Two decades on: don’t rely on Simon Jenkins to guide you around England’s churches

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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 it’s an inhibition to it moving forward.

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 INACCURATE

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.

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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, Churchtown, near Garstang? Heysham, over Morecambe Bay, a candidate for the most attractive view from a churchyard anywhere? 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.

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Not the most welcoming presbytery, at Barton-upon-Irwell

Credit there, that’s pretty bang-on. 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.

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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?

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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.

REASON THREE: THE RATINGS OUT OF FIVE ARE COMPLETELY POINTLESS

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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 Priory, Sherborne, Tewkesbury, and Selby Abbeys? 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 Minster, why not the Minsters of Southwell and Ripon, which were all essentially equal rank before the 19th century? 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, Newcastle Cathedral from 1882, is hardly comparable to a true 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 in that its west end was built up to a cathedral scale from the 1930s onwards, and indeed makes sense to omit.

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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

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.

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”.

REASON SIX: IT SAYS SOME NEEDLESSLY INCENDIARY THINGS

I am a little concerned that some of the off-hand remarks Jenkins wantonly chucks around sow potentially harmful seeds. 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 […]”

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The repainted rood screen at Harpley, Norfolk, that Jenkins decides is “insipid”

So this makes me legitimately a bit enraged. Some ancient mural decorations should be got rid of because we can’t tell what they’re supposed to be? Where do we draw the line? 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”.

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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 won’t be thrilled by that either.

Indeed usually contemporary art is ignored completely by Jenkins. 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“. It seems awfully discouraging for this “decorate our churches” malarkey he encourages in principle, particularly for such a clever composition of spatial perspective from a local artist (who has also exhibited worldwide and is particularly known for her King Crimson album covers).

A particularly annoying manifestation of this is in the introduction:

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.

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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 nonsense, for the most part. Primarily, because many of 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.

REASON SEVEN: FACTUAL ERRORS

In the acknowledgements Jenkins reveals that he had two editors: a researcher and a copy-editor, I guess. Still, like most parish church guides, this spreads mistruths and understands some concepts quite poorly. The worst is the appropriation of the common 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 somewhere along the line to publication, the labels have got twisted somewhat…

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.

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This might seem like a small thing but damn it is annoying, 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”.

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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 of Galilee so let’s wrap up.

THE CONCLUSION HOLD YOUR HORSES DON’T GO YET

So really, you might as well use the quick lists at the back of Parish Churches as Works of Art by Alec Clifton-Taylor. 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 for yet another <Bit of Britain>’s <number> Best <thing>. Which I have not read to be honest, they might be great for all I know!!!

I would love an advance for Thousand Best Public Toilets if it’s going, though.

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6 comments

  1. I find Jenkins useful for details after a visit, but I’d rather take pot luck, see what I can find for myself and make my own decisions on ‘best.

  2. I’ve long had reservations about ‘1000 Best’ too. I don’t like the way it’s become Holy Writ. I’ve met people in (Jenkins approved) churches who’ve told me that they’re ‘doing Jenkins’, which means that they’re ignoring lots of equally good (or better) churches just a few miles away. What you want from a guidebook covering the whole country (okay, what I want) is simply a list of churches (with map) worth visiting and a brief summary of what I’ll find when I get there. I don’t particularly want details (Pevsner will do that, much more thoroughly) and I certainly don’t want gushy prose. If I want to read essays about a church, a guide that concentrates on one county is a much better place to look.

    The best guide book to the country’s churches is the 2nd edition (1968) of John Betjeman’s ‘Collins Guide to English Parish Churches’. The 1st ed (1958) can be discounted because it has no maps (and is too big to fit in a coat pocket), but the 2nd ed, in two volumes (north and south), listing about 4,500 churches, is perfect. The introduction is still one of the best medium-length (about 70 pages) things written on the subject; the books are genuinely pocket sized; masses of succinct non-gushy information. As a bonus there are John Piper drawings and photos (and dustwrappers). Long out of print, but available for a song secondhand.

    The 3rd and 4th editions are single volumes again and thus a bit too big for practical use (and I think the 3rd unaccountably did a way with the maps). They include Welsh churches, which is good, but otherwise they are not an improvement. What’s effectively the 5th ed (2011), rewritten by Richard Surman and retitled ‘Betjeman’s Best British Churches’ (a rather naff title), was presumably intended to be a direct rival to Jenkins. It’s attractively produced, and you get more churches for your money – about 2,500 – and there’s a minimum of gushy prose. (It includes Scotland too.) It’s even bigger than Jenkins, and so isn’t really practical as a field guide, but even so I prefer it to his. I’m not sure why it doesn’t seem to have caught on; it works perfectly well as a coffee table book, and is highly informative.

    But the Betjeman 2nd ed is still the best; Jenkins should retire whimpering into a corner.

  3. I would guess that this was pitched as a coffee table book and never really intended as a guide. Much more likely to be bought as a gift?

    Why not try for Kickstarter and do your own idosyncratic guide? Curches I chanced upon and found delightful?

  4. I have never used Jenkins, and rely on Pevsners, RCHM volumes (where published), VCHs (ditto), county histories and the occasional creditable local production (since you have mentioned the Broads in your latest post, this would be Mortlock’s Norfolk volume) or, if all else fails, Glynne. However, it is surprising how many parish churches have a copy of ETBC.

    I have two issues with Jenkins. The first is his great commercial success. This, and the sometimes excessive influence of Pevsners, might have an undue bearing on some of the decisions made by the SAC. It seems that a positive write-up (or, alternatively, a write-down) in Jenkins or in the relevant Pevsner, can tip the balance away from a vesting in the CCT or FFC and towards outright privatisation, by means of a commercial or – worse – residential vesting. I write this with some misgiving, since there are, of course, several distinguished scholars on the SAC and the Pastoral Division does get erudite people to undertake surveys of threatened churches (though I sometimes think the SAC looks at a church building in a one or two dimensional sense – concentrating on a limited range of aesthetic criteria at the expense of provenance or historical/community association: how else could the recent transfers of Saxby in Leicestershire, Wolferlow in Herefordshire, Warwick-on-Eden in Cumberland, Astwood in Buckinghamshire, Castle Eden in Co. Durham, Upper Gravenhurst in Bedfordshire, etc., to residential use be justified?). How many of these churches might have survived if they had received a positive write-up in ETBC?

    Although you have slated the purple prose and the seemingly capricious grading of buildings, the second issue I have is the reductive way in which buildings are sometimes assessed and the faith element is downgraded, even deprecated. Here it should be noted that Jenkins’ father, Daniel (1914-2002) was a very eminent URC minister (a protege of Reinhold Niebuhr), who migrated from hardscrabble Dowlais in Glamorgan to genteel Oxted in Surrey; I wonder whether Jenkins inherited a certain impatience with internal church affairs and sectarianism from his ecumenically-minded father, whilst rebelling against his father by means of an avowed unbelief. Here I think Clifton-Taylor – who had no faith whatever – was also an influence, and I suspect that some of what we see in ETBC and in Jenkins’ public pronouncements about the future of church buildings bears the mark of numerous visits to Clifton-Taylor in Kensington before 1985. There is certainly an epater les bourgeois tendency in some of his wider writing which, of course, is often by no means a bad thing. It should also be noted that Jenkins served on the Taylor review about the future of parish churches, commissioned by the Osborne Treasury (which was released to no fanfare immediately before Christmas 2017), and is a trustee of the CCT, so his views presumably still have a very direct bearing on the formation of policy relating to church buildings.

    Since you have mentioned Clifton-Taylor a couple of times, I wonder whether you might contemplate producing another of your excellent essays: on English Parish Churches as Works of Art, The Cathedrals of England, The Pattern of English Building, etc. These certainly had a considerable influence on me several decades ago (as did his TV programmes, including Casson’s ‘Spirit of the Age’; for many millions of viewers he did for architectural history what his contemporary, W. G. Hoskins, did for landscape history). Very many thanks.

    • Parish Churches as Works of Art is a really frustrating book. It doesn’t really work at all. I’m not sure really what he was trying to do with it. Clifton-Taylor is just so finicky it’s hard to believe him ever being satisfied, but as I say, at least he’s consistent. Cathedrals of England is really useful for the plans at the back and I use that a lot for a quick run down. Pattern of English Building is useful but I wish it was in colour!

      I’d never do anything like this with Clifton-Taylor because he’s just too professional. Also I hear he was a pretty nice man too.

      Other facts interesting thank you. I do think this reductive approach is a problem for listing/guardianship. Jenkins’ judgements are taken by committees to prove significance when they really don’t because I really do think the 1000 is like two thirds filler.

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