Why are some churches locked?

Confined recently to Lancashire, I have been exploring the remaining medieval parishes in the local area I haven’t visited. It can come as a surprise, to those lucky enough to live in East Anglia or Wiltshire, that in some areas, it is not the norm for churches to be open. Or even seemingly any way to get inside without attending a service? It particularly annoys me when a church proudly declares it has received Heritage Lottery Fund money for a big repair, but yet there is not so much a phone number for a churchwarden displayed. Why should an essentially private building get public money?

I do believe that the ideal position of all Anglican churches is that they are open to all during the day. So for a church to be locked, there has to be some factors that exist that cause this not to be true. It is a misconception that the attitudes of vicars cause a church to be open or shut. Priests are really only in control of the services and ministry in the parish. They are usually members of the Parochial Church Council, and while they may certain extra rights of veto, but they do not in any sense control how the building is run. The custodians of the building are the elected churchwardens (usually two in a parish). But ultimately, of course, the owner of the building is the diocese, and anything that happens requires a faculty from them – even if the building is not nationally listed (and any medieval church is at least Grade II listed by default).

Here is what I think what cause churches to be locked, from the most reasonable to the less so.

1. Reaction to manifest problems


If these were medieval cock ‘n’ balls they’d be listed

People can get up to terrible things in public buildings. And you will hear stories about how people have urinated in church pews, vandalised the altar, broken statues, stolen money or pulled up brasses. And of course, if there is an active threat to a building, why would you not protect it? But such attacks are exceptionally rare. I have been in hundreds of churches, and I have never had to report any vandalism that seems to have occurred recently (except perhaps some things a congregation has done to their own church which I suspect they haven’t got a faculty for). It can be harrowing for a congregation to have their church violated, but it is a shame to finally take it away from the public due to a one-off event.


Brent Eleigh church had its unique 14thc high altarpiece wall painting damaged in 2016 by a mentally-ill man. The church, however, remains open as it was before the incident.

Christian churches in modern Britain are lucky that they (currently, at least) have no systemic prejudice against them, unlike Mosques or Synagogues, which can have vile campaigns against them from hate groups. If there are repeated attacks on a church, they are the acts of individuals, not a mindset. However, if a church is being targeted, it would be foolhardy to let those individuals continue and not take protective measures. But once the culprits are caught, normal opening can be resumed. But some churches seem surprisingly pessimistic about humanity, not to mention vindictive.

2. Reaction to perceived risk

A suburban church at the centre of a housing estate where even the grounds are padlocked

So this leads us to the next point. Risk. Things that are happening is one thing. Things that might happen is another. But risk must be managed. A church in a rural village, that has congregation visiting throughout the day, many events, houses nearby, has almost no risk, beyond the “crazy person” scenario. An isolated rural church, with no fittings of monetary value, has a slightly higher risk. A suburban church, which the churchwardens and priest do not live near, and bored children running about is another matter. One in a city centre, is another entirely.

Of course, perhaps the largest active threat to churches, is the theft of roof lead. Of course, this does not need access to the interior – indeed, it actually helps the thieves if they are sure the church is locked and there’s no one inside before they get up there and steal the roof. All risks however, must be managed accordingly.

3. Low level of resources

However, with all the good will in the world, some churches do not have the resources available to manage these risks. They may not be able to afford security cameras or motion-detector alarms for the sanctuary. They may not have PCC members who live near enough the church to be able to open and close it every day. Of course, this factor can always be solved by campaigning, raising interest, and fundraising, but then that leads us to the next point…

4. Low level of interest

Who would ever want to go in here anyway

Quite frankly, to overcome problems in opening churches, there has to be a desire. And some PCCs simply do not have it. Well, obviously, they can’t open the church because they live next village over and go to work. I don’t know who lives in the Old Rectory, they probably aren’t interested in looking after the key. Goodness know who runs the pub now, never go there.

5. Protectionism


Barbed wire a good addition to any crenellated parapet

This then slips over to last point, and the most extreme. For a village, a parish church is an important asset. What is an English village without its little church? It helps house prices if your village has a church that at least plays lip service on Sundays. Great for the village to have weddings, too. So you treat it like an asset, and lock it up tight. You don’t want ramblers coming in with their muddy boots. Kids knocking over the Easter flowers.

The most extreme level of this is with Evangelical churches, who have the money for security, but keep the church locked as a statement that God is everywhere, and the church is just a meeting hall. This is certainly not true of all churches with a lower-church, charismatic leaning (as sometimes the level of worship is set by the priest, and as I say, priests often have little to do with the opening status of churches), but ones where the entire PCC share this mindset can be the hardest of all to get into.


This just made me sad tbh

So which of these points is the most important to combat in getting more churches to open their doors? I think it’s 2 and 4, as 1 and 5, as the most extreme, are rarer. The thing is that “perceived risk” is often overestimated. Usually the worst churches for opening are in what are now satellite villages around big, formerly industrial cities, such as Liverpool. There’s a prejudice against people from “the town” who might come into “their village” and cause trouble. How do you combat this? Well, it’s point 4. Gently moan at them. Tell them people do want to visit the church.

And it’s to their benefit, in the long term anyway. If people who live in urban areas – that is, most people in England – think Anglican churches are locked, unwelcoming, private clubs, the hostility against the established church from the general public is only going to increase, and with it, available funds diminish. Yes, there will always be problems with that great mass we know as “the general public”, but if you can’t find tolerance and forgiveness in a church, where can you?


Dark Pastorals: art and English identity


The desolation of the new 10 pence coins.

It’s not much fun being British at the moment. Whereas, years ago, people used to fret against hooligans shouting “IN-GER-LAND”, going on about the 1966 football World Cup, the Dambusters and waving the flag of St George, the identity articulated these days is invariably British. It seems that “Britain” has become a cipher for English self-importance, exceptionalism, and punching above its weight. Britain First. For Britain. Brexit means Brexit – all of these are English above all else. Cultural identity is often expressed through a self-deprecating tweeness, embodied by the endlessly lauded but utterly dismal opening ceremony of the 2012 London Olympics, and a new set of ten pence coins. T for tea. Q for queuing. The E for England is wasted on English Breakfast (surely F for Full English would have been better?). The disdain we give to our fellow constituents in the UK epitomised by Scotland being represented by the Loch Ness Monster.


Major events in the peopling of the British Isles, from “The fine-scale genetic structure of the British population”, Nature 519, 2015.

What is “British”? Technically, there is an archipelago off the north west of continental Europe known as the British Isles. This consists of a long island, Great Britain, a few smaller islands such as Man and Wight, and controversially includes the island of Ireland to its west. It has been settled by many peoples over the millennia, until the Kingdom of England was consolidated under the House of Wessex in the 10th century AD. There are now two countries that occupy these islands: the Republic of Ireland and the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (yes, that’s actually our county’s name) is made up of four constituent countries: England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Their alliance as “Britain” has been precarious to say the least.

Wales and Ireland never had strong dynastic kingdoms in the Middle Ages. The Normans had a crack at both following the 1066 Conquest, but it was Edward I who subdued Wales into becoming a principality of England in 1282, and Oliver Cromwell brutally reconquered the island of Ireland in the 1650s: the subsequent confiscation of Catholic landowners’ property setting the scene for the division of the island in the 20th century. Scotland and England were of course, bitter rivals in the Middle Ages, but shared a monarch by the 17th century, formally joining together as the United Kingdom in the Act of Union of 1707.

Victoria_Disraeli_cartoon[1]In 1800, a second act of Union brought Ireland into the United Kingdom. The 19th century was when the idea of “Britishness” as we know it today was forged through the British Empire. The East India Company was dissolved in 1858 and India came under direct rule from the Crown, making Queen Victoria Empress of India. Britain also benefited greatly in the Scramble for Africa. This archipelago became a new Italy and London its the new Rome of an Empire that famously spanned the globe.

But all Empires rise to fall. The first half of the 20th century – not that we learn this in school – was the century of Britain’s worst atrocities as it grasped onto its declining Empire. The concentration camps in the Boer War. The Amritsar Massacre. The Bengal Famine. The Firebombing of Dresden. The Partition of India. The Maylan Emergency. Britain was first humiliated on the world stage by the Suez Crisis in 1952. When Egypt nationalised the Suez Canal – the artery of the Empire from the Mediterranean to the Indian Ocean – Britain threw a tizzy and invaded Egypt to win it back. They couldn’t.

Since then, we don’t seem to learn and still act like we’re super important. The Falklands (oh yeah, we won that one, great job Maggie). The Iraq War. The exit from the European Union. The current mudslinging reaction to the Skripal incident in Salisbury. The idea of “Britain” is so deeply toxic, symbolising entitlement, control, exceptionalism and dominion, I almost think it’s unsalvageable. It would be deeply significant if we acknowledged – and this is something that could have happened if the 2014 Scottish independence referendum has gone the other way – that England is a nation on an island, not an island nation.

Anyway, time for art. How does one cultivate an English identity? We of course need to acknowledge that all our art is greatly influenced by waves of immigration, not some unshakeable racial character. Next, we acknowledge our neighbours: the constituent countries of the UK, but also Europe. Then of course, we need to accept responsibility for the Empire. But first, we actually need to recognise our great works.

Watts, George Frederic, 1817-1904; Sower of the Systems

G.F. Watts, Sower of the Systems, 1902.

In our fetish for tea and queuing, we don’t celebrate our own art. I go on about how no one takes our medieval parish churches seriously as objects of knowledge, instead dismissing them as picturesque curiosities. It’s the same for our artists. It is only recently that the Pre-Raphaelites and their followers have become acceptable in “serious” art history, and great artists such a G.F. Watts and Edward Burne Jones are studied in the context of European symbolism rather than as eccentric wackos. But our orchestras only play a few select pieces and composers from the English tradition: especially bloody Elgar, making Nimrod from the Enigma Variations into some radio-friendly jingoistic hymn. Composers such as Arnold Bax, Arthur Bliss, Granville Bantock, William Havergal Brian, York Bowen, George Butterworth, Arthur Butterworth are basically unknown (I don’t know why they all begin with B). Sullivan, Britten, Tippett and Walton also receive short shrift. The Hallé are about the only major orchestra who make an effort with English music: London orchestras play more Russians (Shostakovitch, Stravinsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff) in a single concert than they do English composers in an entire season. Because money.

And yes, a lot of British culture is dangerously obsessed with money, including the art establishment. Probably the most famous living English artist is Damien Hurst, an artist absolutely orientated to the market, who thrives on capital, and is incapable of making any sort of statement to his audience except “ooh, isn’t it scary that we’ll die?” and “wow this looks expensive”. Bombastic shite from vacuous shills like Thomas Heatherwick and Anish Kapoor strives to be “iconic”, but is empty of meaning, let alone any culpability. The Garden Bridge went away: but only because it turned out to be unprofitable.


Winchester Cathedral, N transept, 1080s.

England can do great things when it’s left to itself for a bit. But it needs ideas. It needs stimulation. And English art and culture has always benefited from moments where the floodgates to outside influence were opened. The Norman Conquest kick-started the great rebuilding of the country’s cathedrals and monasteries one of the most extraordinary feats of architecture, even compared to those of Antiquity.



Anglo-Norman Romanesque then developed in its own weird way. Chevron, beakhead – stuff that no one else did. Then just as it started to eat itself with self-referentiality, the floodgates opened again, to French Gothic. In the last quarter of the 12th century, Wells, Canterbury and Lincoln pioneered a new era of English architecture. It was all dogtooth and shaft-rings for a good 50 years when we were fighting with France on and off from 1202 to 1243.

kirkby lonsdale

Parish church of St Mary, Kirkby Lonsdale (Cumbria), E counterfacade, first half of 13thc.


Parish church of St Mary, Lawford (Essex), chancel S elevation, 2nd quarter of 14thc.

Then in come the waters again – bringing in France tracery which is a lightning bolt for Lincoln’s Angel Choir, Southwell chapter house, Lichfield and Exeter. Parisian microarchitecture in the 1280s inspired arguably our greatest period of art-marking: the Decorated Style of the early 14th century, Ely Lady Chapel, the surprising flourishes of exuberance found in unassuming parish churches such as Hawton, Irnham and Lawford.

Aggression really took hold again with France with the Hundred Years War, which went on till 1453, funnily enough, the greatest period of stagnation in England’s medieval architecture. I give a lot of flak to 15th-century “Perp” and rightly get a lot back from flint-fans, and while of course there are many interesting buildings, you can’t deny that it all gets a bit samey. Run-of-the-mill. Predictable. Sturdy. Self-important. British.


E facade, parish church of St Mary, Lancaster (Lancaster Priory).

It was looking up at the end of the Wars of the Roses, when we start to let the continental Renaissance in, with “Fantastic Perp” such as Henry VII’s Lady Chapel, all of course scuppered when our megalomaniacal king pulled us out of the Catholic Church because he didn’t want to be told what to do. You can make your own comparisons there.


Lady Chapel, Westminster Abbey, London, 1503-9.

20180323_112646So we borrow ideas – but what defines what we do with them? Pevsner famously tried to characterise English art in The Englishness of English Art. He made a bit of balls of it, by most accounts. English art has line, sometimes it’s wavy and sometimes it’s a grid, I think is the general gist of it: crap, yeah. Any purely formal characterisation of art is going to fall on its arse pretty quickly as people say “but Herr Professor Doktor – don’t other countries use lines too?”. But one thing Pevsner was sensible with was making it not about race. It’s not about any sort of John Bull shit. It’s about the island itself.

A Hilly Scene c.1826-8 by Samuel Palmer 1805-1881

Samuel Palmer, A Hilly Scene,

For me, the best English art is characterised by the dark pastoral. The most exceptional thing about the island we’re on is its landscape. In the United States, you can drive for days, and the landscape, can look exactly the bloody same. In England, I can drive for an hour in any direction (well, not west at the moment, because I’d fall in the sea) and see a dramatic transformation. However, the landscape is always characterised by a temperance, rather than sublimity. Despite the efforts late 18th century painters, our landscape is rarely sublime. We don’t have Matterhorns or Grand Canyons. It’s easy to slip into complacency, or worst, sentimentality. That’s where the meditative mode of the “dark pastoral” comes in. We indeed have a green and pleasant land, but we can’t deny the presence of its dark Satanic mills.

The 14th century Decorated draws on nature, but there is no imperial triumphalism, subduing it the control of man. Instead there’s a lingering menace in the twisted foliage, a strange instability in those nodding ogees, a dizzying intimidation in those complex vaults. The Pre-Raphaelites at their best are similar: on the surface idyllic, but not far below, an acknowledgement of the ills of society and the darkness of human nature.


Luttrell monument, parish church of St Mary, Irnham (Lincolnshire), 1340s.


John Piper – Dorchester Abbey, 1973.

Neo-Romanticism was the last art movement in England to fully embody this spirit of humbling awe. John Piper’s depictions of churches are not cosy watercolours, but expressive portraits of awesome places, not apart from nature and conflict, but entwined with it.


Ralph Vaughan Williams also embodies the spirit of loving our land but a twist of darkness, sadness and culpability throughout his work. Anyone who derides his work as “a cow looking over a gate” needs to sit down with Symphony No. 6 which, responding to the age of atomic bomb, is one of the most brutal and bleak things you’ll hear come out of musical instruments. Even his Pastoral Symphony of 1938-43 – has a very dark undercurrent, responding to the Second World War. I finish with his majestic Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis for string orchestra as an example of dark pastoral, how its superficial beauty belies turmoil in its cyclic meditation on the melody written by Tallis in the 1560s for the lines “Why fumth in fight, the Gentiles spite” of Psalm 2. First performed at the 1910 Three Choirs Festival in the Cathedral of Gloucester, it mourns the needless Earthly squabbling which led to the Dissolution of the Monasteries, the destruction of our culture for money and power. Towards the end, a single viola emerges from the plodding organ-like grandeur of the string orchestra. It’s as if it’s responding to the echoing words of the psalm which continues:

The kings of the earth set themselves,
and the rulers take counsel together,
against the Lord and his anointed, saying,
“Let us burst their bonds asunder,
 and cast their cords from us.”

He who sits in the heavens laughs;
the Lord has them in derision.

It’s like one folk musician, among the stripping of the abbey of Gloucester, saying to the “kings of the Earth” that you don’t need to do this. Yet does anyone listen?

Church demolition and preservation revisited


In early January 2018, the church of St Lambertus, Immerath, North Rhine-Westphalia was demolished. The pictures were remarkably similar to St Jacques, Abbeville, demolished in 2013, except this time, with social media in a much more developed state, the pictures spread throughout the world. Like St Jacques, St Lambertus was big, but not exceptional. However it was enough of a local landmark to be nicknamed “Immerather Dom” (literally Immerath Cathedral). It was begun in 1888, designed by a certain Erasmus Schüller, continued in 1890 by prolific architect Theodor Ross. It was Neo-Romanesque of the truest kind: rather pedantically based on the blueprint of 12th-13th century Rhenish architecture like the Church of the Assumption, Andernach. Like St Jacques Abbeville, it replaced an actual medieval church that was too small for the modern population, but unlike St Jacques, it was not inaction and neglect that doomed its successor, but greed. The church had only become redundant because its whole village has been moved to make way for the 30km² open-pit Garzweiler coal mine. This will yield lignite, commonly called brown coal, which is easy to access but so inefficient it’s not worth exporting. It is used by Germany as a stop-gap for its own energy crisis, producing up to 50% more kg of CO2 per kilowatt hour of electricity.



The destroyed interior of St Lambertus, Immerath (©Arne Müseler)

So really, the destruction of St Lambertus, Immerath, is part of a much bigger problem, and its spectacular demise was rightly used by environmentalists such as Greenpeace to draw attention to the man-made natural disaster occurring in the Rhineland. But it’s still significant in itself, and it causes me to reflect on that post from way back in 2013 when St Jacques was demolished. The argument of that post was perhaps not entirely straightforward, but on re-reading it, I still stand by it. We can’t keep everything. And I would like to clarify it a little more. A church building’s importance is more than its presence in the built environment. Its interior is just as important. If not more important, for the unique space of transcendence it provides. And we are losing many of the interiors, especially across London, to property developments and unfriendly church plants.


St George (former), High Street, Brentford, 1887 by A Blomfield (© David Gallimore)

All over London in particular, there are church towers that do not signal an oasis for the weary traveller seeking aesthetic pleasure and peace. Instead, they signal an investment opportunity. Take, for instance, St George, Brentford. It’s a rather undistinguished work by rather eratic Arthur Blomfield from 1887. Its main character is its octagonal tower of 1913, which, to be frank, is actually rather ugly. It closed in 1959 and was re-appropriated as The Musical Museum which kept it open to the public. Since that museum has moved down the road into roomier accommodation, the church has been (eventually, after a pause in development following the 2008 recession) converted into 20 two and three-bedroom apartments. And this is what it looks like.

St George, Brentwood

St George, Brentford. Promotional image by Ellis Miller Architects.

St George, Brentwood2

Promotional image of church from N, showing N aisle removed for patio.

The tracery has been taken out of the south side to the road, and the north aisle removed for a garden. Anything other than its general, lumpen shape, has been lost to the public. What’s left isn’t good enough to assert a presence: it just looks pathetic. Whatever interior details the contracted architects preserved are imprisoned in various flats. By London prices, they aren’t that expensive – I mean, I found a three-bedroom flat on the market for a fiver short of a million – but quite frankly, I would have preferred if they knocked the whole thing down and built some actually affordable social housing. Also worth pointing out is that the developers always insist it’s in Kew. It’s north of the river, my dudes. It’s in Hounslow.


Some HTB-allied church I’m going to leave anonymous but it gives you an idea

But not all inaccessible churches in London are thus because they are flats. There’s a creeping problem in the Church of England, and that is the Evangelical church plant. In desperation to keep churches running, congregations and their clergy are given the go-ahead to have churches turned into a living room, with full carpets, sofas, and equipped with a stage and music equipment. Most of these plants are linked to the very influential Holy Trinity Brompton (HTB). But my main gripe about these churches is not their aesthetics, or lack thereof. Each to his own, of course: it’s said that while low churchmen make their churches look like houses, high churchmen make their houses look like churches. But it’s that these domesticised church-plants are open for worship only. They are never left open for private prayer, as the congregation do not believe that Earthly matter ought to be used for contemplation of the divine. It has even got to the point where the plant in the City church of St Sepulchre Without Newgate have disallowed any “secular” booking, threatening its historic identity as “the musician’s church”. Now we have freedom of religion in this country. People can have whatever faith they wish. But the Church of England is our state church. Its buildings are for the use and enjoyment of all its citizens and visitors. If you want to push your borderline iconoclastic ideology via aggressive congregationalism, build a shed and do it in there. Don’t do it with our shared heritage.


St Helen Bishopsgate, from W.

The worst church in London for this is St Helen’s Bishopsgate in the shadow of my favourite skyscraper there, the Gherkin. Infamous among London churchcrawlers, it cannot be considered a church plant in the same way because it gradually developed a very Low Church congregation and eventually became one of the few City churches to have a congregation of any sort – never mind a strong one. The Bishopsgate Bombing of 1993, as well as the 1992 Baltic Exchange bombing that literally made way for the Gherkin, caused serious damage to the church, and was used by the congregation as an opportunity to redo the interior as an Evangelical MegaChurch. Now the thing is, St Helen’s Bishopsgate isn’t just a nice Victorian church, or even a classic Wren one. It’s one of the few medieval churches in the City that survived the Great Fire of 1666.


St Helen Bishopsgate, N nave from W

It’s a rare example of a double-naved church where a parish church was alongside a Benedictine nunnery. It has excellent carvings and medieval monuments. Sadly, this means nothing to its congregation and clergy, who hired Neo-Georgian brute and favourite of the Prince of Wales Quinlan Terry to wreak Neo-Reformation havoc on the building. Like the Puritan levellers, the floor has been made consistent, burying column bases and carving to allow for a single preaching space with an immersion baptismal pool in the centre. The interior has been whitewashed like a painting by Pieter Saenredam of a Dutch Calvinist church. A 13th century lancet has been bashed through for a Neo-Georgian door. I would accept all this for the good of keeping the church open: if they would ever let you in it.


St Helen Bishopsgate, S transept, mid-14thc. Permanently full of rubbish.

Because the church doors of St Helens Bishopsgate are indeed hardly ever open. As are the doors of St Andrew Undershaft round the corner, now little more than their church hall. Yet the lights are often on and there are clearly people in the office. It’s very confusing for a curious first-time visitor. If you knock on the oddly suburban door of the 3-storey church offices bunged on the church in the 1950s, a cheery person will undoubtedly answer. If you ask if you can look round the church, they will almost certainly cheerfully deliver a reason why you can’t go in at the moment. Usually it’s because half a dozen people are sat in a circle talking about the Bible in it, and you will have to wait till they finish. This sends out a poisonous message about the Church, especially one in the centre of the City: you’re only welcome if you become one of us. And I make no apologies for saying this here because I’ve been told the Eucharist is “wrong” by these people, and rebuked for saying I attended Mass at High Church St Bartholomew the Great. They are a sect masquerading under the banner of the Church of England that want nothing to do with what makes it special: its rich tapestry of tradition. Let me clarify that Anglican Evangelicals aren’t necessarily bad: many who identify as Evangelical have much to offer in theological discourse, as well as being perfectly fine people. But this sort of protective, exclusive attitude is, and it will harm the Church of England’s reputation in the long run – because it isn’t all just about bums on pews.

So while you might be shocked by the destruction of a landmark like Immerather Dom, it is just as bad if a church sits in the townscape as little more than an ornament. Whether it contains luxury flats or a private church where unbelievers aren’t welcome. The Church of England is our country’s church. If we’re going to keep these buildings, they need to be open to all.

Academia: It’s a mug’s game

This is an unusual post for me. It has no images. It has no jokes. It’s just a cathartic rant I need to get out.

On the 24th of February 2015, I had the successful viva of my PhD thesis. It was not a particularly joyous occasion. I had a good idea what was going to happen. Nothing. And indeed, three years later, here I am, not having held a single academic job, and severely depressed by my prospects.

I in part blame the way I was treated by my university, who gave me no teaching opportunities during the course of my PhD. I signed up to everything I could, volunteered for all sorts of positions (just Google me, I’m everywhere), supported other PhD students, and went to a plethora of lectures and research seminars. I strove to make my government-funded research relevant and accessible to the public: starting this blog, for instance, and experimenting with different kinds of outreach and engagement.  But when I came to apply to be a teaching assistant, I was turned down. I was pretty angry as it mean I wouldn’t be able to apply for any academic jobs when I finished my thesis on time. I spent the next two academic years hanging around my university, getting what teaching assistant positions I could alongside admin and website work, including teaching a pre-set BA1 topic course, and organising a conference, that I really should have been able to do during my PhD.

So now, here I am, in the midst of a third academic year since my completion, with the basic experience I should have had in hand three years ago. But fellowships begat fellowships. People move from institution to institution. Once you’ve fallen out of the system, it’s very hard to get back in. You lose access to libraries, your username and password to online journals, you lose your email address, you lose a community. You become a try-hard pariah.

I worked on what I did because I thought it was important. I see the English parish church as this massive untapped body objects of knowledge, that unfortunately is side-lined as a picturesque curiosity for handful of retiree enthusiasts to visit. But universities are becoming nothing more than neo-liberal degree factories.  They don’t want hard research first. They don’t primarily need exciting new ideas. First and foremost they want good lecturers who the consumer students will immediately take to. The higher the customer satisfaction, the more they will be able to charge. Simple as that.

The sheer amount of nepotism I’ve seen in academia is quite disheartening. I’ve seen job searches take place when the ideal candidate they want is all set up in advance. I get quite a lot of interviews, but I often feel that the whole position is a done deal, and I’m just a patsy. I don’t even get my travel expenses to get there and back. I carry on with some honorary positions at charitable organisations I care about (that means unpaid), a few sources of unreliable freelance work, but I’m losing the will to actively research my long-planned post-doctoral project on parish church chancels, or keep up with academic literature. There’s only so long you can go on without validation.

The idea of a humanities PhD having at its core a single significant research topic is looking highly flawed. The American PhD takes around five to eight years, and is a lot more rigorous. The British PhD looks like the musings of an amateurish gentleman scholar by comparison. The best plan in this country is to apply for jobs during your PhD – something I was actively discouraged from doing because the university doesn’t want to suffer the black mark of a funded non-finish – and then just work on the thesis at weekends and hand it in at some distant date when it’s eventually ready. As universities become ever more like corporations, fighting profit margins and paying their CEOs (vice-chancellors) hundreds of thousands, what place is there for someone who just wants to rescue English medieval architectural history from literal ruin? Seemingly not much.

If the governmental regulation and reform of the higher education sector continues the way it does, and universities end up in the sorry state of so many of our schools, then after Brexit, our university system is going to be a joke. A joke I don’t think is funny anymore.

One Nation Under Perp: Gothic architecture and the perils of nationalism

The humanities, even art history, should be responsible enough to challenge xenophobia and racism that might exist in their narratives and theoretical frameworks. But surely something as genteel as the study of English medieval architecture couldn’t be susceptible? However, an unquestioning use of the scholarship of the past can mean even we, pottering around with our Pevsners, could promote ideas of cultural difference that might be very dangerous indeed.

John Hooper Harvey in 1978

John Hooper Harvey (1911-1997), in his post-war career, established himself as one of the foremost historians in English medieval architecture. His bibliography contains a large amount of popular books with pretty much the same title, but within this he has a number of studies which made an important contribution to the scholarly picture, such as Henry Yevele: The Life of An English Architect (1941, 1943), The Perpendicular Style (1978) and English Medieval Architects: A Biographical Dictionary down to 1550 (1954, 1984, 1987).

61-5-wfpfcl-_sx335_bo1204203200_Harvey seemed to be obsessed about the “great men” in architecture. He longed for a Lives of the Artists of medieval England, and set out to be the Vasari of his nation. Of course, the thing is, England of the 14th and 15th century simply did not have the same culture as Italy, and its artists were not held in any higher esteem than an equally talented butcher, the baker or candlestick maker. This makes the whole idea of writing a “life” of even one of the highest-status masons such as Henry Yevele faintly ludicrous. Indeed, most his “Life of Yevele” is an account of the 14th century architecture that came before Yevele, because there is so little to say about his work and career, never mind his character.


“Hello John!”, “Hello John”, “Hello John!”, “Hello John”, “Hello John!”, “Hello John”, “Hello John!”, “Hello John”…

Harvey’s biographical dictionary is even more ridiculous. Harvey scoured all the documentation he could to work out careers of individual masons. What he mostly ends up with a big list of individuals were often probably contractors or the equivalent of company payroll managers. As a side note, it is funny, that despite that the main pictorial art of medieval Europe was figures of saints from diverse backgrounds with their names underneath, that England had absolutely no imagination when it came to male Christian names. In fact, nearly everyone was called John, Thomas, Robert or Richard. But mostly, probably to Harvey’s delight: John. If you’ve studied late medieval English history, it will ring true that seemingly, practically every man in England was called John. Not only did Johns call their first sons John, they named many of their other sons John too. There are literally hundreds of Johns in Harvey’s dictionary,  but only seven Michaels. And not one single female, even though Agnes Ramsey who took over her father William Ramsey’s business after his death in the 1349 plague is just as worthy as some of the mostly anonymous Johns who get an entry.


The West Front of York Minster, c.1331 (ready for glazing 1338). Towers added 1432-1450s.

While the biographical dictionary is fascinating and tempting to see as a Vasari for medieval England, it needs to be approached extremely carefully. For instance, Harvey is responsible for uncovering the attribution to Ivo de Raghton for York Minster’s west front and famous “heart of Yorkshire” window. It’s fairly likely since “Ivo the mason” is mentioned in the fabric rolls of the cathedral in 1331, Ivo is a very rare name, and Ivo de Raghton was a very wealthy mason living in York around the same time. But then of course he makes him into the central character of Yorkshire Decorated Gothic, declaring he either designed or influenced just about every major 2nd quarter of the 14th century work from Carlisle to Southwell. All because “Ivo” appears in a medieval receipt book. Just about every “fact” Harvey states must always be scrupulously researched before it’s used in reputable scholarship: his unwavering positivism means he always prefers a building if you can associate a name with it. He will always take documentary evidence over material evidence. In fact some of his attributions are so bizarre and stretch associations to quite ludicrous degrees you wonder whether he was actually even looking at buildings anymore by this point.

61AB0XdMQxL._SX369_BO1,204,203,200_[1]The Perpendicular Style is probably taken most seriously of all Harvey’s books for his narrative of 15th century architecture. But it is damaged throughout by an implicit refusal to acknowledge the influence of foreign styles of the formation of Perp, such as the French Rayonnant. He also omits the architecture of the Tudors – which most sensible people would see as a revitalisation of English architecture with the tremendous fan and pendant vaults of Windsor Chapel, Henry VII’s Lady Chapel at Westminster by the brothers Vertue and the New Building at Peterborough and King’s College Cambridge by John Wastell – as too contaminated by foreign motifs. Although the book is extremely useful, his value judgements of what’s good and what isn’t can seem perplexing to most readers. But it becomes clearer if we delve into his past.

518n+Ahj0ML._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_[1]His 1947 book Gothic England: A Survey of National Culture, 1330-1550 is Harvey’s most eccentric book, and the closest he comes to letting the mask slip post-war. Although most scholars now appreciate the explosion of exuberance in the 14th century Decorated Style, Harvey finds its sinuous ogees rather feminine and debased. He is also not terribly fond of the eccentricity of Early English Gothic in the early 13th century, probably because it’s a period bereft of craftsmen’s names and identities. Although that didn’t stop him later declaring that Wells Cathedral was the “first truly Gothic cathedral” a few times (Take that France!). But what he loved, above all else, was the monumental and rigid Perpendicular Style of that emerged in the 14th century and dominated the whole of the 15th century. He never claimed that it was intrinsically superior to any other architecture – indeed he displayed an interest in other countries and eras – but he saw Perp as the ultimate display of the character of “his” nation.

P1270003Harvey saw England, after its move away from the Norman yoke, entering the 15th century as the most racially pure and static of the European nations: his diagrams of which look a little bit racialist today. His claims in Gothic England that the royalty of Northern Europe and thus the house of Plantagenet had close “ties of blood” to the “ancient cultures of the East” sound suspiciously close to the irreligious policy of Nazi Germany in which the Aryan Race was the civilising force in Europe. But this is because Harvey was more than an eccentric patriot. He was a bona-fide blood and soil nationalist and a rabid anti-Semite. I mean, it’s easy these days to throw around the accusation of being a Nazi if someone so much as tells you off for misplacing an apostrophe, but when you were a member of a party that had this as their flag…



Flag of the Imperial Fascist League (active 1928-1939)

Uhh, yeah.

The thing is, that it wasn’t until Graham Macklin, a scholar working on English fascism, published “The Two Lives of John Hooper Harvey” in the journal Patterns of Prejudice in 2008 (that most of the below information has come from, so please consider it as essential further reading) that it was revealed he was a fully-blown goddamn Nazi in the 1930s. It was always known there were slightly dodgy bits in his best-selling school textbook The Plantagenets  (which we will come to shortly), but most people did not realise the sheer enormity of his past politics which underwrote his scholarship. You see, although he had extensive bibliographies and obituaries published at his death, they failed to include all the pieces he’d penned in journals such as The Fascist as, in the pre-digital age, they weren’t going to crop up in Google searches. But Macklin’s research has shown that he was a racist and anti-Semite of deepest dye.


A characteristically unsubtle cartoon from The Fascist, the monthly newsletter/journal/Jew-hate rag of the Imperial Fascist League, 1937 (via archive.org)

The thing is, you could forgive someone, in the tumult of the 1930s, without the benefit of hindsight, for falling under the spell of extreme politics. But Harvey wasn’t just sympathetic to Oswald Mosley’s rhetoric and the British Union of Fascists. He joined rabid anti-Semite Arnold Leese’s Imperial Fascist League, which found Italian fascism a bit too airy-fairy and instead met with the Nazi party and adopted ideas of Aryan supremacy, removal of citizenship for Jews and put a fucking swastika on their logo. While the British Union of Fascists allegedly hit a high of 50,000 members, the Imperial Fascist League only ever mustered a few hundred. Harvey was not in good company. This wasn’t just right-wing, it was full-on National Socialism with all of the biological racism that went with it. He seemed to see World War II as an opportunity:

“If Britain defeat Hitler it is a victory for Jews all over the world, if Britain is defeated by Hitler it is a defeat for the Jews and Britain would have a chance to put herself on the map again.”

Of course the war was pretty much the end of a party sympathetic to the regime of the enemy, and during the war, Harvey was investigated by the authorities for his associations.


Some proud (so proud they blacked out their faces after taking this obviously hurried wonky photo) British racists who put some naff plastic flowers at the former shrine of Little St Hugh at Lincoln Cathedral in 2015. The flag they have draped on the shrine is the “Sunwheel” of the British National Socialist Movement.

The reason Harvey loved late medieval England so much is that he was convinced its national character was improved by the expulsion of the Jews from England by Edward I, a character that was greatly damaged by Oliver Cromwell readmitting them in 1655. One passage in his popular history book The Plantagenets (1948), praising Edward I’s statesmanship in removing the “exotic mass” of the Jewish community which in turn “united the national body”. Additionally he attempted convince his readers of the veracity of the most infamous case of Blood Libel: the accusation in 1255 of the Jewish community of Lincoln ritually crucifying a young boy called Hugh (later given a kind of informal local canonisation as Little St Hugh of Lincoln) upon the discovery of his body in a well. In his most disturbing show of unwavering positivism he claimed that because he’d read the original chancery rolls, the medieval court’s judgement on the case was “unassailable”. After repeated complaints from Jewish groups and even the Catholic Church in England, his publishers gave him a chance in 1984 to amend the text. He refused, and the book, which had been a mainstay of sixth-form history classes, went out of print.


Possible crypto-portrait of Edward I (dubbed “the Great” by Harvey for his expulsion of the Jews from his kingdom), sedilia, Westminster Abbey, c.1307.

So really, Harvey’s adoration of strong, masculine identities of his nation’s kings and craftsmen is built on a bedrock of “Gothic” being interchangeable with “Aryan”. His admiration of Perpendicular architecture, in its rigidity, seems allied to revival of stark classicism by Albert Speer in Nazi Germany. For Harvey, it really was One Nation Under Perp.

Harvey is an extreme case, but he shows that scholarship should be very careful not to blindly embrace standard narratives of the “progress” of “civilisation”. An understanding art and architecture filtered through multitude of factors is essential: economical, material and climatic. A proper study of English architecture should move away from the masculine power structures of genius artists and admit the influence of learned clergy , women, the art of North Africa and the Middle East flowing into Christendom, and, God forbid, even the French. Harvey is an illustrative case of how promoting cultural difference can lie above very dangerous world-views. So many of the world’s current problems, in the most extreme case the reprehensible ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, stem from an inflexible nationalism and xenophobia. Even scholars of Gothic should be challenging the foundations of toxic national identity in the age of Brexit and America First.

Carlisle: The Unluckiest Cathedral


Carlisle Cathedral from the SE, before restoration. Engraving by John Coney, 1822

Carlisle has a cathedral? A real one? Yes, but its well-meaning architecture, along with a propensity for pratfalls, make it the Frank Spencer of the English medieval cathedrals. Its, at times, quite cringeworthy story is rather different to the other cathedrals of medieval England, which were rebuilt in the monumental Romanesque style shortly after the Norman Conquest either on top of an existing Saxon one (e.g., Winchester, Wells), or moved to a new site (e.g. Dorchester to Lincoln, Sherbourne to Salisbury). Carlisle was founded as an Augustinian Priory in 1122 by King Henry I, and was elevated to a cathedral a decade later to stabilise the English Church on the border with Scotland.

Loss of the nave, 1646


Truncated nave from SW

Okay, let’s get this one out the way first. Not only has Carlisle lost its cloisters, chapter house, and most of its other conventual gubbins, but the first thing you notice is that it lost its nave during the War of the Three Kingdoms after the siege of Carlisle of 1644-5. The town was garrisoned in 1646 by Lord General of the Army of the Covenant Alexander Leslie, and his army pulled down the west front, six bays of the nave and most of the conventual buildings in order to repair the castle and fortify the town. If Cromwell had not ordered them to surrender the garrisons after defeating the Scots at Preston, it is likely that Carlisle Cathedral would have ended up totally destitute like many Scottish cathedrals such as Elgin and St Andrews. The Parliamentarians may have desecrated Lichfield, but ironically it was an army on the Royalist side that ransacked Carlisle (The English Civil War as more complicated than you might think!).


Daniel King – an agent for Dugdale, author of the great Church history the Monasticon – has drawing allegedly showing its pre-occupation state with the nave complete, but King is perhaps one of the worst artists ever so it’s not really much use. I don’t even think it IS the south prospect like it says: the vessel on the left has the higher roof which would make it more likely to be the east end and thus the view would be the north prospect. It’s impossible to confirm because the windows are just generic and even on the drawing itself both arms have one more bay in the lower windows than they do in a clerestory which doesn’t make sense. I think this was done from an extremely hasty set of notes he made before he did a runner to avoid being beheaded by an angry Presbyterian.

But even before it had lost the nave, the Cathedral managed to make more than enough problems for itself.

Settlement of the original Romanesque building, 1120s-30s

As usual, the first problem was that which plagues so many English great churches: differential settlement.  It is quite spectacular how much the footings of the tower have slipped, particularly the west wall of the south transept, which look like it’s going concertina in on itself any minute.



Every arm from the crossing is distorted by the sinking piers, even the first bay of the nave has a spectacularly saggy gallery. So different are the levels of the two sides of the bay that when it came to putting the clerestorey on top, the builders did the laziest cop-out of fixing the two levels with a wonky sill. The shafts above the piers terminate below the gallery, advising they were planning on a high vault but gave up on the idea pretty sharpish. Aisle vaults were also abandoned. One suspects the Scots didn’t need to do that much to the nave to topple it.


Eccentricities in the Early English east end, 1220s-80s


Looking west from the presbytery to the crossing.

But subsidence was only the beginning of Carlisle’s woes. The decision was then made to greatly expand the east end with a Gothic replacement, not only longer, but wider. Conventual buildings obviated expanding south, so all the extra width was placed on the north side. Construction started in the 1220s with an aisled north transept and the north aisle wall so the old apse could remain in use for services on the south side until the new extension was almost finished. You can see the lop-sided legacy of this inside. The presbytery sits on top of the Romanesque south aisle wall, but is much wider than the old apse. This means that the crossing arch is not in the centre of the choir anymore, and you can see the old roofline where the old apse aisle used to be. Looks very odd.

We can work out where the apse extended to because of a wonky arch. The fenestration changes on the south aisle, suggesting that work stopped in order to demolish the apse, and then building resume in a different style, with stepped triple rather than double lancets.
Below are south bays 4, 5 and 6. 6 looks odd because it was the original end bay, so the sizes of the arches are uneven so that the right one is fatter to accomodate the east wall. Although bay 5 is a Victorian replacement of a late-medieval perpendicular window (see first picture in this post) with the north-aisle scheme, you can tell it’s probably correct because the right arch of bay 4 “weeps” right because the level of capitals of the triple lancets needs to be lower than the paired ones. Took me ages to work this out. The pedantry of medieval masons knows no bounds.


New E.E. east end burns down almost immediately, 1292


Presbytery arcade, carved capital, first quarter of the 14thc

So, the new choir was finished some time in the second half of the thirteenth century. Then in 1292 the roof caught fire and collapsed in on the furniture causing a lot of damage. As you can see from my above account of them, the aisle walls survived, but the central vessel was extremely badly damaged. Nearly all of the elevation needed to be completely remade: piers, triforium and clerestory. The results are a triumph. Although the east arm at Carlisle Cathedral is almost unknown in the literature, it’s a uniquely proportioned, wonderfully airy and light essay in English Gothic. The triple-window triforium is particularly memorable in the elevation, but most impressive are the capitals, which famously contain lots of animal tomfoolery and general foliage-bound jiggery-pokery.


Presbytery elevation, first quarter of 14thc (arcade arches and aisle walls 1220s)

But ho! What is this. The arches themselves have dogtooth, which is a 13thc motif! The aisle vaults also seem to be 13thc! Even if you don’t know much about architecture, you can usually be sure that the oldest bits are usually at the bottom. Here we have 13thc sandwiched between 14thc piers and a 14thc triforium! How can this be? The answer is that they must have retained all the voussoirs when they dismantled the elevations, and then reassembled them on top of brand new piers. Why waste good doogtooth? This is confirmed by the extra short bay they put on the end that lacks the dogtooth. The short bay also copies the the aisle dado arcading in a 14thc stylee. But as you’d expect in a building that reuses old fabric, there are pretty obvious mistakes here too.

Mess ups in the new presbytery

The short bays were added but the north one has a curious bit where the arch is too high so the triforium string course jumps up over it. Is it a mistake? Well, did they do it on the other side?


Welp nope they didn’t, mistake it is then

The east front, ready for glazing around 1340, so probably begun in the 1330s (except for the aisles, which were completed earlier) is one of the most spectacular essays in the Decorated Style on an English cathedral facade. It has pairs of niches on its big east buttresses, the top ones being ogee and gables as found in parish church Decorated such as Heckington in Lincolnshire. The composition is thrown off symmetry by the big stair turret on the north side – the principal access to the upper levels of the building – which is also elaborated with Dec flourishes such as blind tracery and a wave parapet.


One confusing thing in the new presbytery is this at the east end of each aisle. It’s a vault spring from the respond of the nave arcade that goes nowhere. Instead the vault springs from a corbel further up the east wall. What’s it about? Is it a plan to revault the whole aisle that was abandoned in favour of reusing the 13thc ribs? Is it, as Billings forwarded in 1840, because they realised would obscure the main arcade mouldings? (Seems a bit petty to me) Is it a flying rib? Clearly something’s not gone to plan because the south aisle has separate headstops for the wall transverse rib and the cross rib, while both those spring from the same corbel on the north, and the headstop holding the main arcade label is clearly visible on the north side but buried in the wall on the south.

If you understood all that, maybe you can help me understand what the hell all that’s about because quite frankly I’m stumped.

Tower falls down almost immediately after the east end is completed, 1380


N transept, choir entrance with masonry break from collapse of crossing tower

Anyway, no time for that because in 1380 the tower fell down *sad trombone*. Thank goodness it didn’t fall onto the just-rebuilt choir, that really would’ve been a Swamp Castle tragedy, but it did land on the north transept basically destroying all the Early English work there. You can see the remnants of the east arcade springing into the wall where the east chapels used to be. It was probably the tower collapse that left the voussoirs of the chapel entrance frighteningly slipped out of place.



N choir aisle entrance, from W, showing springing of N transept arcade

The opportunity was not taken to build a new tower that would line up with the new presbytery, probably because the idea of building a new, bigger tower was a stupid idea given all the subsidence. So they perched this thing with a funny diaphragm arch on the side where it fell down on top of the old low Romanesque crossing.


Rebuilt crossing from NE.



Nave, from the N aisle (From Winkles Cathedrals, 1836)

Then little mischief befell Carlisle until the aforementioned pesky Presbyterians. After their penny-pinching truncation of the nave for cheap stone, the remaining stump became St Mary’s parish church, and was cruelly given a ceiling, which I’d like to think was a joke on the vaulting shafts terminating at the gallery, but that’s probably unlikely. Preliminary restorations were carried out by Ewan Christian in 1852-6, and then Street cleared all the crap out of the nave in 1871-80. Sadly Stephen Dykes Bower filled it up with junk again in 1947. But despite being the cathedral missing off so many southern softies’ lists, you should go. It’s great. I bet you any money it’ll be bloody raining while you’re there though.

The Rape of Chartres

P1250032One does not like to use the word “rape” carelessly in rhetoric. But what is going on at perhaps the finest-preserved ensemble of medieval cathedral art in the world deserves it. In the classical sense of the word, rapere, as in abductions by Zeus, Our Lady of Chartres is being stolen from us by the megalomania of a self-deceived cabal, and its interior being replaced with a gaudy pastiche.

There has been a lot of discussion of the quite drastic change to the largely 13th-century interior of Chartres Cathedral in the press, most notably Martin Filler’s all-out attack in the NY Review of Books, and a subsequent rebuttal by esteemed art historians Jeffrey Hamburger and Madeline Caviness. Also worth reading is this piece from the New York Times.

P1250033Anyway, this is my blog, not a historically detached analysis or summation of the controversy in the press. This is my personal reaction after my first visit to the cathedral in June 2016. I went with an open mind – there is a chance I could have liked it – and actually I surprised myself with how much I despised it.

There is quite an aggressive tone to the rebuttals to accusations of destruction of the historical record, and the defence is often patronising. We critics are blinded by our adherence to a “modernist aesthetic” in our appreciation of bare stone. They are merely “restoring” (whether this means revealing or reapplying is never really consistent) the false-masonry pattern that the “original creators” envisaged. But, not surprisingly behind this absolutist, almost Trumpist defence, seems to be deeply deceitful, and flagrantly violating the 1962 Venice Charter on art restoration. But most of all they’ve also deceived themselves in thinking what they’ve done to Chartres Cathedral is not a horrible, horrible thing.

P1250038Firstly, they have restored a number of areas of the Cathedral to schemes of totally different dates. The first thing that sticks out in the restoration is the east end. You very rarely, if ever, see the interior of the apse of Chartres in Gothic textbooks, even though, liturgically, it was the most important part. Surveys of architecture nearly always have the elevation of the nave as a metonym of the whole building. This is because the presbytery arcades were recut for a Counter-Reformation sanctuary: still pointed but with classic soffit decoration instead of mouldings, and diamonds at the apex of the arch. The sanctuary is, to paraphrase Pugin, decked out with furniture like the saloon of a hotel. It’s quite a shock, but now that all the 18thc polychrome has been restored, it’s a particularly striking blot on the building. The spandrels are pale blue, with is tolerable, but the piers are painted in a faux-marble tiger-stripe pattern. The effect is more like a whore’s boudoir than the sanctuary of Our Lady Immaculate. Of course it should not be ironed out, but this re-vivifying of its colours make it unduly prominent in an extremely important Gothic building where it is, undeniably, not the main attraction.


P1250166There are a number of exposed parts of wall painting throughout the Cathedral that don’t fit with the “religiously adhered-to” (that choice of words was so deeply ironic) scheme. The current line seems to be “we’re deciding what to do with it”. Put more false-masonry over it, I bet, for the skewed idea that a cathedral should have all superficial inconsistencies ironed out into a single purity of conception. Where there was formerly bricolage, there shall be naught but bricks.



Painted vault in the ambulatory of the church of St Pierre, Chartres

The other thing is that a lot of the new brick-pattern is clearly painted free-hand and looks rubbish. Every time I’ve seen genuine medieval false masonry it’s so straight it’s clearly been painted with the use of plumb lines and taut string. All in all, the main point is that the restoration isn’t unnecessary, it’s just not being executed well. It’s sloppy. It’s inconsistent. And it just doesn’t look that good. If you go to the other end of town, you find St Pierre, a fantastic church in its own right. And in its ambulatory it has the remains of medieval paint. Yes, you can imagine it greatly transforming conception of the architecture, but you can see it was painted well. It is forgotten that medieval polychrome was done with all the same subtlety as we expect from the stone underneath. When repainting Chartres, they may have the right ideas, but they don’t have the skill. They’re rushing it, and making a pig’s ear as they go.


If they want to restore Chartres to how it was, then you’d need to put back the altars, statues, candles, a whole chapter of canons, chantry chapels, gleaming reliquaries, chanted Latin, incense and turn it back into the machine d’prier that it was built as. Why re-polychrome the architecture, if you aren’t redoing the statues of choir screen? And the statues of the portals? And building the seven further spires they obviously would have put on if they had the money in the Middle Ages? It ends up not “restoring” any previous state, but instead just being just another unique stage in the building’s history – but one that has destroyed a great deal of evidence, and most importantly, looks like crap.

P1250169I don’t doubt that under the grime there was a lot of original decoration to be found. No doubt it needed a clean. But the supremacist, absolutist, heavy-handed way it’s been done, without communication with the wider scholarly community has been lacking. To nearly everyone outside of the immediate team, it’s a shocking surprise quite how far it has gone. It’s a unique experience for a medieval cathedral: nothing feels old, nothing feels real. Rather than engagement, discourse and debate, the restoration team are on constant defence of their drastic alteration of the appearance of a monument that before could easily vie for a place in any modern-planet Earth Seven Wonders. Perhaps then they would realise the problem isn’t with us and our blinkered aesthetics, it’s them and their folly of trying to make a 800-year-old interior “good as new” again in a way no one has ever tried before. One day this foolish “restoration” will be scaled back in its effect. But it would have been better if they’d just done it well time round.