Blackburn – a hilly Lancashire mill town with wonderful views of the surrounding countryside – is a nice place to get out of, residents seem to agree. But just as I liked to visit the dingier bits of London looking at their churches armed with a Pevsner Guide, it seemed a good place for my first Sunday excursion of architectural exploration by motor car. But perhaps residents are a bit hard on it. It’s been sliced up by roads and nothing whatsoever medieval left, but has a great deal of interest. Of course I just looked at the churches, but there’s mills, municipal munificence, and modern malapropisms (like this bloody thing which looms over the town like the OCP building in Robocop’s Detroit) to be savoured too.
I drove there for the 10:30 service at St Silas, a church of 1894 that, with its striking profile from the road, cannot fail to make an impression on the passer-by. It’s by Lancaster firm Paley & Austin, a firm which Pevsner had much affection for, although his account of St Silas in 1969 is rather grumpy and succinct, judged to have “none of their spatial ingenuity”. Indeed, the inside is basically two great arcades with a chancel at one end and a tower at the other, but still with a great honesty throughout, just like a top-whack medieval building. The way the chancel arch for instance, is slipped in almost non-nonchalantly: as if it’s grown up between the piers.
The Holy Communion was dignified and enjoyable, and everybody very friendly, I’m just glad the fill-in organist arrived since everyone seemed to think I might be doing it. I left my car here and ventured into Blackburn for more traditional foot-based urban reconnaissance.
I was quite fortunate to get into St Luke, for which I had a magnificent preamble down a hill and past the gas works. Judging by the brackets around the description of the interior, even the Pevsner revisers didn’t get in here. Inside it’s a bit lumpy, with a great honking barrel roof with dinky pretend aisles. These are currently all piled-up with chairs, as all the pews have recently been removed, leading to a ramshackle feel like a church hall. The star attraction here are the magnificent windows in the north transept by Heaton, Butler and Bayne for the War Memorial Chapel. Startling to think that even in 1919 they were still making glass of this quality, and of some rather obscure Old Testament scenes. Moses held aloft by Aaron and Hur, anyone?
St Luke was until recently a joint parish with St Mark, by scholar-architect Edmund Sharpe in 1836-8. Rather than in his Dec Gothic Style for which he was later known, it’s in the then still in-vogue Neo-Norman, but remarkably primitive-looking. Pevsner reviser Clare Hartwell writes that it is “almost Soanian in simplicity”. The tower has a rather menacing, pagan look to it, and it seemed as if the very sky turned to lead as I approached it.
I heard that this church had recently become redundant, and was to be handed over to a non-denominational Christian group. This is somewhat surprising, as I thought this was something the Church of England stopped doing in the ’80s. Despite the obvious attraction of a church staying in the Church, many of these independent Churches – unlike Wetherspoons – simply have no idea how to look after a historic building, and they can get into a horrific state. It looks like it could survive a thunderbolt from Zeus, but is St Mark tough enough to survive a happy-clappy congregation?
It would be a shame to lose such an unusual church as St Mark, but for many other churches in Blackburn, one has to accept that just because the Victorians built it, doesn’t mean it must stay forever. The large Asian population means that by the late twentieth century Blackburn had a surfeit of buildings with Christian altars at the end, and many churches have been demolished. A few orphaned spires remain. Many others, such as St Peter’s in the centre, have all but disappeared without trace.
This situation makes it all the more peculiar that Blackburn a diocesan centre for the CoE, with a thoroughly Anglican Cathedral, what with all its concessions, bodge-jobs, but undeniable charm. The medieval church was demolished and replaced in the 1820s with a surprisingly pleasing bit of pre-Victorian Gothic Revival. In the 1930s the east end was demolished for a protracted campaign to construct cathedral-scale transepts and east end, in late Gothic Revival so conventional it borders on pastiche. In a surge of modern ambition (or realisation they couldn’t afford the projected tower), the crossing was finished by a concrete corona in the 1960s, which decayed so badly it had to be replaced in the late ’90s.
This woeful set of mishaps does not mean that Blackburn Cathedral is an embarassment. The plaster-vaulted nave with its pretty decoration provides a fine entrance to the eventual experience of the crossing with its abstract stained glass, with the altar directly underneath. Rather than succumb to the fallacy of the 360-degree priest, the east end is fenced off by screening, to create an ambulatory and eastern chapel. This does leave the transepts as feeling rather pointless, with nothing much in them except from the misericords from Whalley Abbey.
The 1960s furnishings at Blackburn Cathedral were entirely ignored by Pevsner, which is a shame, as they are by John Hayward, shortly after his initial success with paintings at London Fields but before he went into stained glass full-time. His spikey high altar baldachin does look like something from Hellraiser, but hey, that’s cool with me, and his decoration of the eastern chapel, is nicely minimalist and well-judged.
When I visited Blackburn Cathedral in the afternoon, there was a service for the Royal Society of St George, which basically seemed like the excuse for the mayor’s wife to wear a hat, but we all got to sing Jerusalem so what’s wrong with that? At least we could celebrate the horrific multiple martyrdoms of George with a delicious cake.
The last two churches I went to look at in Blackburn overlook it from a hill to the north. One is a clearly-oversized bland Late Victorian hulk Roman Catholic Church of St Alban, the other the rather important Holy Trinity, 1837-46. Also by Lancastrian Edmund Sharpe this gives a whole other side to him from his primeval building-block terror we saw above at St Mark. It’s an amazingly pure bit of fourteenth-century architectural scholarship, more of a model than a real church. It’s been redundant since the 1980s, but is kept by the Churches Conservation Trust. However, unlike most CCT buildings, which have a friendly keyholder, here, as someone from the Cathedral advised me, first you need to know where the key is, then you need to do some serious grovelling to actually prove you should be able to go in. Not a very happy prospect.
The last church I got in was after a quick drive south, towards the hills, to St Cuthbert, Darwen. Always nice to bookend the day with Paley & Austin, this was built in 1875. The saddle-back tower of 1907-8 with an inappropriate clock by a borough engineer is a bit daft, and the whole thing looks from the outside as if it’s going to plow off into the street. “Sound and serious, nothing more”, says Pevsner, obviously satisfied but at a loss for words. Indeed, it’s a lovely atmospheric building, honest in every degree, but not much to say about the interior, except that it works in a thoroughly modern Gothic manner. The best thing is the 1908 window in the north aisle by Shrigley and Hunt, that shows St Cuthbert with his attribute of an otter at his feet. To show the Edwardians weren’t above a bit of animal whimsy, he’s wearing a mitre.