, and landscaped through the generosity of Sir Donald Gosling. The stone wayside shrine and armillary sphere were added in 2002 by private donation. The old Queen's Colour is laid up in the Memorial Chapel and in the Chancel there are several memorial plaques, including one for those lost in the Falklands campaign. At the rear of the Nave, in front of the organ, is the memorial to the Palembang nine who died in Japanese hands in World War II.
During 2002 a new sanctuary lamp and baptismal ewer were presented to the church by former members of 809 and 835 NAS, respectively. Then on September 4th of the same year, the FAA Associationís old Colour was laid up in the memorial chapel.
In 2009, to mark the 100th anniversary of Naval flying, a plaque dedicated to the four winners of the Naval Aviation Victoria Cross was placed in the Nave. Also a new chancel floor made from local Blue Lias stone was laid and the medieval stone altar, which had been preserved under the chancel floor, was restored to its rightful place.
Flying above the tower are the constant reminders of a busy air station and like a beacon, the church calls people home, often from dangerous missions. The Royal Naval cemetery, beautifully maintained by HMS Heron and the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, are a poignant reminder of what St. Bartís is all about - commemorating the proud history of the men and women of the Fleet Air Arm.