Category Archives: Architectural anger

Church demolition and preservation revisited

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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.

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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.


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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.

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

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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.


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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

Bad art in cathedrals

Cathedrals used to be depositories of some of the finest works of art in the world. Then the pesky Reformation came round and stripped many of them back to the walls. What has filled the place of the original medieval artworks has, over the years, been subject to changing tastes. While the Victorians despised all classical additions, the twentieth century in turn, had a bit of a clear-out of what they found dowdy and gloomy.

So what tat should be chucked out in a fantasy aesthetic Reformation? Let’s dispense with the polite introduction that pretends this is anything other than just a list of things I don’t like, and find out!

The café paintings in Worcester chapter house

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Worcester chapter house is an immensely important monument. It’s the first in a long line of English centrally-planned chapter houses. The walls retain traces of painting, and the stone vault once contained a complicated sequence of Biblical scenes showing the typology of the New Testament foreshadowed in the Old. These are gone now, so when they put the café in there, they thought the best way to make up for this massive loss to English art it was by putting some paintings up on the dado that they look came for free with the frames from Wilkinsons.

South presbytery aisle screen, Ripon Cathedral,

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I’m surprised this thing survived one night without the cleaners chucking it out. It looks like it’s made out of giant pipe-cleaners. Glitter and Pritt-Stick also involved. Really all it needs is some dried pasta, paper plates and split-pins to really finish it off.

Piper Tapestry, high altar, Chichester Cathedral

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Now, actually, this one is by a proper artist, John Piper, who I actually really like. He’s one of the few artists who can capture the gritty drama of a parish church rather than just making it look like something out of The Darling Buds of May. But not everything in his name is brilliant. His south aisle windows in St Margaret, Westminster, are some of the few in England that can give abstract continental glass a run for its money in sheer grimness. This thing too, I don’t like. It’s trying to hard to be modern and groovy. If it was commissioned for Whitbury New Town Leisure centre, it’d be fine. Worse thing is though, is what it replaced.

A fine altarpiece by Somers Clarke, which had been, shockingly kept into the triforium gallery for half a century until it was finally brought back downstairs only last year apparently.  If you’re going to get rid of art you find old and outdated, you best be sure you are conjuring up something REALLY inspired. Like when Michaelangelo got the go-ahead to destroy some Perugino frescoes for The Last Judgement in the Sistine Chapel. Which this is not. The Last Judgement is still unequalled in its terribilità. The Chichester tapestry has been equalled by a Fruitopia bottle.

Various creepy stuff in Durham Cathedral

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There’s loads of weird stuff in Durham. Of course I don’t have any of my own photographs of any of it because I’m not going to be risk being told off by a custodian for the sake of one of these. I found this one on Google images though. Just look at it. It looks like Gumby’s fallen over and a house ornament from seconds at TK Maxx doesn’t look very interested in helping him up.

Basically everything from Westminster Abbey

Regular viewers will remember I don’t like Westminster Abbey much. This of course it is famously filled to the brim with rubbish that distracts from the architecture. Pearson’s mutilation of the north front, Scott’s ugly choir screen, the overbearing reredos, that out-of-place goldback altarpiece on the south side of the sanctuary (seems to have gone now), loads of Hugh Easton glass, the banners in the Lady Chapel which obscure the architecture, Blore the bore’s choir-stalls (makes for a great rhyme though)… WESTMINSTER ABBEY

But worst of all are all the soapy bloody eighteenth-century monuments of admirals ascending into Heaven or a viscount knocking over a pyramid or some lady crying over a pillar that’s fallen down. There was actually a plan in the nineteenth century to build a Westminster “camposanto” for all these and give them the heave-ho from the medieval abbey church. It fell through, of course. Someone needs to treat Westminster Abbey like an elderly parent who’s been hoarding things around their house in plastic bags on the floor, kindly sit them down and say “Mother, we need sort this out”, then hire a skip and get the lot in there.

New Bishop’s Throne, Leicester Cathedral

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P1180013Oh dear. After the excitement of exhuming Richard III and reordering the whole place as a tourist trap, uh, pilgrimage site, Leicester went a bit overboard and decided to redo the liturgical furniture in the crossing. Even though they had a fine carved Neo-Gothic Bishop’s Throne already (in the background there), they decided they needed to replace it with something a bit more “down wit’ the kids”. So they got this thing that looks like the least exciting Transformer ever, made out of MDF (Magnet-tron: ha ha!). As well as looking naffer than a branch of C&A, it also has the disturbing effect of looking like it’s suddenly going to collapse in on itself, crushing any occupant into a perfect cube.

I didn’t really believe this thing was real so I went round the back to try and process it. Then I saw it was attached to the crossing pier, so it’s not going anywhere soon, folks.

The apse clerestory in the Abbey of St Denis, Paris

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I could probably dedicate a whole post to terrible glass in continental cathedrals, but it would probably be so tedious that it would only be worth reading if you got stoned and pretended it was a lava lamp. Anyway, the stuff at St Denis, really takes the cake. All you want to do is deliver Abbot’s Suger’s ecstatic speech about “delight in the beauty of the house of God” but the apse is full of gaudy crap. Worst of all is this terrible pictorial one of Napoleon of all things.

 

Both sides of the west front of Liverpool Cathedral

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1552114_db13328a[1]I love Liverpool Anglican Cathedral. It’s the last gasp of the Gothic Revival. It is truly sublime. It’s almost that the space inside surpasses the mass of the object in its sheer volume. I recommend any medieval cathedral enthusiast visit: it might be a white elephant, but it’s a miracle it was finished, and it’s incredibly moving. However, the problem is that this green thing greets you on your way in. It’s supposed to be the Risen Christ, but it’s hardly Piero della Francesca: it’s more the sort of thing you make out of blu-tack in a boring meeting then crush when the coffee trolley comes in. And then you have some sentimental bit of tripe by Tracey Emin on the counterfacade, that I thought was temporary but it never seems to go away. I’m getting tired now, so time to wind it up. This list isn’t in any particular order, except for comedy potential, and of course I’m going to end on the worst. And most of you won’t be surprised by my top choice.

Statue of the Virgin Mary, Ely Lady Chapel

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So, yes. Ely Lady Chapel’s foundation stone was laid on the Feast of the Annunciation in 1321, but since the crossing tower of the cathedral collapsed the following February, it’s unlikely much was done except the site dug and some bits of the raft laid out. The building was resumed in the late 1330s, and perhaps benefited all the more for it, as this was really the apex for English sculpture. And the plan for Ely Lady Chapel was to have it in spades. The “nodding-ogees” of the wall arcades are vivaciously organic to the point of eroticism. Indeed, since the vescias contain statues of the royal ancestors of Christ, one might wish to hazard that it’s supposed to be quite that suggestive: Honi soit qui mal y pense and all that. It’s an incredible work of art, quite simply a masterpiece of Gothic. With its full sculpture, altars and stained glass, it must have been ravishing. Makes things like Giotto’s Arena Chapel seem like they done on a budget.

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Ely Lady Chapel as Holy Trinity parish church, before 1938

It is of course, hacked about. The narratives of Mary’s early life and her divine intercessions have been pedantically decapitated by a Reformation busybody, and the whole east wall with the culmination of the devotion to the Mother of God has of course been utterly wrecked. It was, until the early 20th century, kept as a parish church, and all the later paraphernalia such as pews and wall monuments taken out in the late 1930s. In its stripped, naked vulnerability, it has a uniquely eerie, poignant beauty, showing the preciousness and transcendence of art.

Then of course someone thinks “ooh, it’s just missing something” and ruins it by putting this load of old shite bang right in the sodding middle of it.

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I mean, sculpturally it’s pretty poor, I’m never really sure if she’s supposed to be accepting the incarnation of Our Lord through the Holy Spirit, saying “I JUST CLEANED ALL THIS MESS!” or receiving an incoming message from The Big Giant Head.

And there’s also the white-washing, that she looks more like a caucasian Disney Princess than a girl from late-antique Palestine, which wouldn’t be so bad if she was classically recognisable as the classical Virgin Mary. Instead she looks more like the homonymic Queen of Pop circa Ray of Light.

It’s made of Portland Stone, not that you’d know, because it looks like it came from one of these sets:

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Right down to the crappy water-based primary colour paints applied all over the porous surface with no shading or highlights. I mean at least he didn’t go over the lines.

Have you some tat in a big church you love to hate? Tell us below in the comments! Or, if you’re a Russian bot, post some alt-right nonsense! Up to you!

The Conspiracy of Westminster Abbey

If you’re reading this blog you’ll probably have at least heard of Westminster Abbey. Most of you are likely to have more of an idea about it than say, Ripon Minster or Selby Abbey. However, if you’ve been, I bet you remember the stuff in the building, not the building itself. If you’ve studied English medieval architecture, you’ll have been told that it’s one of the most important, influential buildings of the Middle Ages. Well, I’m here to argue that it ain’t. The Abbey is run as a revolving door of a church versus tourist attraction, never feeling like both at the same time (there is the usual hourly enforced moment of stillness and prayer, although this doesn’t stop the ringing of the cash registers). It’s choked with people wandering round with audio guides glued to sides of their heads, shuffling clockwise round the ambulatory like it’s the Tunnel of Love. It’s hard to feel spiritually uplifted in what is a tourist rival to the London Dungeon. But I’ve been the Abbey for Holy Communions, Matins(es?), Sung Eucharists, I’ve been in the upper galleries, in the Confessor Shrine, the chapter house crypt and been on private visits. Even when I have stunning music, colleagues, or solitude: I STILL HATE THIS BUILDING. And I’m going to try and sum up why it’s just not that great. Not that its had settlement, or tower collapses, or badly-planned aisles like most of my beloved wonky arches, but why it’s just a bad, cold piece of design.

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The Romanesque Westminster Abbey, begun 1040s,  from the scene of the burial of King Edward, The Bayeaux Tapestry, 1070s.

Some background. The Abbey at Westminster (as opposed to Eastminster, that is, St Paul’s Cathedral over in London) was first made architecturally preeminent through the benefaction of King Edward the Confessor, who begun what was essentially the first proper Romanesque building in England: Norman before the Norman Conquest. We have almost nothing of this building left. There its representation in the Bayeaux Tapestry, which obviously has a bit of artistic licence (since it depicts the gap between the church and the Palace of Westminster as being narrow enough for a giant man to traverse it on a ladder in order to put a cock on the east end – no really, look at it), but is confirmed by both a medieval description of the church and archaeology under the high altar and nave.

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Westminster Abbey, south transept, east arcade

This Romanesque church stood, probably largely unaltered, until in 1220 the monks of Westminster decided to append a Gothic Lady Chapel (totally demolished to make way Henry VII’s famous fan-vaulted replacement), with the foundation stone laid by a celebrity guest, King Henry III. In 1245, Henry III turns his attention back to Westminster, and gives them more than just a bit of ribbon cutting. Instead, he basically writes them a blank cheque to rebuild the whole damn building. With the royal coffers at their disposal, the east parts of the Confessor’s Abbey were demolished, and an ambulatory with four radiating chapels, double-aisled transepts, two walks of the cloister, and three bays of the nave (which actually functioned as the monks’ choir) are built to connect with the recent lady chapel. This campaign, that took about 25 years, is essentially the building we see today. Overall, around £45,000 was spent on this project, which is a phenomenal amount of money from one patron, even a king. It is like one person bankrolling the £1.2 billion for the Shard entirely from their personal wealth. Henry did this no doubt of piety, but also to rival the projects of his brother-in-law Louis IX of France, by sprucing up the English coronation church into a family mausoleum and also a shrine to kingship by his devotion to his ancestor, Edward the Confessor.

Westminster Abbey, north transept, north facade. The portals are a semi-archaeological reconstruction by Scott in the 1870s. The rose window and gable were essentially redesigned by Pearson in the 1880s.

Now, I don’t want to focus on the tombs, or the shrine of the Confessor, or any of the stuff that you’ll get on the Audio Guide about all the bloody awful self-important monuments of marble admirals in wigs fighting skeletons or some rubbish like that. I want to talk totally about the architecture. And why Westminster Abbey is not a very good building. It doesn’t help, that the main entrance to the Abbey, the north transept that everyone too tight to pay the entrance fee takes a picture of, is not very inspiring as it’s basically been ruined by callous rebuildings. It had its main portal hidden by a porch as early as the 14th century, but it underwent a really disastrous 17th-century Classification after the Civil War, which Christopher Wren undid as well as he could. George Gilbert Scott came along and fixed up the portal zone to be something more proper-Middle Ages, and if it had stopped there, it would have been fine. But for some reason the Abbey let the next surveyor of the fabric, the respectable architect John Loughborough Pearson, totally unnecessarily, rebuild the upper half of the north front. He scandalously replaced the medieval gable, and needlessly dismantled Wren’s rose window, replacing it with something that looks more like a pub dartboard than the flower of flowers. Indeed, the whole of the exterior of Westminster Abbey has been redone so many times there is not a single medieval stone left outside. It is essentially a replica. However, inside is very well preserved, and this is what we will focus on.

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From Colvin et al, A History of the King’s Works. Looks complicated, but note how the Abbey looks like 3, but with big buttresses in place of the outer aisles.

It is well-known that the Westminster Abbey is unusually French, and it is usually said this import of French sensibilities kicked off a whole new attitude in English architecture. The former is definitely true, in that it has the tallest high vault in English medieval architecture. However, at 31.75 metres, by French standards, it’s pretty pathetic. Amiens was being vaulted at about the same time with a 43 metre high vault, and Beauvais would go on to have a dizzying 48 metre one. Now, I’m not saying size is everything: but then I’m not French. Problem is, the achieved height is so constrained by English design, that its effect is negligible. The quest for height causes a major aesthetic problem: the church is so narrow you can’t really read the elevation from the floor. It has been argued that the proportions of the elevation imply a design with double aisles each side. This would explain why the whole thing feels so claustrophobic.


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Rheims Cathedral, looking E to the apse.

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Westminster Abbey, looking E to the apse. Note the small size of the clerestory.

It’s often said that Gothic – in contradiction to received opinion about gloom and doom – is about light. But Westminster Abbey is, let’s be honest, pretty bloody gloomy as received opinion would have you believe. What causes this? It’s primarily because the clerestory – the top “clear story” of windows – is so damn dinky. The clerestory windows of Rheims Cathedral are of very similar design, and the master mason of Westminster was referred to as Henry of Reyns, so it’s very likely that’s where they’ve copied them from. But the windows at Rheims are much taller, allowing much more light into the main vessel. Why couldn’t they do it right at Westminster?

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Westminster Abbey, inside the presbytery gallery space, S side

The answer is in the second storey, which is key to so many of the building’s aesthetic drawbacks. Despite what the Abbey keep calling their new exhibition space, the second storey is a gallery NOT a triforium. A triforium is a second storey that is essentially nothing more than a wall with a passage in its thickness. You can’t really walk down it, unless you have a harness and hard hat. A gallery is much safer: I’ve been in the gallery in Westminster, as well as many English Romanesque Cathedrals. You can too, if you go to Stained Glass Museum at Ely, which is the gallery over the cathedral’s south nave aisle.

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Westminster Abbey, N transept W elevation. Notice the “spherical triangle” windows of the gallery which cannot be seen from the floor inside.

One of the ways you can tell if a building has a gallery is does it have windows on the outside that you can’t see on the inside? See here, the outside of the Abbey has this great honking second storey with the so-called “spherical triangles”, essentially a triangle with three curved sides, taken from a similar idea in the undercroft of the Saint Chapelle in Paris. By this period any church in France (and most in England, for that matter) would have a lean-to roof over the aisle, which looks a lot neater, but more importantly, provides window space that actually lights the inside of the building, rather than what is essentially attic space. This gallery may have been included to help increase the capacity of the Abbey for monarch’s coronations, or as a Romanesque hangover, either way, it’s a lead weight round its neck.

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Westminster Abbey, chapter house. Begun 1246, restored 1860s by G.G. Scott. Glazing a rearrangement of bomb-damaged 1860s Clayton and Bell scheme by Joan Howson, 1950. Image © English Heritage

The matter of illumination is very different in the Chapter House, by far the best part of the building. An inscription on the pavement recounts “as the rose is the flower of flowers, this is the house of houses”.  Monk and chronicler Matthew Paris of St Albans described it as “a chapter house beyond compare”. They are right to be proud of it – even if later it was utterly spoilt by being converted into a records office, and about 80% of the masonry inside (all of it outside) is from the heroic rescue of the building by George Gilbert Scott. If only those magnificent four-light windows could have crowned the second storey of the church. Never mind, that would have taken some proper flying buttresses which the English were always a bit suspicious of.

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Westminster Abbey, north chapels of ambulatory. Note the big buttress between them on the left.

The ambulatory chapels are very confused. They form neither their own distinct spaces like a French cathedral’s, but nor are they very good at unifying with the main space. Their interiors, are again, gloomy, which considering they have no Victorian stained glass to blame, is a poor do. Maybe if they didn’t have these enormously over-engineered buttresses outside which block the windows. The whole eastern arm is tremendously squashed because it had to connect with the now-lost Lady Chapel, which is tremendously confusing as to why it was built so far away from the original Romanesque east end. One wonders if the monks started the Lady Chapel with the intention that they would get Henry III to pay for the rest of the church. But if the 1220s Lady Chapel was built freestanding (or connected to the Romanesque church by an ambulatory or extended axial chapel we have no archaeology or documentation for), this might have been the first spanner in the works for Henry of Reyns making anything that would even pass at Café Rouge for being authentically French.

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Ely Cathedral, presbytery, 1234-52.

“Okay, okay, I know Westminster Abbey is really crap at French stuff, you’re hardly the first person to say that” you say. “But,” you continue, eloquently, “I read Nicola Coldstream’s The Decorated Style once and apparently it kicked off a whole new attitude to the illuminated interior in England!”
Okay, well let’s have a look at the wonderful choir of Ely Cathedral, often thought of as the last gasp of so-called “Early English” before Westminster. It has piers of coloured stone with beautifully carved and restless “stiff leaf” capitals. The arcade spandrels are decorated with pointed trefoils, in between which are the vegetative corbels for the high vault, which touchingly burst into bloom around the site of St Ethelreda’s shrine. The arches of the arcade are trimmed with dogtooth, and little leaves cover the gaps between the gallery shafts. Yes, it does still have a gallery, which makes it a little gloomy (so although they stuck a glazed triforium in in the fourteenth century to light Ethelreda’s feretory) but it’s an absolutely ravishing, electric space.

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Westminster Abbey, detail of the arcade and gallery, showing diaper ornament. Notice that there’s no real system on whether they should go right up to both the shafts and the arcade arches or not.

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Westminster Abbey, nave, junction between 3rd and 4th bays showing break between 13th and 14th-century campaigns.

So what decoration does Westminster have? Oh, diaper. Yes, every spandrel of the arcade, and a lot of the dado, has these little flowers-inside-squares carved directly into the facing masonry. And the thing is, the thing is, it can’t even do that properly. Famously, the north transept has finer, smaller diaper, and the south has bigger squares, presumably to save time. However, it does look bloody awkward when the two sizes meet incongruously in the spandrel of the north arcade of the ambulatory. The parts on top of this have the bigger diaper, which proves they were later (in the absence of any other evidence). There are loads of bits where the diaper isn’t finished because it was clearly such a pain in the arse to do. In fact, such a pain, that when the nave arcades were resumed by Henry Yevele in 1387, he was probably was so pleased when the monks accepted his “no more sodding diaper” design.

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Westminster Abbey, south transept counter-facade. Detail of glazed triforium of gallery zone and base of rose window.

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Westminster Abbey. Censing angel in spandrel of S transept counterfacade.

So apart from some very limp foliage in the surrounds of the gallery arches, that’s it. So where are the stiff-leaf capitals? Where’s the ludus? Where’s the damned dogtooth, for pete’s sake? There was some clearly quite wonderful sculpture in the dado arcading, but only small amounts of this are left – what hasn’t been obliterated by ridiculous tomb monuments (some of which are medieval) is hidden behind the admissions tills. But even so, a dado is only for up-close examination, it has minimal effect on the building itself. All this would be fine if it had beautiful proportions, and left its surfaces bare to accentuate this, but as we’ve seen, it doesn’t. It did however, have some beautiful statues, such as St John the Evangelist handing the ring to Edward the Confessor on the south transept counter-facade, with absolutely breathtaking angels censing the holy scene. This sculpture is helped by the fact that the transept terminal walls have glazed triforia linking the two galleries above the chapels, which brings us closer to the French wall-of-glass than anywhere else in the building other than the chapter house. The south rose is also a beautiful design; in fact slightly more advanced than the contemporary window in Paris Cathedral’s south transept, showing that some up-to-date French ideas were getting to Westminster.

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Binham Priory (Norfolk), W facade, 1226×44.

So, what about the influence of this so-called pivotal monument in the development of English architecture? It is said that it introduced bar tracery (that is, thin bars of stone at the tops of the heads of windows) to England. But then there’s the perennial “problem” of Binham Priory, which originally had a great eight-light west window. This facade, added to a Romanesque nave, we are told by Matthew Paris (and he should know, since St Albans was the mother house of Binham), was at the behest of Prior Richard de Parco. Since his priorate spanned 1226-1244, wherever you put it in his term of office, it has to be started at least one year before Westminster. Often you will see it dated as late as possible at 1244, as if it’s unthinkable that anyone could beat the royal abbey to bar tracery.

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Collegiate church of Howden (East Yorkshire), N transept, c. 1270.

Except, it’s not a problem. Westminster didn’t start anything, it was part of something. Bar tracery pops up all over England in the 1240s. Despite that Henry III’s chapel at Windsor almost certainly had it, Lincoln Cathedral had a big west window put in (since replaced). The transept chapels at Ely are also clearly direct from France too, even if we don’t know that they date before Westminster. Yorkshire Rayonnant – like the massive honking transepts at the collegiate church at Howden – again may be later, but clearly independent of anything going in London. I can tell you, however much you might think it, no one in the North gives a monkey’s what’s going on in London.

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Lincoln Cathedral, the “Angel Choir”, 1256-80.

One of the much-touted “spin-offs” of Henry III’s supposed magnum opus at Westminster is the Angel Choir at Lincoln Cathedral, a huge extension that lopped off the weird wedge-shaped apse of St Hugh’s choir, ironically in order to house his shrine. So close are the links, allegedly, that the Judgment Porch at Lincoln can be used to reconstruct the lost north portal at Westminster (apparently the much-restored Lincoln Christ’s gesture to His side wound has to do with the Holy Blood relic at Westminster: lost-prototype nonsense that most art historians got over in the 1970s). So look at this elevation of the Angel Choir. Does it look like Westminster? No. Not at all. Does it look like anything else you’ve seen in the last five minutes? Yeah, that’s right, it’s basically Ely presbytery with bar tracery instead of lancets, but with proportions that match an existing Gothic choir rather than Romanesque transepts. In an excellent article which no one seems to read (Journal of the British Archaeological Association), Mary Dean convincingly argued this bar tracery came from continued connections to the Continent, not via the Royal Abbey.

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Hereford Cathedral, N transept, 1260s.

So did Westminster Abbey influence anything? Well, there were the royal abbeys built at Hailes, Battle and Vale Royal that all had polygonal ambulatories, but since we’ve lost their elevations to demolition, how close they were to Westminster in aesthetics is anyone’s guess. At Hereford Cathedral, for reasons that are only apparent to himself, Bishop Peter Aquablanca replaced the Romanesque north transept with what can only be described as a parody of Westminster Abbey. It has diaper. It has spherical triangles. It even has a great whopping gallery over the chapels rather than a triforium. It has very strange arcade arches, and a clerestory of spherical triangles stepped back into the thick wall to the point they’re almost invisible. No one would really want to call it a success. A bit of fun, at best.

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Lichfield Cathedral, nave, 1260s.

Lichfield nave is another matter. Possibly one of the best buildings erected in England in the 1260s, according to Prof. Christopher Wilson. This also has bar tracery galore, a similar paired two-light middle storey (although a false gallery, with a lean-to roof behind), and spherical triangles. The thing is, rather than being used inconsequentially like Westminster’s gallery portholes, the spherical triangle windows at Lichfield ingeniously fill up the clerestory space, the two upper curves matching that of the vault. Lichfield nave really is one of the finest compositions of the second half of the 13th century. It’s well-composed, bright, has beautiful sculpture, and oodles of dogtooth. In fact, it’s everything that Westminster Abbey isn’t.

So, there isn’t really a conspiracy at Westminster Abbey. I just gave this article an intentionally provocative title. It’s just that people think too much about the centres and don’t rethink engrained theories. It’s a building by an English master mason who spent some time in France and brought back a few ideas from the coronation church at Rheims, the huge passion reliquary of St Chapelle and the royal mausoleum at St Denis in order make a great mash-up of form and function that turns out not to be very good at either. Very few subsequent buildings were directly influenced it, so as far as innovation and experimentation go, it was a bit of a spectacular dead-end. So if you’re planning to take the kids to Westminster Abbey, if you want them to experience great architecture, my advice is to spend the entrance fee on a train ticket to Lichfield instead.

A footnote. Westminster Abbey does not usually allow photographs under any circumstances inside the building, which makes posts like this very difficult to illustrate. It would have been impossible to do so without the visit to the church during the British Archaeological Association conference in 2013 when Warwick Rodwell, the Abbey archaeologus got us permission. It seems to me that if people are paying tourist prices to enter, they should be able to record their experience as tourists (or pilgrims) in the usual way, as well as permitting people like me to study the building. Photography is just another way of looking, and in that way, can even be used to aid prayer.

The Towers of London

You might wonder why I haven’t updated my blog for over a year. The short answer is: I’ve been living in London! I’ve been ground down to the point where I realised that Dr Johnson’s pithy “when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life” does not actually mean it is impossible to get tired of London. Not in the slightest. In fact, it just confirms we all get tired of life from time to time. But slowly London is turning into little more than a dehumanising playground for the super-rich, with all of its rich heritage being buried under totems of steel and glass. This is why I’m going to break my fast of posting with an angry blog post that has nothing to do with churches!

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Site of Nine Elms Northern Line station, July 2017

I used to joke every time I visited London, there was a new skyscraper visible from Waterloo Bridge. Now I’ve actually seen the concrete cores shoot up in real-time, followed by inevitable dismay of a steel frame with ugly cladding, I can confirm I wasn’t exaggerating. I was living at the edge of Vauxhall for a while this time, which all the way from Nine Elms to Battersea is essentially one big building site. Many of these buildings, such as the Keybridge estate on South Lambeth Road (the UK’s largest brick tower – as if anyone asked) replace former mid-height tower blocks. It has taken around a year to reduce the post-war tower on its site to a sad lump of smashed conglomerate and twisted rebar. The rest is being built on lingering brownfield sites, regenerated by the gigantically oversized American Embassy in Nine Elms, and the promise of a Northern Line extension, which is currently boring its way through the subsoil.

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Battersea Power Station, July 2017

The housing round here is the generic example of “shiny and new”. Its newness is all it has going for it. Flats like goldfish bowls are stacked as high as they can go, as close together as possible – one wonders how you’d get a fire engine in between some of them in a disaster like Grenfell. They might be luxury when they open, but with their lack of any real social cohesion beyond commuter hideaway, they’re surely the slums of the future. Battersea Power Station, sitting unused for what seems like forever, has required the unchecked greed of the luxury property boom to find a use for it. This largely consists of imprisoning it in walls of steel and glass, building unconvincing replicas of its famous chimney-stacks, and falling back on its promise about the amount of affordable housing.

Affordable housing: what a wonderful phrase. You would think it would be a passing phase too, but the bubble never seems to burst. The egregious Vauxhall Tower which adjoins the St George’s Wharf – clearly visible from the World Heritage Site of Westminster Bridge – is perhaps the worst case for this. A Guardian exposé revealed there is not a single resident registered to vote in the UK in it. Most of it is empty. Cars with blackened windows merely drop their VIP cargo off behind a closed gate at the base. It’s basically a huge folly, which houses little more than occasional entertaining suites for foreign executives when they happen to be in London, and properties for high-flyers’ investment portfolios. And a big “up yours” victory lap from the land-grab.

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St George’s Wharf apartments and the Vauxhall Tower, begun 2007, designed by Broadway Maylan. (In the background is the core of part of the Vauxhall Square development, at time of writing rapidly receiving its curtain walls of brick cladding. It will be relatively low-rise at 87 metres, and will be joined by a pair of 187 metre luxury blocks)

Next to it is what is, I think, without doubt, the most incompetently ugly building in London: St George’s Wharf. It is a grotesque complex, which neither has the conformity of a single block, nor the variety and interest in its grouping. The pyramidal arrangement of the towers – which have been described as butterflied prawns which I can’t possibly top – is unnecessary and aggressive. What do the towers even do? Why is all the glass green? Why is it so downright bloody awful and right at the edge of such an important city? It’s the sort of terrible thing you’d expect in the desert, where there’s not much to do except make an empty statement: but not in a place brimming with important buildings.

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122 Leadenhall Street and 30 St Mary Axe over the church of St Katharine Kree (1628-31), in 2015.

The City has become unrecognisably foreboding and suffocating in a very short time. Aside from Tower 42 (The Natwest Tower), the Swiss Re Building (now officially 30 St Mary Axe, but really, everyone calls it the Gherkin) was the first skyscraper to be built in the City. It was enabled by the regeneration of the area after the IRA bombings in the early ’90s: the 1992 bombing that all but destroyed the Baltic Exchange, and the 1993 Bishopsgate bombing near Liverpool Street station, the crater of which undermined the facade and north wall of the little medieval church of St Ethelburga, all but destroying it.

 

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Main entrance of 30 St Mary Axe (The Gherkin) begun 2004 by Foster + Partners.

The thing is, the Gherkin is not a bad building. It’s not the best, but it’s good. The original plan was for a 386 metre-tall Millennium Tower – that’s taller than the 309 metre Shard. The building that was eventually built was a mere 180 metres, but has both a memorable and pleasing profile. It has solidity – the motif of the steel-frame construction giving it both an interesting surface texture and distinct visual character beyond its silhouette. But most of all, it respects its surroundings and earns its height. When you visit what architects call the “street interface” (the “way in”) the steel frame cleverly opens up, quite invitingly. The way in is clear, and the building actually has a presence on the human scale. The lattice work also draws the eye up to the building above. You know immediately you’re in the presence of an iconic building you’ve encountered first on the skyline. This is far from true for many of the other garbage skyscrapers going up in the City since.

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Street interface of 122 Leadenhall Street (aka “The Cheesegrater”), begun 2006 by Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners.

The Leadenhall Building (the “cheesegrater”) is the first of the diminishing returns. It’s not terrible, but it does pretty much the same trick for the street interface as the Gherkin. You could be generous and say it is sublime – but it’s more overwhelming and on the side of ugly. But at least it makes a statement on the street. The main reason for its silly shape is to preserve views to St Paul’s: which in some ways is a worthwhile function but also begs the question why a skyscraper was allowed there in the first place.

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20 Fenchurch Street (aka “the Walkie Talkie”), begun 2012 by Rafael Viñoly Architects. Image
© User:Colin / Wikimedia Commons

Now, this piece of crap I have no time for whatsoever. 20 Fenchurch Street is sited somewhat south of the city skyscrapers, and dominates the view from London Bridge. It has a particularly arrogant top-heavy look. This look is basically the only trick it has. With the bundled tube method of construction, buildings can be any shape they want. These doesn’t mean that they should. This building is a planning disaster – partly it got through with its textbook greenwash strategy of “London’s highest public park“, which is essentially an over-priced bar with a few bedding plants dotted around. Its shape – which goes against any good sense in design – has also caused quite serious problems: the well-publicised “death ray“, when magnified sunlight reflected down off it caused property damage around the City.

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20 Fenchurch Street, main street interface

But I think that what really shows what’s bad about this building is its street interface. When you walk past it, there’s absolutely no interesting frontage. There’s no way, if you don’t know to look up, that there is a tower above you. It just looks like every other front. All it is there for is to make a jokey shape on the skyline. It oppresses at the human scale. Medieval cathedrals may dominate the cities they lie in, and make big statements with lofty steeples on huge towers, but no one can argue that can’t realise when you’re standing right in front of them.

Strata SE1. from Monument 2014

Strata SE1 (aka “that stupid thing with the fans in”), begun 2010 by Bogle Flanagan Lawrence Silver Ltd. © User:Colin / Wikimedia Commons

A similar building to this in many ways is Strata SE1 at Elephant and Castle, apparently known as the “Electric Razor” but more commonly referred to as “that stupid thing with the fans in”. It is claimed that these turbines make the building sustainable, but since nobody has ever seen them actually turning, this is clearly a load of bollocks. Ironically, what the building does do is create a wind tunnel effect that I noticed when taking this photo.

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Strata SE1, main entrance.

Again, its street interface is so poor (although, admittedly, at least it has some reaction to the main elevation of the skyscraper, with the big vertical division that carries up to the top) the only way you’ll notice you’re at the base of what you wondered “what the hell is that stupid thing over there with the fans in” at from Greenwich is because it’s caused your bucket hat to be blown off into the worst roundabout in the world.


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The Scalpel (52-54 Lime Street), as of July 2017, over the church of St Andrew Undershaft (early 16thc).

There’s so many more hideous buildings to complain about. In the City, three skyscrapers are currently going up on Bishopsgate (in addition to the already completed Heron Tower, the tallest building in the City), and the extra ones in the financial heart, such as the intimidatingly-named (and actually, for the first time, taking a shape-based name officially) Scalpel on Leadenhall Street. The poor city churches: often ones that survived the great fire, such as Katherine St Kree, St Olave Hart Street, and poor poor old St Ethelburgas, seem about the only buildings of any age around here. Blackfriars One, looming over the bridge, going against everything the Friars Preachers stand for in its vainglory. The Chelsea Waterfront. The Corniche opposite Tate Britain on the Albert Embankment. 121 Strand opposite St Clement Danes (which would have been one of the main beneficiaries of the most egregious vanities disguised with greenwash: The Garden Bridge). You might notice I’ve left the Shard out of this, which although I’m not a huge fan, I feel like it’s the Gherkin of the South Bank. It’s not brilliant, but it’s undeniably striking, has a few clever ideas (such as a successful street interface), and despite its height, doesn’t really spoil that many views. I could go on with worse. But it’s time to finish.
 

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One Blackfriars, by Ian Simpson Architects, in February 2017.

It is an unimaginative cliché to label these buildings phallic. They’re nothing like phalluses. Phalluses are useful, and perhaps even for some, pleasureable to look at. Nor these buildings more specifically ithyphallic: an erection does not always point up, and you don’t show it off to lots of people to show how important you are (not unless you want to be banned from every branch of Wetherspoon’s). These skyscrapers are like giant aggressive fists, shaking intimidatingly in the air, grasping wads of cash outside the reach of those below. They’re not progress: but are often mostly empty, built by people who don’t give a crap about anything other than money. The people being conned into giving these things planning permission are swayed by a Blade-Runner fantasy that the future must be vertical. But down on the ground, the housing crisis continues.

Essentially, these things aren’t that much more than overblown marquees like the Crystal Palace. Hopefully they will last as long as the 1960s-70s predecessors they invariably are built on top of, and the importance of preserving the human scale in architecture, as well as ornament, craftsmanship, and good design will some day return.

 

Barry Thurible’s guide to London Churches

Cor lummy! Barry Thurible here, suffragan archsubdeacon of Mudchute. As an entirely fictional Cockney entity, when I’m not carrying enormous thermometers to another building that needs to keep track of their roof fund in the only way the Church of England knows how, I travel the parishes of London on my 60+ Oyster Photocard on a Sunday morning and check no one’s deviating too far from the BCP, while also providing a ceremony of high aesthetic merit! If like me, you like nothing more in life than a good Mass, then here’s my partisan guide on what buildings to choose and which avoid on a Sunday Morning! And maybe I’ll also make some nonsense Eastender interjections occasionally. Chim-chim-awooga!


St Mary Hendon“Medieval” churches
Despite what cobblers you might hear, there are no real medieval churches in London. The ones in Zone 6 or whatever that did survive that rather big ‘elf and safety clumsy-up in 1666 ended up with a Victorian mega-church welded to the side anyway. Since essentially every last patina of the Middle Ages has been scrubbed off by Victorian do-gooders round here, the atmosphere has totally gone. This ain’t Norfolk. The service will be tolerable, but you’ll be looking forward to the Nescafé and the Custard Cream more than anything else. Don’t be taken in by the relatively long Pevsner entry, give these a miss.

Wren City Churches
All these bloody things look the same to me. And walking round the City on a Sunday is a mug’s game anyway. You’d never get a celebrant, deacon, subdeacon and M.C. behind one of those Grinling Gibbons communion rails and have space left for so much as one acolyte so I don’t know why you’d bother.


St Mary, Wyndham Place, MaryleboneOther Classical churches
I can’t even bear to talk about these. They look like libraries.

St Paul, Mill HillCommissioners’ Gothick boxen
Dreary things. Before the Victorians worked out how to build proper Gothic again, these cheap-o things went up at the behest of the Church Commissioners that are basically four walls with a roof on top but – oh wait – with some pointy windows. Sink me Bismarck! I’d have all these things knocked down but apparently there’s someone between the Vic Soc and Georgian Group who thinks they’re worth more than half a cobble. Now despite the fact the architecture gets right on my Hack-e-ney bits, some of the clergy do try regardless, but you’re just as likely to trip over a drumkit while tutting at the enormous projector screen some numpty’s set up in the chancel arch. Don’t take your chances.


Dec ragstone potboilers
Decorated Gothic, the architectural style of high medieval England, was realised by the Victorians to be correct way a church should look forever and ever. And blimey, they were right! Just they built far too many and we don’t know what to do with them all now! So although that ragstone dressing means they look pretty pukka on the outside, on the inside they’ve probably had to block up one of the aisles or something to put a nursery in there to help balance the books for the parish share. Worst case scenario is that they’ve been subdivided into a block of flats: terribly embarrassing if you’ve made a special trip to see where they keep the Blessed Sacrament these days. Not worth risking.


United Reformed Church, Enfield TownThe not-a-church
See a spire, majestically riding above the skyline? Think it must be a beacon of the nation’s one true Church, good ol’ C of E? Well, don’t be fooled, precocious young pendlemill, because sometimes underneath is a United Seventh Day Reformed Methodists of New Bethlem or something. I don’t know what they get up to, I’m sure they do some essentially wholesome activity based around our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, but I’m not ready to start closing my eyes and putting my hand in the air like I’m at a Bon Jovi concert, so give these things a wide berth.


St Chad, HaggerstonBig Brick Basilicas
Well these things are alright, in the East End we have a job-lot built by the Victorian James Brooks who afterwards seemed to travel down the Piccadilly Line building one at every stop, so a lot of those are now not-a-churches to be avoided at all costs. ‘Cause it’s cheap, you see, the Catholics threw up a lot of stuff like this too, so watch out. Not that there’s anything wrong with being Roman Catholic. Some of my best friends are Catholics. Just it’s not the best thing if my employer sees me praying the rosary too much. Not the Big Geezer that is, I’m sure He’s fine with it, just the bish’ is really into brand loyalty to the purple cross places. All in all, too risky for me.


St. Richard, HamModern rubbish
Some of these things I wonder whether I should be taking my swimming cossie rolled up in a towel – they don’t half look a bit like leisure centres, you see. Now, some of them can be alright, but the altar’s probably right in the middle due to some misjudged keeping up with the Romans, so unless they have a 360 degree priest who can balance the Host on his head I wouldn’t bother with these.


P1470103‘Igh Church Strongholds
In fact, the only church you need bother with is something where the architecture is so fabulous – Pearson, Street, or someone other mad Victorian fella who really knew pointy – that it’s a place that time forgot. Literally! Same thing every week! You can expect a Byrd or Palestrina motet, a sermon with some actual theology in it, Merbecke Credo, some respect shown to the Blessed Sacrament, and probably a sherry afterwards. Ooga-booga! Then if you stick around long enough they’ll probably do a Nunc Dimitis, Magnificat and Benediction. So pleased I’ll be, that I’ll go back to the office on Monday and turn a blind eye to the fact that they’ve been fiddling with their Gift Aid envelopes. Knees up my ol’ Gran Turismo!