Inside Pugin’s dream church

St Augustine’s Church, Ramsgate (Ludmila Griffin)

The architect Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin (1812-52) wrote: “There is nothing worth living for but Christian architecture, and a boat.” For him, both came together on top of the West Cliffs at Ramsgate in Kent, where he built his ideal house – the Grange (1843-4) – and next to it his ideal church, St Augustine’s (1845-1851).

Threatened with closure in 2010, St Augustine’s has now been triumphantly restored and was reopened last May by the Archbishop of Southwark. It is now the national Catholic shrine of St Augustine of England, whom Pope St Gregory the Great sent to convert the men of Kent in 597. The restoration of the church and the Pugin and St Augustine Visitor Centre have gained more than a million pounds of Heritage Lottery Funding.

Pugin became a Catholic in 1835, 10 years before the Oxford Movement converts. In 1843 he moved from London – where he was building Southwark Cathedral – to the very un-Catholic Ramsgate. In 1846 he began the Catholic mission there with the school chapel and cloisters, hiding the church from the road and Protestant hostility. It is only from the sea side that the church is fully revealed, built of local flint with stone dressings and plain-tile roofs.

The style is “Christian” (that is, Gothic) and in the rich Decorated Gothic of the 14th century. The asymmetrical plan form, pivoting around the crossing tower and south transept, is Kentish, with nave and aisles, transept, sanctuary and side chapel all under separate gabled roofs. Entering low through the south door, Pugin advised: “The Faithful do not mind bending their heads … sightseers and heretics must take their chance.”

Internally the walls are lined in rich, warm Whitby sandstone ashlar. Some roofs are “open” – that is, with scissor trusses exposed – others are panelled and painted. The nave, aisle, sanctuary and Lady Chapel are divided by a richly detailed arcade.

The substantial crossing once again boasts its rood screen, now re-fixed in its historic position and with its answering returned stalls in the sanctuary. Alas, Pugin’s high altar was demolished in 1970 and the tabernacle, throne and spire disposed of to Southwark Cathedral. This work of art had been shown at the Great Exhibition of 1851 with the font and its spired cover by George Myers to Pugin’s design, along with much stained glass and metal work by Hardman & Co of Birmingham. A fine example is the floor brass to Alfred Luck, a lay convert and later priest, also shown in 1851.

The Lady Chapel has the metal screen by John Hardman Powell, Pugin’s son-in-law, shown at the 1862 Exhibition. The surviving altar is by Pugin, with two of his 1851 windows on the south. The statue of the Virgin and Child under its niched canopy is carved by Myers’s workshop.

Pugin and his family were to make Ramsgate the headquarters of their artistic, family, professional and religious life for just under a century, as his sons continued his architectural practice. Funding the church from his own pocket, Pugin spent about £20,000 building and furnishing it. He presented it to the diocese of Southwark, which had been set up in 1850, before his tragically early death aged 40. The Pugin chantry has Pugin’s own tomb chest, one of his son Edward W Pugin’s first independent designs, aged 18, made by Myers. The big window has AW Pugin as donor, with his two pre-deceased wives and his widow Jane (d 1908) with themes of St Augustine’s mission from Rome. It is also parclose-screened in rich detailed oak (by Myers); it has some of the best Minton tiles in the church.

The west cloister and the nearly free-standing Digby chantry chapel (1862) are by EW Pugin. The north cloister is in the taste of his half-brother Peter Paul Pugin; his is the St Joseph chapel, or Southwell chantry (1893), and the Sacred Heart altar. Completing the circuit, the school chapel is a substantial flint-and-stone dressed hall with open roof and a tower, now housing the visitor centre, which assures generous public access to the church. The east cloister has some metalwork and vestment displays from the sacristy.

Inspired by St Augustine and his Benedictine missioners, Pugin had wanted the Benedictines to return to Thanet. Edward Pugin built the L-plan monastery (1860-1) for them, but the monks left in 2011. It is now a retreat centre of the Vincentian Fathers of Kerala. The Landmark Trust has restored the Grange, (1997-2006) – with weekly public access – along with Pugin’s original presbytery, St Edward’s (1848-9). A vital monument of the 19th-century Catholic Revival, St Augustine’s is once again ready to contribute to the new evangelisation.

Dr Roderick O’Donnell is an architectural historian