Did anyone ever see the TV series? Seems to have sunk without trace.
Yes, remarkably, 2019 – that year I am somehow in RIGHT NOW – marks two whole decades of being able to have England’s Thousand Best Churches
in the car. The book has joined the Pevsner Architectural Guides as “essential” gear for anyone interested in churches. It’s been reprinted so many times you can get it brand-new for mere pounds. So inescapable it is, it was integral to my beginnings in visiting churches. When I graduated onto Pevsners I used to keep it around when on the move to see if I was missing any “essential” churches when travelling long distances. But now, I realise: it really isn’t reliable. At all.
And it’s becoming so embedded in the culture of English church tourism, I worry slightly it’s becoming quite dangerous to its future.
Woah, daddy! That might seem a bit harsh, but I’ve had issues with this book for a few years now after initially using it and recommending it, and I’ve had a good look at it the last few months to really pick apart why. And at the end of it, I’m not happy.
REASON ONE: THE TITLE IS A DAMNED LIE
The main problem with it is that England’s Thousand Best Churches is not England’s 1,000 best churches. Putting aside that it inexplicably leaves “Parish” out of the title for the time being, it is ultimately a personal, curated list that focuses on variety, and of course has some attempt to ensure consistent geographical distribution. This might seem like a quibble, but really, the one thing you must know about this book is that you cannot rely on it flagging up a must-see church near you. While maybe around a third of the buildings are superlative churches you would expect any seasoned church-visitor to have heard of (e.g. Heckington, Lavenham, Grantham, Melton Mowbray), the other two thirds are pretty random. Believe me, in terms of quality, a lot of Jenkins’ churches are no better than another six churches 10 minutes drive away. That’d be fine if it dropped the objective superlative “Best”, but because of this, people will go out of their way to visit “a Jenkins church” as if they’re special. But they’re not, and in doing so, ignore many churches that are equally or more interesting.
St Peter, Heysham. Objectively not as good as any church in 1000 Best.
And this really does bring in the problem of what a complete hash he makes for some counties off the beaten churchyard path. Lancashire is not great for historic churches by any means, but why include an inaccessible Victorian church in the middle of a goddamned derelict industrial wasteland (we’ll come which one in a minute) when you could be recommending something in the beautiful Lune Valley between Lancaster and Kirkby Lonsdale? That could be Hornby, with its unique double-stage octagonal tower and apse; or Tunstall, with its admirably ancient medieval tracery and lovely continental glass? What about the picturesque, low-pitched, St Michael-on-Wyre, or the self-proclaimed “Cathedral of the Fylde” (bit of a silly name but it is undeniably the biggest medieval church around), St Helen, near Garstang? Heysham, over Morecambe Bay, a candidate for the most attractive view from a churchyard? It’s easy to criticise the treatment of your home turf in something like this, but it is just shocking how poorly distributed and non representational his choices here are, and I suspect many other counties have the same problem.
Now, I realised this very early on in my days. But at first I thought that there was a reason he’d left certain churches out. Maybe they were locked that day? Maybe he was unlucky, or the church’s policy had changed? Wait, no…
REASON TWO: LOADS OF THE CHURCHES ARE REALLY DIFFICULT TO GET INTO
No, not really, they are just really weird choices a lot of the time to the point where it all seems a bit random. Let me give him a bit of credit first: there’s one bit of the book I like. The part of the introduction titled “Access” is actually, the best-written part of the whole thing, and in reflection has had a lot of influence on my creeds regarding church access that I still hold. I can only assume, that because of the potential nerves it might touch among custodians, it was copy-edited to buggery and back. Unlike so much of this book, it’s very careful with its language, and as a consequence does not place undue blame on communities or seem entitled. It has respect for the work and dedication by churchwardens and clergy, but also, balanced with righteous disdain for the rude and selfish that occasionally poison the church-visiting experience. The exhortation that his readers should leave a donation is also very effective. This passage, notably, is worth quoting.
“But no security is as effective as a regular flow of welcomed visitors. A parish church is a church open to all. A church shut except for services is the meeting house of a sect.“
Not the most welcoming presbytery, at Barton-upon-Irwell
I’ll give him credit there, that’s pretty bang-on churchshaming. The interesting thing he reveals in this section about his (alleged) selection process for the book is that Jenkins claims that he set a limit of half an hour to gain entry using his mobile phone (and, quaintly, a copy of Crockford Clerical Directory). I always took this preface being as a vital criterion for whether a church got in the book or not. Now, I really don’t think it was at all.
All Saints R.C., Barton-Upon-Irwell, Greater Manchester
This is the Roman Catholic church of All Saints in Barton-Upon-Irwell in Manchester, which I’m sure he must’ve visited while he was co-chair of English Heritage in the late ’80s. If you bother braving the awful traffic on the M60 around the Trafford Centre to get here, you’ll realise it’s part of a Franciscan convent, with a massive palisade fence around it, and warnings about guard dogs. It’s not even that significant: it’s a pretty alright Catholic church by E.W. Pugin, but it’s hardly a standout Victorian masterwork like St Giles, Cheadle by his father. Regardless: you’re not getting in it. Why are you sending me to a cloistered Victorian church in a brownfield site near an orbital motorway instead of an ancient church overlooking Morecambe Bay?
All Saints, Arksey, West Riding of Yorkshire
There are other weird choices for churches that are not usually open. Arksey near Doncaster is absolutely impenetrable (and I’ve tried in advance, too – it’s not even that exceptional, the Churches Conservation Trust-held Kirk Sandall would make more sense round there). Checkley in Staffordshire is also kept locked (I think he just got lucky when he was going to Cheadle to see Pugin’s St Giles). The completely uninteresting Victorian box at Birtles in Cheshire is included for its collection of imported furnishings, but these are precisely the example it’s never bloody left open, and that it’s in the middle of nowhere why there’s no keyholder (there’s a single house next door, presumably they’re not interested). The list could go on. Take it from this: his whole 30-minute test is nonsense. Some of the 1000 Best are not casually accessible and need planning ahead to a level that really isn’t worth it for a tourist that isn’t doing a degree in this sort of stuff. Because I suspect that Crockford’s part is a load of nonsense, and a lot of his visits had a bit of a red-carpet put on because of his connections as a serial management-board-sitter and journalist. Because, basically, Country Life can get you in just about anywhere, and an affiliation with The Times must get even the most miserable custodian excited to wait around to open up a locked church on a request from the head office.
REASON THREE: THE RATINGS OUT OF FIVE ARE MOSTLY COMPLETE RUBBISH
St Botolph, Boston, Lincolnshire
The out-of-five star ratings are also, in retrospect, an annoying distraction and not very consistent or an accurate representation of any aspect of the church. Firstly, a “one-star” rating seems like a bit of an insult, which the implication it only has one thing worth seeing, when actually there are many very high-quality buildings with loads of things to discover that get the one star. Instead, what seems to matter to Jenkins is size. Boston, for instance, is not a bad church by any means. It’s even worth the effort of driving into the town and paying to park (although maybe not on market day). Its tower is uniquely ambitious in the whole country for its excessive height without even resorting to a spire, and the interior is massive and seriously impressive. But five stars? There’s not really that much to look at inside, and there’s more medium-sized churches in the area you’d generally spend a lot longer inside looking around. Do the stars reflect how exceptional these churches are? The aesthetic experience? How much time you would spend there? Their width times their length times their height? I wonder why he even felt the need to star them. If these are the top 5% or so of all historic churches, isn’t that enough of a recommendation? It’s really very puzzling.
REASON FOUR: INCONSISTENCY IN WHAT QUALIFIES AS A “CHURCH”
Then there’s the whole “church” thing. The books is called BEST CHURCHES. Yet then he says that his “principal definition is that a church be in some sense parochial.” Which essentially comes out of nowhere, because the title does not include the word “parish”. Okay, I see the point of not having the medieval cathedrals in: they’re too complex to sum up in a short entry and would dominate the book. But then he totally scuppers that by saying “monastic foundations which were not made cathedrals at the Reformation but were acquired by their towns” are getting in, because “They may seem like cathedrals, but they are parish churches like any other.” No they aren’t! If your reason for not including cathedrals is that they already get attention, why include Christchurch, Sherborne, Tewkesbury, and Selby? They completely throw the balance of the book off, and by being huge places often suitable for an entire day out, they overshadow the other entries in the way cathedral ones would have done. If Beverley, why not Southwell and Ripon, with which it was essentially equal rank with before the 19thc? And what about St Albans Abbey? That uniquely remained a parish church with a rector after becoming a cathedral in 1877, so very much “in some sense parochial”, as much as Selby Abbey. He also pointlessly declares “Consistency […] leads me to omit a number of former town churches which have been elevated to cathedral status, such as Portsmouth and Newcastle“. Well, St Nicholas in Newcastle is hardly comparable to a medieval cathedral: it’s so boring inside it wouldn’t even make a list of the top churches in Tyne and Wear. Portsmouth wasn’t really a town church, it was a very fancy early 13thc collegiate church, yet it differs from Newcastle Cathedral in that its west end was built up to a cathedral scale from the 1930s onwards, and indeed makes sense to omit.
The much underrated Collegiate church of St Mary, George and Denys, Manchester, aka Manchester Cathedral.
But somewhere like Manchester Cathedral is essentially in its original form as a late medieval collegiate church, and could be adequately described in an entry in this book, and indeed deserves a visit among the other churches of Lancashire . So not all buildings with “Cathedral” at the end are comparable to medieval cathedrals, and not all of them would make the list of 1000 Best Churches either (like Chelmsford Cathedral, which is probably one of the least interesting medieval churches in Essex). All this would be less of an issue if he’d just put “parish” in the title, but instead it’s even more tortuous, arbitrary, and misleading.
So, essentially, as an objective guide to the best churches in England, the book is a total mess. It assumes the reader knows every cathedral city, which from my experience is a big mistake (I remember a hairdresser expressing surprise that Wells had a cathedral once after asking the dreaded “holidays” question), and sends people past loads of outstanding buildings to ordinary churches that can only be explained as places the author happens to have been and liked. To use it as a trip planning aid, as I initially did, is an almost complete waste of time, because you will miss so much, and many of the truly typical parishes selected are, basically, random. But wait, it gets worse!
REASON FIVE: ITS JOURNALISTIC PROSE IS REALLY, REALLY GRATING TO READ AFTER A WHILE
Simon Jenkins, doing his best “monkey journalist” pose
So, now, the next big point about this book. In trying to actually sit down with it for this reassessment, I can see why people unable to visit England’s churches (if they have no car or live abroad) I’ve recommended it to as an introduction have been really disappointed. Because if you’re not actually using it to plan out excursions, it’s really horrible to actually read cover to cover. The main problem is that, while he tries to be all poetic like Betjeman, Jenkins can’t throw off his journalistic shackles of always writing pedantically in the active voice. That is, he always has to put “Jenkins writes utter crap” instead of just occasionally putting “utter crap is what Jenkins writes” just for a bit of a change. This works for 500-word newspaper columns, it becomes so incredibly weary for a whole book when every single sentence has to start with “The” because he CAN’T PUT THE SUBJECT SECOND JUST ONCE ARGHH. Because of this, he comes off about as well as a musing Romantic as Vanilla Ice did as a gangsta rapper.
He loves the following words in his patter: “glory” (as in “the kneelers are Little Piddle’s glory”), “soar”, “fine”. Yeah, he loves “fine”. Seriously, get your copy and start circling it. It’s crazy how often he uses it. Most of us now use “fine” to mean “satisfactory”. Probably because it was overused by people like Jenkins to mean “I know this is a good example of what it is, but I can’t actually articulate why because I’m a lazy hack”.
People say that Pevsner tells you just about everything about a church except what it looks like. Jenkins however, manages to do even worse, by wasting space with vapid introductions that detract from the thing he’s supposed to be inspiring you to visit.
“On a warm summer’s day, Fotheringhay is a magic place. The church seems to float on its hill above the River Nene, a galleon of Perpendicular on a sea of corn“.
A boat, in front of the former college of the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary and All Saints, Fotheringhay, Northamptonshire. … or is it the other way round..?
So, wait a minute, the hackneyed metaphor of a church looking like a boat aside, the River Nene is made out of corn? No, you must mean there literally is corn on the hill above the river? How can a sea be hill-shaped? That’s not much of a metaphor, really. Is it only magic if it’s summer? How warm does it need to be for it to be magic? Is it magic because the sea is shaped like a hill?
You might think this is pedantic nitpicking (which it is), but the point is that this is just completely uninteresting fluff, like you just asked a robot to write some vaguely poetic metaphor about Fotheringhay to waste space at the beginning of its entry. Or you’re just a hack journalist crapping out journalese while looking at photograph from the Country Life archive… oh.
REASON SIX: HE SAYS SOME REALLY STUPID STUFF
Now, I might seem to be getting a bit ad hominem here. And yes, if this book hadn’t become so bloody iconic, I wouldn’t be so grumpy and virulent of what could be seen as good-intentioned doggerel. But much worse than this book being so tedious to actually try and read for pleasure, is that some of the off-hand remarks Jenkins wantonly chucks around are really quite irresponsible and sow potentially harmful seeds. Yes, sometimes Pevsner was rather acerbic, which eventually led to interesting buildings being demolished (e.g. Christ Church, Blackpool). But at least he was consistent, and also kinda funny. But Jenkins says things that are so utterly, incredibly, mindbogglingly dumb, so misinformed and poorly thought-through, it’s frightening they are coming from someone who had so much clout in the heritage sector.
Consistently infuriating is his completely paradoxical stance on whether our churches should preserve the past, or change for the future.
“Churches whose walls were scraped down to bare stone by the Victorians would be much improved by the reinstatement of their plaster. They would also seem less like archaeological sites like meaningless fragments of wall painting were not left stranded like flotsam in a sea of whitewash. A wall should have some visual integrity. If wall paintings are wanted, let us paint new ones […]”
The repainted rood screen at Harpley, Norfolk, that Jenkins decides is “insipid”
So this makes me particularly enraged. Here he’s deciding some ancient mural decorations should be got rid of because he can’t tell what they’re supposed to be. Where do we draw the line? Did he think of the consequences of what saying this might inspire in people? What drastic actions these words could excuse? And to end it with his complete fantasy about a society largely detached from Christianity being able to suddenly create artists able of producing genuine, inspired artwork on the walls of our churches is just absolutely absurd. Usually when he encounters Victorian painting that covered space with perfunctory reflections of what was probably there (e.g., the saints on the screen at Harpley, Norfolk above) he dismisses it as “insipid”. So what the hell does he expect we’d create now now? It’s like for all he goes on about quality, he doesn’t actually understand art very well.
Rood at St Michael and All Angels, Bishop’s Cleeve, Worcestershire by PJ Crook, 1987. A triptych by the artist was installed in the church in December 2018, but Jenkins probably thinks that’s rubbish too.
Usually modern art is ignored completely by Jenkins. When he does, he’s nearly always snooty about it, unless it’s a recognised “proper artist” such as Stanley Spencer or Marc Chagall. One piece he hints an opinion of the “new” is the rood by PJ Crook at Bishop’s Cleeve (1987, actually, so it had been there 13 years) , of which he can only bring himself to say “its material [acrylic paint] alone is out of place“. Without even touching on form, he turns his nose up because something was made by an artist using modern paint instead of oils, which seems to me snobbery to the point of utter arrogance. If not that, then he’s just being an arsehole, because even the Pevsner revision gives it a rare “good”. And quite frankly, if you can’t see at least excellent composition of space, colour and figures in this, then you’re just wrong. If anything, it could be criticised as being an extremely safe, traditional interpretation.
Despite this apparent revulsion of the contemporary, and his constant pops at “bad” Victorian glass (which he never really seems to define, beyond “gloomy”) he gets somehow gets even worse, into objectively downright stupid territory:
“Empty niches, inside and outside a church, are as much an offence to the eye as to architecture. They look like paintings from which the faces have been removed, a triumph of archaeology over aesthetics.“
An empty niche on the tower of St Walburge R.C., Preston, Lancashire, which must have had its statue removed between now and um *checks Pevsner* c.1857.
This is Jenkins trying to have an original thought but instead coming out with complete and utter unadulterated bollocks. Primarily, because the buildings that are most covered in empty niches are not victims of iconoclasm, but High Victorian churches by the likes of Gilbert Scott, that never had any statues in, and it’s questionable whether it was ever thought that they would. Certainly not by Scott himself, who was hardly smells ‘n’ bells when it came to churchmanship, but then there are plenty of modern Roman Catholic churches dotted with empty niches too. A niche sanctifies the space within, a mini-ciborium: emptiness made holy. Nevertheless, while you can admire the detail of a medieval niche for its own sake, but also you can ponder on what has been lost from within. Much like such subtlety that would appear to be utterly lost on Jenkins. Suggesting we should waste our time filling them with any old crap for the sake of it is just incredibly reckless to the point of madness, and just encourages absolute garbage like David Wynne’s feckless Virgin in Ely Cathedral Lady Chapel. It’s like insisting that the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum put A4 inkjet print-outs of Jack Vettriano pictures in place of their stolen paintings because the empty frames are such an “offence to the eye”. You utter plank, Simon.
But then for all his “let us paint new ones” blowhard guff there’s the remarks about modern urban developments around churches. I know, I make fun of England. People get so cross of me making fun of Selby not having a Marks and Spencer (oof, that hasn’t aged well, has it, listeners?), or whatever. But I like to think gentle ribbing of shit towns is all part of being English. But the problem with Jenkins, it’s not in a self-deprecating way, but instead, he has to show off how he always knows better, doesn’t he.
“The closer we get to the church however, the more disappointing [St George, Doncaster] becomes. Its setting is miserable, besieged by traffic and stripped of townscape. The exterior is remarkably unkempt. The place desperately needs environmental first aid.”
St George, Doncaster, West Riding of Yorkshire
The church has indeed got the slightly ignominious situation of the ring road separating it from the town. But it’s fucking Doncaster, mate. Do you think the church would really benefit from the Primark being 20 metres closer to it? Then he’d probably moan it was swamped by “ghastly modern development” or something. As it is, the churchyard is a bit of an oasis, and makes the best of the environment that it can to frame Scott’s magnum opus to its benefit. Like come on mate, be positive about it. I don’t know what condition the exterior was in when Jenkins saw it (the church was and is indeed still on Historic England’s heritage at risk register) but this whole entry just seems to shame the church itself. There’s such an awful “if only you listened to meeee, everything would be wonderful” attitude running through so much of his polemic. Because look at his great wheeze for Doncaster, everyone:
“Why not gather other glass from Yorkshire’s too gloomy churches and open a stained glass museum here? Do something!“
Ah, yes, here he is, just throwing it out there: that Victorian stained glass across a vast region, nearly always with memorial inscriptions to local people, to be taken from the tracery that it was designed specifically for over a century ago, and put in a light box in a museum. That’s somehow going to be in a church with a fairly healthy congregation who worship there. In DONCASTER, where I’m sure people would fall over themselves to go and visit to see Victorian glass you think made Yorkshire’s churches too gloomy. A museum of gloomy glass. Another champion idea there Simon, I can see you’ve really thought that through while typing it on your Thinkpad in First Class while you travel to another board meeting with your complimentary breakfast. Quite frankly, if I had anything to do with St George in Doncaster, I’d rather he’d never came to my church in the first place.
REASON SEVEN: THERE ARE PROBABLY MORE FACTUAL ERRORS THAN THERE OUGHT TO BE IN A BOOK WITH TWO EDITORS
In the acknowledgements Jenkins reveals, among the fact that he had many “suggestions” so he probably didn’t even visit all 1000 himself, that he had two editors: a researcher and a copy-editor, I guess. Still, like most parish churches, this loves to spread mistruths and understands some concepts quite poorly. The worst is when Jenkins predictably uses the stylistic shorthand of Norman, E.E., Dec, and Perp, invented by Thomas Rickman and absolutely cemented by Pevsner’s use of them in the Buildings of England. Fair enough, we all do. But, unfortunately, he tries to one-up the BoE…
“Only Rickman’s Early English has been queried as appropriate, since the style was emphatically French. I have followed recent usage and refer to it more correctly as Early Gothic.“
Just stick to this, mate
This might seem like a small thing but damn it is annoying. It appears to be totally based on his misreading of something and subsequently trying to be clever, as I can’t think where anyone queries “Early English” as appropriate for architecture c.1200-1290s, and instead uses “Early Gothic”. Rickman’s treatise was called An attempt to discriminate the Styles of English architecture. Therefore he referred to the three phases as Early English, Decorated English, and Perpendicular English. The “English” only stuck for the first one. Early Gothic is the generally-accepted name used to refer to the style developed in France in 1130-1200, with limited influence in England before they fully developed their own peculiar style of Gothic around 1200 that we overwhelmingly call Early English. Anyway, therefore, anything that Pevsner calls “E.E.”, Jenkins consistently calls “Early Gothic”. Why he thinks he knew better than the editors of the Pevsner Architectural Guides at Yale on the nomenclature of Gothic architecture, God only knows. But then this is someone who can actually say British Empire “was a remarkable institution that dismantled itself in good order” with a straight face. Really Simon? The Bengal Famine was “good order”? You’re not a historian, stop pretending. You’re a hack journalist with a strong dash of jingoism.
Definitely a Victorian mural at St Peter, Titchfield, Hampshire
There’s other errors too, let’s choose the one where he says, rather prosaically, that the W wall of Titchfield church has a “Victorian mural of the draft of fishes”. Which he must have got from an outdated source rather than actually looking at it, because post 1952, it’s extremely modern-looking after being reworked by students of the Portsmouth School of Art. It stinks to me of a filler paragraph written without actually looking at the building – and the more you scrutinise it the more stuff you’ll find but quite frankly at the moment I’d like to just throw this book into the sea, so let’s finish this.
THE CONCLUSION HOLD YOUR HORSES DON’T GO YET
So really, all this book is a list, the rest is just mechanically-written, error-ridden, tedious piffle, with prose as flat as the Norfolk Broads. You might as well use the quick lists at the back of Parish Churches as Works of Art by Alec Clifton-Taylor (Clifton-Taylor has a similar authoritative tone that grates a bit, but at least he has good prose, knows what he’s talking about and is at least very consistent on things he hates, especially Victorian stained glass). The slick presentation of 1000 Best is the key to its success, and totally what’s suckered in for the last decade or so. That is, the really lovely and plentiful Country Life archive photos in the original edition (much reduced to a few plates in the paperback), the excellent maps (showing the churches in adjacent counties is fantastic for tourism), and above all the “Gotta Catch ‘Em All” mentality. And of course, without his contacts in journalism (Country Life) the publishing trade (Pevsner Architectural Guides, Penguin), he would have never been able to pull it all together. Now of course, its popularity led to endless more advances for him to crap out <Bit of Britain>’s <number> Best <thing>. From the initial sequel of Houses, to now, Railway Stations. No doubt soon he’ll be doing 400 Best Public Toilets.
Jenkins lives in absolute fantasy world, where paintings always have little red ropes between gold poles in front of them, and pinecones always lie on chairs to keep common people’s bums off them. He doesn’t seem to appreciate – which is bloody amazing for someone who got so far in the heritage sector – that our heritage is not “frozen in time” for him to stumble upon, but instead is preserved through diligent restoration, conservation and curation, with many important choices being made. Many of his criticisms of the condition of churches are snobbish at best and irresponsible at worst. But the thing with Jenkins is that he knows how to write for print (unlike me, who writes 4,000-word hatchet jobs on crappy guide books for no real reason), has iron-clad media connections to keep getting plum freelance columns in The Guardian and spouting off on Radio 4, but has very little of worth to say. He is inert and unimaginative at best, reckless and downright stupid at his worst. I worry that this list will only damage people’s experience with churches, by sending them on wild goose chases to churches they haven’t a chance of getting into, and passing lots more worthy ones on the way that slip into obscurity and ultimately dilapidation. And just in case you think my criticisms of him are little unfair on the man, I offer a column of his moaning about how awful it is to be mocked as a white male (which is actually more boring and predictable than it is offensive), then in its defence said on TalkRadio, “I do sometimes feel a bit like it must have been like to be a black person 20 or 30 years ago”. Maybe you should wait until a person of colour has had a chance to be chair of the National Trust, eh, Simon? Anyway, I suppose I ought to go back to trying to post some of those Churchcrawling Trails so at least you have an alternative source.
p.s. To Penguin. Give us an advance and I will write England’s Four Hundred Best Public Toilets for you.