Thursday, 15 September 2011

A Plea...

Time and time again I have wandered up a gravel path to a church porch. I turn the iron ring on the old oak door, and nothing. Another locked church.

I can understand why, inner city churches stuffed with gold and silver and carvings would be wary of unwanted guests, but remote little country churches? Hide the family silver if you worry it’ll be stolen, but don’t seal your church. I recently visited some churches in north Northamptonshire. Lowick, a really beautiful church, was one I was particularly looking forward to seeing. Pevsner had told me of its glories, so imagine my disappointment at discovering a notice telling me where I may be able to get a key. Maybe I should have tried to track it down. I didn’t, I left disappointed.

So often, people are actually surprised to find a church IS open. And free. They are invariably empty. Church exteriors, especially prominent towers and spires, are often so familiar to us. A building we may have passed a thousand times. But the interior is usually unknown. Churches aren’t just about under attended church services. They are a massive part of the heritage of every community. They weren’t built to be used once a week or less, they were built to be used every day for a whole variety of things. Even our most majestic and noble churches, famous amongst architectural circles, are sealed for weeks on end.

In these lean times, it is inevitable that tightened belts and government cuts will impact on our built heritage. Old buildings too must sing for their supper, if we are to avoid leaking roofs, dry rot, or redundancy. If a church is to prove its worth, it must surely be used by more than just half a dozen octogenarians and a passing priest with eight other parishes on his hands.

Every church should be open every day, and used by community groups or individuals. Why must a village support a separate church, a village hall, a pub, a café, a shop? Why not put it all under one roof and make the church the most valuable asset in every community once more?

Unlock these buildings and let people see inside and appreciate them.

Monday, 12 September 2011

Heritage Open Days

The weekend just gone (10th & 11th of September) was Heritage Open Days Weekend in Northamptonshire. I managed to visit and photograph 63 churches in three days. I had Pevsner by my side all the way! See the photographs at...

Friday, 9 September 2011

Some City Churches

London’s famous city churches are a remnant of an era when the City was still a crowded maze of all echelons of society. Today they stand tucked away down alleyways, or with just a gable wall or a tower facing streets which, though crammed from eight till seven, Monday to Friday, are vacant the rest of the time. For me, one of the most evocative characteristics about the churches are their names. Long forgotten saints, or curiosities from the middle-ages bush against the forefront of modern business. St Vedast Foster Lane. St Mary Aldermary. St Andrew-By-The-Wardrobe.

St Mary Le Bow is a church whose name is far more famous than its image. Millions of Londoners have heard of the church, yet most couldn’t find it on a map, or wouldn’t recognize its graceful spire that dominates any view of Cheapside, from St Paul’s to the Bank of England. It is blessed with a great vestibule which helps shield the sounds of buses and taxis from the body of the church. Entering from the north, one is struck by the great volume of the space. It is high, and it is gilded and painted like an Austrian Baroque interior. Well, not quite that lavish. This is England after all. The keystones, replaced after damage during the Second World War, are lovely carvings of key people to the church. The vicar at the time, complete with horn-rimed spectacles, looks down into his church.

St Mary Woolnoth is a little gem. Externally, it is surprisingly prominent. Hawksmoor was always one for doing his own thing, and the steeple here is undoubtedly one of the most distinctive in the city. It’s a shame that the Victorian and Edwardian baroque office buildings which now surround it have copied so much of its detail and texture that this most idiosyncratic construction seems to blend in. Internally, it is essentially a cube. Lit from above, the east wall feels so close as you enter.  The Jacobean woodwork, dark and heavy, seems quite at odds with the gracious white columns and beautiful plasterwork. The galleries were, like in so many other churches, removed in Victorian times and their fronts stuck to the side walls, so we cannot fully appreciate the original design. It doesn’t have the peace or extravagance of St Mary Le Bow, but it feels much more ‘London’.

St Clements Eastcheap definitely feels like a poor relation. Externally, when viewed from King William Street, it has neither the prominence or seclusion which make the city churches hidden gems or landmarks of the streetscape. St Clements is dirty and a bit battered, like all the city churches were a hundred years ago before the finance companies and guilds gave so generously. It’s crowning claim to fame has been stolen from it- Oranges & Lemons. The ‘other’ St Clements, St Clement Danes in The Strand has usurped the title (supposedly). Internally something very beautiful stands in front of you as you enter from the west under the organ. The font. Carved within the font cover is a little marble dove. Dirty and a bit worn, like the whole of the church. The reredos is by Comper, and the blitz smashed the supposedly not very lovely 19th century stained glass. The church is a simple box, with one aisle to the south. It is oddly wedge shaped and has not features of merit except a removed balcony. The whole church is a bit sad and disappointing really, and that’s what makes it wonderful. It’s not a star. It doesn’t make it onto lists of great buildings or tourist trails. It isn’t serene or grandiose. It isn’t quaint. It’s just a church really. And that’s the remarkable thing.

The city churches are wonderful because they are so similar, yet so varied. They are so famous collectively, yet so forgotten individually. They are so densely packed that one can stumble across three or four in a single street.  They are surprisingly empty too.  

Thursday, 1 September 2011

Stained Glass- Great Malvern Priory

Here are just a few photos of the beautiful stained glass at Great Malvern priory. In more ways than one, this beautiful church is overshadowed by the Malvern Hills, but it deserves more attention. Simon Jenkins ranks the glass here as third in the country after Ludlow and Fairford.

Wednesday, 31 August 2011

Materiality & Locality- Holy Trinity, Hull

That old churches are usually hewn from the rock that surrounds them can be a blessing and a curse. The creamy limestone of the Cotswolds form not only the rolling hills, but also the finely cut tracery of its churches. The flatlands of Norfolk, whose ground yields only flint has resulted in a legacy of ancient round towers.

Britain’s underlying geology generally sweeps across the country in diagonal bands, and the vernacular styles match these swathes from southwest to northeast. Bands of  cold granite, fine timberwork, crumbling sandstone towers, crisp limestone detailing, giving rise to local vernaculars that disregard administrative boundaries.

Hull, located distant from good stone, but economically close to Flanders, and the Hanseatic Cities, is blessed with wonderful early brickwork in Holy Trinity Church. Today, many of us overlook brick as the building material of bland mass-production in Victorian times. But this is claimed to be earliest use of brick in a major British building since Roman times.

Holy Trinity claims to be the largest parish church. I wouldn’t wish to get too caught up in superlatives, but it is bloody massive. Not cathedral scale, like Tewkesbury or Sherborne, but a big town church. It benefitted from being founded as a chapel of ease, meaning that it had no graveyard. These green oases can so often isolate a great church from the surrounding streets. Holy Trinity pushed East to the busy road, and on all other sides fills the square of old Hull that still skirts it. It never dominates. Post-war planning shifted the heart of the city to Queen Victoria Square. The Old Town was left. For a city with such a dreadful reputation, the Old Town is surprisingly quaint in places. And Hull still has many rewarding civic buildings. If, like me, you love the derelict industrialisation of inner city Britain, walk north along Wincolmlee. Adjacent to the River Hull are enormous old grain stores and factories and bridges and railways and walls, meandering.

East Yorkshire overlooks Holy Trinity Church in favour of Beverley’s two masterpieces, and Heddon, and Howden, and Patrington. At the heart of Britain’s “worst city” stands a landmark to Hull’s ancient origins.

Friday, 26 August 2011

A Question of Prominence

A couple of weeks ago, as I travelled by train to Northampton Station, I was repeatedly struck by the prominence of churches in the landscape of Buckinghamshire and Northamptonshire. Spires, and also towers, were visible in the distance and the foreground, punctuating every hill or valley the train past. Most prominent are the beautiful spire of Hanslope Church, or the wonderful gothic tower meets baroque cupola of Northampton’s All Saints in the heart of the town centre. I was thinking about how churches, regardless of religious function stand prominently as landmarks for every village or town. Visible, from a great distance, steeples have been used for defence, for map making, for one-upmanship. Ancient and infinite. The most prominent elements of the English landscape. And then I went to Cumbria.

The Lake District is about as extreme as the English landscape ever gets. Mountains, moors, forests, waterfalls, oh, and lakes. I was staying in beautiful Borrowdale, surrounded by the highest mountains in England. Hemmed in by impressive stone cliffs. The little hamlets are not visually dominated by their churches, but by their landscape. The simple churches I visited were little more than barns with Victorian gothic windows and bell-cotes. These buildings feel raw and untamed. They are not works of art, but of function. Interiors of Cumbrian churches sadly lack the ruggedness of their exteriors. They may be more integral to the daily life of the village, but they do not mark the village out, as the churches do of lowland Britain. The difficulty of transporting materials, the relative lack of communication, and the lack of wealth have left churches which do not have the visual prowess of Somerset Towers or floating clerestories of East Anglian wool churches.
Here, the mountains are prominent, the churches are hidden. No hilltop in Northamptonshire is complete without a view of at least four or five churches. Likewise, no Cumbrian church is complete without a view of four or five fells.

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

Northampton's Gas Holders

Northampton is to be the location of a new 'enterprise zone'. Whilst I am really in favour of this kind of fantastic investment into a neglected part of Northampton town centre, I am concerned that the relaxed planning will lead to the demolition historic buildings and structure. Specifically, it is the landmark gas holders, especially the more ornate cast iron one located along Towcester Road. 

Such a beautiful structure, which has stood for around a century is a wonderful reminder of the town's proud industrial past. Northampton has a terrible record of preserving such important structures in favour of banal housing and offices. There remain proposals to demolish the former power station near Beckett's Park, and no doubt the brick gas works office adjacent to the Carlsberg Roundabout. What the town would be losing is not just 'a few worthless old buildings', but a key part of its industrial landscape. The concentration of such buildings stands to remind us of the once self-sufficient nature of power generation. Now, they may seem obsolete and grim, but consider the great loss the town suffered with the demolition of the historic streets of Spring Boroughs in the 1930s and 1960s. The Express Lift Tower is not just a redundant industrial building, but an icon for the town. 

These gas holders could easily be converted into useful buildings, or retained as sculptures in a fantastic public landscape. The Emscher Park in the Ruhr Valley of Germany uses derelict industrial buildings as the basis for an evocative and sustainable park. A very similar gas holder to the Northampton ones has been converted into flats in Dublin, a far more beautiful and creative solution than the majority of recently built flats in Northampton.

Yes, Northampton needs investment especially in the central areas, but we must not allow this investment to be at the expense of our heritage.

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

All Saints, Cottesbrooke- The South Transept

Cottesbrooke is an estate village. It's history is bound up with that of the hall, whose changing ownership has enriched, changes, developed the village over time. The same, as is so often the case, goes for the church. Only the south transept remains of this once cruciform church. The south transept of this 13th century church with georgian fittings is given over to two impressive Jacobean monuments, and has other interesting features. Entered via a small flight of stairs, opposite the wonderful three-tiered pulpit.

Immediately to the left is a beautifully domestic marble fireplace, with a rustic timber bench

The oldest monument, that of John Rede and dated 1604 features ten curious little elizabethans, kneeling in a sort of gnome procession.

The centre of the transept is filled by the tomb of Sir John Langham, whose purchase of the estate resulted in it being passed down through the Langham family for 300 years. The family built the Hall, and endowed various local charities.

As you leave the transept, there are two other little features which are so rewarding. Mediaeval relics in an otherwise port-reformation interior, they are the few remaining steps, high up in the wall, which once must have led to a minstrel gallery, and the squint through to the chancel. Both whitewashed and looking pure and ancient.

The whole village is picture-postcard England, and the church is an often overlooked gem when the hall is such a treat.

Thursday, 30 June 2011

Bell's Guide to Beverley Minster

Beverley Minster is considered one of our greatest ecclesiastical buildings. Especially when you consider it is basically just a parish church. Yet it is lucky enough to have its own volume in George Bell & Sons series on cathedrals and churches.

These books are no doubt familiar to those who spend time rummaging around in the Architecture sections of second-hand bookshops. With their beautiful flowing front covers designs, black on dulled-down vividly coloured cloth. Red, Greed, Blue &c. They are under appreciated, because what they teach us is not just about a building, but about the attitude generations had towards these buildings.

The inside front cover of my Beverley edition has, in hand written ink, Amy K Salby Xmas 1907. Hard back, yellowing pages, black and white photos that seem familiar to us in the form of postcards by Tucks or Bamford.

The tone of the writing is serious, deferential, informative. Charles Hiatt, the author, is just plain rude about Beverley, calling the town "singularly unattractive", but acknowledges its good fortune to have two such wonderful churches (The Minster and St Mary's). The books date from the 1890s to1900s, an era when travel was still a novelty, but becoming cheaper and more widely available. The Gothic Revival was still, just about going on. Photography was the preserve of the rich, and printing photographs was in its infancy, yet 43 photographs and engraving enrich the 136 pages.

They sit in a position between architectural study and travel guide, but show serious and often academic manner in which the ordinary person was beginning to view architecture. The author's view is very much that architecture is about a few great and ancient buildings with illustrious histories. Our cathedrals and great churches seem to have been so over studied and photographed, but we need to stop and think about what these building meant to Victorians and Edwardians. God was mighty. This was the evidence.

Thursday, 16 June 2011

Possibly A Church... St Stephen's, Brighton

This was once a ballroom in the middle of Brighton town centre. Today it is a homeless shelter in a polite regency suburb. Confusing!

Brighton in the 1740s was a small fishing village. Then, a doctor from nearby Lewes started promoting seawater as a cure for all manner of ills. This quickly became very popular with the upper classes, and Brighton became the hedonistic paradise we know today. The Castle Inn, on The Steine, was one of the most fashionable places to be seen in Brighton's regency glory days. Right next to the Prince's fashionable residence, and with an enormous ballroom built in 1766.
But, all good things must come to an end. By the 19th century it was a bit old fashioned. The napoleonic wars had reduced the nation's wealth and people's leisure time. Brighton started to decline. The Prince bought the Castle Inn, and demolished most of it. But he saved the ballroom to become his private chapel within the Royal Pavilion. It was consecrated on 1st January 1822. To this day, Brighton has a "Castle Square" where the Inn stood, not a mediaeval fortress.

However, when Victoria came to the throne, she was not a fan of Brighton. She preferred the sedate Isle of Wight, or Balmoral. She sold the Pavilion to the Town Commissioners, and it was expected to be demolished. So the Diocese of Chichester had the chapel demolished brick-by-brick, and reassembled in the suburb of Montpelier, close the the border with Hove. In 1851, with a striking new facade, it reopened as St Stephens.


The decision to move it raises the question of why? Was it a cheaper alternative than building a whole new church? Was it considered, even then, to be part of Brighton's heritage? 

It was already in need of restoration, possibly due to the move, in 1908, and it was closed by 1939. Since then, it spent 40 years serving the deaf, and now 30 years serving the homeless. It was looking a bit tatty, but it was recently renovated, and looking lovely again.

Let's start with the exterior. It's stark classicism, to say the least. In the 1860s, a porch was added, and it finally had some windows. The enormous cream pilasters which face Montpelier Terrace suggest nonconformism, at best. Not 19th century anglicanism! 

The main interior space, a miraculous survival, is beautiful. I've only peered in through building work, or seen photos, but it is the epitome of restrained. What struck me was the light. Despite having no south facing windows, the cool, and somewhat overshadowed east and west windows let light fill the gentle vaulted ceiling. This building is not OTT, ornate plasterwork, gaudy detailing of 1820s Brighton- this is 1760s Bath-style, Jane Austin elegance.

In many ways, this is a fall from grace. Aristocrats, monarchs, centre of the most exciting place to be in early 19th century England. Lavish balls, God and Jesus. Today, relegated to a back street homeless centre. 

Well, that's not how I see it. This room has gone from being about showing off wealth, to offering genuine succour. It shows a remarkably enlightened attitude to both building preservation and reuse. Each incarnation it has fulfilled a need by one section of society, but always retained its interior. When so many old buildings have been reduced to facades or fragments, it is great to see the interior as the feature that lives on. But is it really a church?

Sunday, 5 June 2011

Temple Normanton- The Fibreglass Wonder!

Close your eyes and imagine what you think The Church of St James The Apostle, Church Lane, Temple Normanton, Derbyshire might look like. It looks nothing like that.

England has thousands of brick and stone churches; hundreds of concrete churches; quite a few 'tin tabernacles', but as far as I am aware, only one orange fibreglass church.

St James the Apostle is a church I stumbled across a couple of times whilst driving in north Derbyshire. Not far from Chesterfield's iconic crooked spire, this village church is far more striking and eccentric. It sits strangely surrounded by a rather traditional looking graveyard, with a local stone wall, mature trees and victorian and edwardian era gravestones. It's even located on the rather bucolic sounding 'Church Lane'.  Yet this church seems more like the product of an outer-space oversized baked bean invasion than a little slice of heaven on earth. If this is what god's house really looks like then god must be a 1980s photocopier salesman that took a wrong turn on the A617 and accidentally ingested a Ginsters pasty laced with acid.

This is not the first church in Temple Normanton. Originally there stood an ancient little church, which the zealous victorians replaced by a larger and more imposing edifice. The local coal mining industry caused subsidence, a fate many fantastic buildings have suffered, and so it was demolished and replaced by a temporary timber structure which apparently blew away (unverified, but I like to think it's true).

The current church, built in 1986, is half buried, with a semi-circular roof of fibreglass. It's form is strangely reminiscent of primitive celtic churches such as Gallarus Oratory in Kerry, Ireland or a Hebridean black house with its deeply recessed door. But rather than hewn from the land, it seems to have landed from above. Like the landing craft of an alien invasion (all good churches should seem to be other worldly, of course). Like Ely Cathedral, the haunting behemoth of the misty fens, must have seemed to the mediaeval traveller. The uPVC double-glazed windows may not be particularly elegant, yet somehow they suit, just like Ely's oversized cast iron radiators, standing sentinel in the aisles. The stark cross in the graveyard surrounded by what looks to be a bin is the only vertical element, and the only obvious sign that this is in fact a church, and not a scout hut. Next to the main door sits a little potted leylandii. As suburban and domestic as one could ever hope to see. Superb juxtaposition. As if this little terracotta clad tree, two-foot tall, could soften and tame the alien spacecraft.

The whole composition is somewhere between sublime and ridiculous. Off-the-shelf B&Q fittings? The sea of block paving? Some kind of twisted joke by the architect, surely?

It's not ostentatious or overpriced. It probably won't last forever. Most parishioners probably wish they still had a nice little gothic stone box with a quaint little tower. Be grateful. Your church is amazing.


I love church architecture in all its many weird and wonderful forms. In this blog I'll be sharing with you some of the more lovely, loathsome and exciting examples of mostly English churches.