Category Archives: What I’ve Learnt

Knocking on Heaven’s Door: Church access

About as far as too many people go. St Augustine, Kilburn.

About as far as too many people go.
St Augustine, Kilburn.

The hobby of churchcrawling seems to have escaped the sort of stereotypes that trainspotting, birdwatching and stamp collecting have amalgamated. It’s a rather obscure activity, to the point where it’s common even for people well-educated in matters of history and heritage to be ignorant that churches are not only full of innumerable treasures, but are usually welcoming to casual visitors throughout the week. The amount of times I see people wander into a church and not dare to venture beyond the table full of leaflets at the back of a building, glancing at a few memorial tablets before making a quick exit in case a priest emerges to throw a Bible at them is remarkable.

let'shearitforE. E. ARCADEeverybodyandofcoursethemarvellousDEC CHANCELandwelcomebackNORMAN DOORWAY we'llfinishwithasetfromPERP WEST TOWER

let’shearitforthewonderful E. E. ARCADE everybodyandofcoursethemarvellous DEC CHANCEL andwelcomebackthespectacular NORMAN DOORWAY we’llfinishwithasetfromeverlovely PERP WEST TOWER

There are a few celebrity church crawlers – Lloyd Grossman (who lives… in a church like this?), Jools Holland (right) and of course, Philip Larkin with his perennial favourite “Church Going” (in which the solitary speaker ascends the pulpit to give a mock sermon – any intended allegory aside, it’s something every churchcrawler has done). But it is journalist Simon Jenkins who has done the most to open up the hobby to a wider audience, with his 1000 Best Churches. Many who have now progressed to new-edition Yale Pevsners and English Heritage reports will admit that Jenkins was their gateway drug. Indeed, many churches are proud of their rating in Jenkins (although they often protest it is far too low).

Don't be fooled, viewer. This porch appears to be opened in this way but the church is always locked. The most rotten trick outside of someone practicing the organ inside and locking themselves in.

Don’t be fooled, viewer. This porch appears to be welcoming but this particular church is always locked.
The most rotten trick outside of someone practicing the organ inside and locking themselves in.

Anyone who uses Jenkins for a while comes to the realisation that practically every Church of England or Roman Catholic church has something interesting in it and that frankly some of his choices are a bit bizarre. However, clearly keen to avoid devoting space to opening arrangements that would quickly date, Jenkins tended to pick churches that are usually easily accessible by a casual visitor – something which of course is not the case across every church in England. Having visited churches in every English county except Cornwall, I’ve experienced very different situations when planning my trips. Some counties, such as Norfolk or Wiltshire, when you ring up a church custodian to ask about access, they can almost be slightly confused why you’re calling. For them, the default setting for a church is open – why would it be anything else? In contrast, in somewhere like Cheshire or Northamptonshire, you’ll be barraged with questions – who are you? When will you arrive? How long will you be? When I am staying for a few days in an area for research and visiting multiple churches in a day, those last two questions are almost impossible to answer without the fear of causing serious inconvenience when you inevitably get held up.

Not telling you where this is but I found it open at 7:30am once

Not telling you where this is but I found it open at 7:30am

I suspect a surprisingly large number of rural parish churches are left open all night. As convenient as this can be for me, if I am honest it’s just as bad as keeping them locked, because it’s borderline neglect. The widely-reported theft in 2013 of rood screen panels from Torbryan in Devon (since recovered), a church looked after by the Churches Conservation Trust, could only be ascertained to have happened “between 2 and 9 August”. An entire week of no one checking the building is hardly an acceptable level of care. There have always, and will always be, people who steal and damage other’s property. People are unpredictable – that’s what makes life interesting. This is why I always dislike the modern mantra of “can’t be too careful these days”. There probably aren’t a higher proportion of thieves and vandals around than at any other point in history, just a higher level of general distrust and lack of faith. But of course, one has to manage risk and lock churches at night – if only to check up on them.

Again I'll not tell you where this is but the key just hangs on a house near the gate to the field the church is in

Again I’ll not tell you where this is but the key just hangs on a house near the gate to the field the church is in

I have the uptmost respect for people who open and close churches at dawn and dusk every day – especially because I never meet most of them to say thanks. But for infrequently-visited churches, the only alternative is for them to advertise a keyholder in the porch who will lend you the key on request. This, I find, is an increasingly rare arrangement. Mainly, it prevents idle damage and kids messing about. The biggest problem with it is that it places responsibility on the person who looks after the key. If anything did go wrong, it would be their decision to let someone into the building that would prove their liability. This is why very few businesses, such as pubs and hotels, provide this service anymore: a great shame, but the result of a more suspicious, litigious and bureaucratic society.

The heartbreaking sight of a padlock, which is essentially a declaration of escorted visits only, since no visitor can be entrusted to put it back on properly. Padlocks give off entirely the wrong message and have no place on supposedly public buildings.

The heartbreaking sight of a padlock, which is essentially a declaration of escorted visits only, since no visitor can be entrusted to put it back on properly.
Padlocks give off entirely the wrong message and have no place on supposedly public buildings.

Custodians of churches that are normally kept locked nearly always insist on meeting me at the church at a pre-arranged time, and hover over me for the entire duration of my visit, locking up the building the instant I am finished. This means I do not particularly enjoy the experience, am constantly feeling I am being a burden, and no one else benefits from the whole ordeal (except perhaps Flickr, which receives a plethora of photos of elevations, moulding details and Romanesque nook-shafts later in the week). A much happier arrangement for both parties would be to leave the church open in the morning and lock up later on – but apparently some churches are frightened leaving their building alone for even a few hours.

St Thomas Aquinas R.C., Ham, Richmond. A converted school hall with obviously quite limited resources for liturgical furnishings. Found open and totally empty.

St Thomas Aquinas R.C., Ham, Richmond. A converted school hall with obviously quite limited resources for liturgical furnishings.
Found open and totally empty.

What causes the massive variation in whether churches are open or not? One factor is churchmanship. You will frequently find that Catholic churches, even ones that are no more than a wooden box with a carpet, an altar and a few plastic statues, are always kept open. This is because the church building for Catholics is more than just a meeting place, it is a holy space for personal devotion, facilitated by images. Except sometimes for Sunday afternoons (when, after people have fulfilled Sunday obligation, there’s no reason for them to be in church), it’s a poor do to find an R.C. church locked up, especially if it has an adjacent presbytery. For worshippers of a reformed low-church persuasion, there is essentially no reason to visit a church outside of collective acts of worship, so churches tend be kept locked. Although that doesn’t necessarily mean they don’t welcome visitors, I find that they often don’t quite understand why anyone would want to visit their church recreationally.

Another is geographical, which I can only assume is based on local consensus on how things have been done in recent memory. Priests may move between parishes across England through their career, but church opening I find is usually more down to the churchwardens who’ve lived in the village all their lives. Urbanised counties, such as Lancashire, Cheshire, and the Midlands, are full of locked churches, with no formal arrangements for access outside of services. Ecclesiastical, the primary provider of church insurance, encourages open churches and says that premiums will not increase because of an open door policy. It’s noticed by many that locked churches are the site of far more serious thefts than open ones, mainly because a building which is only used once a week appears an easier target than one that is continually supervised. Especially since the biggest threat to churches, the seemingly unstoppable spate of metal-thefts from roofs, doesn’t require access to the interior, encouraging visitors to your church all week round may actually help protect it.

Keyholder on Android - when grumpy Lancashire gives way to Cumbria

Keyholder on Android – when grumpy Lancashire gives way to Cumbria

So what do I recommend for budding churchcrawlers? Well firstly, I’d like to say, There’s An App for that: the Keyholder app developed by extremely well-travelled churchcrawler C. B. Newham. This Android app (Apple version in development) displays all the CoE churches in England as dots, either red (locked), blue (open) or yellow (location of key advertised by the door). It has the advantage of giving you the local knowledge to know whether a journey is worth making without a phone call. The coverage is impressive, but not complete, users are invited to fill in the gaps where they can. The data is kept reliable currently via a subscription which works out about £1.60 a month – but if you crawl regularly that’s basically the petrol money or public transport fare to the church in the first place, and the amount of money you should be leaving in the almsbox afterwards anyway.

St John, Hillingdon, west London, is a rare example of a suburban medieval church that makes a big effort to stay open.

St John, Hillingdon, west London, is a rare example of a suburban medieval church that’s recently changed its policy and makes a big effort to stay open 7 days a week.

And from the churches – one thing I would love is for those that do welcome visitors to make this known via their website (partly superceded by the marvellous A Church Near You, perhaps the most successful project the CoE has instigated since the Reformation) and signage, rather than assuming their open door is common knowledge. But do I dare say that more churches should be kept open at reasonable hours just in case someone like me happens to come by? Well, quite frankly, yes. The greatest grassroots evangelisation tool that the Church possesses is its buildings. What could be a greater comfort for someone at the end of their tether to stumble across an unlocked church and a quiet space for prayer? What is greater proof of Christ’s Church than the innumerable splendid buildings built by the enduring faith of its members? If only one person a week enters a building and feels some sort of profound spiritual upliftment (which does not debar them from using a camera and a tripod – photography can also be a practice of devotion) then the church is doing its job above and beyond a shelter for the altar. Yes, there are risks, and bad things may happen, but it’s worth balancing these risks with a greater good. If you think anyone would have faith in such a thing, it would be the custodians of churches.

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What I’ve learnt: The hows of church photography

Crosby Garrett, Cumbria

A rare “pretty picture” for me

As daylight saving cruelly drags us back to GMT, shutting churches earlier, I’ve been catching up on uploading my images from an Indian summer of churchcrawling. I know I haven’t quite been updating this blog as much as I should with my amazing (!) adventures, but the sheer volume of things I’ve been visiting means that south-east views of chancels would rapidly get rather tedious unless I frame them in an interesting way. I would like to do a series of reflections: on the hobby of churchcrawling, the problem open and locked churches, as well as my continuing research, but first I’d like to do a guide to the sort of prosaic photography that suits architectural historians, rather than someone gunning for Flickr favs.

Well obviously I took this picture via an incredibly elaborate arrangement of mirrors

Well obviously I took this picture via an incredibly elaborate arrangement of mirrors

For many years now (since mid-2012) I’ve been using a Panasonic Lumix FZ48, a bridge camera with 24X zoom. Until this summer, I had basic rules for the dial. If I was shooting freehand, I have it on “P”, which means the aperture and shutter speed are set for you by the light sensor with this in mind. If I had the camera on a tripod, then I would shoot on “A” – that is, aperture priority, which means you choose the aperture size, and the camera takes a long exposure if necessary. If it was very dark and I needed a very long exposure (more than 10 seconds) I put it on S, “shutter priority” and set it that way.

Coleshill, Warwickshire

Perp chancels, with their massive windows, are a nightmare for photography – especially when they’re cluttered up with nasty MFI furniture for a wedding – but I still took a load of crap pictures.

This was the extent of control I had over the camera. But when I came back from Warwickshire in August for a two-day trip, I found I did have an unfortunate number of duff shots: blurry arcades and over-exposed chancels. I decided to up my game and shoot almost entirely on M:  full manual, in that I set both aperture and shutter speed for every shot. And since all cameras are basically the same – they let light through a hole of a specified size for a specified amount of time onto a light-sensitive surface – there might be someone out there who might benefit from me twaddling on for a bit.


Lichfield Cathedral

Another rare, “aesthetic” picture: the crazy abundance of dogtooth in Lichfield nave

First thing that improved my photos: when shooting on a tripod, set the ISO sensitivity to the lower number possible. This was originally done, in the olden days, by changing the film. Now there should be a button on the back of the camera where you can either lock it at one speed, set it to auto, or choose a maximum value. The only reason you want a higher film speed is if you are shooting freehand in low light or working with a moving subject. Unless you’re working with liturgy there’s no reason you need to this. Your pictures will come out so much sharper.


Audley, Staffordshire

I could not find the light switches here even though the vestry had the key left in the door and they had to be somewhere. Nevertheless, pictures mostly came out okay – just took twice as long as it should have had.

Next, setting the shutter speed. The first time you’re in a dark church and realise you can get great pictures by just taking 10-15 second exposures on a tripod is a marvellous dawn. Sometimes you’re going to want to turn off the lights where possible, as bright bulbs often over-expose and mess up your shots. But it’s also worth controlling the shutter speed when outside too. Cameras are very intelligent these days, but it can only go so far. A black box can’t know that you’re interested in the dark walls rather than the bright windows. However, I’ve found that’s always better to under-expose than over-expose. If it’s a bit dark, you can rescue it at home with some post-processing and upping the contrast and gamma correction. Whiteness means the information has been totally destroyed, and only a magic Blade Runner zoom-enhance-zoom-enhance computer could do anything.

Church Eaton, Staffordshire

Here we have sun on the W tower so it’s possible to balance it with the sky

The same goes for outside: when you’re taking a north side of a church in shade against a bright sky, there’s no way the light sensor know you’re more interested in the dark building than the bright sky. At the expense of over-exposing the blue sky and losing the pretty clouds, you can actually bring out your subject that would get lost in the dark. There’s really no excuse not to set your shutter speed manually all the time. While in filmic past, when plastic bags were free at Marks and Spencers and Pets Win Prizes was top Saturday-night viewing, you wouldn’t see your results until you unpegged them and took them out of your red-lit developing room, you can see them instantly on your camera’s LCD screen.

The other thing to remember is that cameras are like your eye, not like your brain. You might think you can see a dark wall and a bright stained glass window at the same time, but actually, you can’t – you’re seeing them separately and experiencing them together. The only way to get a picture of something bright and something dark in the same picture is to use a tripod and take two different exposures, and do a composite of them in an imaging program when you get home.


Bakewell, Derbyshire

Burlison and Grylls glass enhanced by short exposure to bring out the painting

Stained glass should always be taken on manual shutter speed. But not all stained glass is created equal – a blazing boiled-sweet Wailes in the chancel at sunrise is not the same as a bit of medieval glass cradled in the vestry. You need to get a balance between the luminosity of the glass and capturing the painting. For sunlight directly through glass you can be shooting a 1/1000 of a second. It’s also interesting how you can make quite bad Victorian window look really good by reducing the glare effect of the thin panes – the camera never lies, indeed.

Checkley, Staffordshire

Medieval glass tends to let a lot less light through than Victorian glazing

Nearly all digital cameras have a preview function where if you lightly hold down the shutter button it will show you what it thinks the image will look like. Of course, this isn’t perfect – it won’t work for things that have very low light – but it certainly gives you a good idea how long you need.


St Giles R.C., Cheadle

Pugin’s Cheadle has a very difficult lighting system to work with

Finally, understanding the aperture. Beyond the film speed, there’s only two things to understand how a camera collects the light: how big the hole is, and how long it’s open for. Aperture is measured by F-Stop number. The lower the F-Stop number, the wider the hole that lets the light in. This, I find, is more of a matter of practical advantages and disadvantages in church photography than the general benefits to your images with longer exposures. If you’re in very low light, then the necessary length of your exposures become a lot shorter (obvious, really). However, a higher F-Stop means a deeper depth of field and sharper focus. My F-stop only goes up to 8 anyway, which isn’t very good, so it’s not really something I’ve explored. Therefore, unless I want to highlight something in shallow focus or can’t find the light switches, I shoot on high F-Stop.


Kirkby Wiske, North Yorkshire

Curse the mason who came up with that string course

One exception I find is a perennial problem for me shooting my pet subject, sedilia. Sedilia are always built into the south wall and very often have a window directly above them. This means they are sometimes bloody frustrating to take a picture of because of the composition of dark wall with sunlight blazing in behind. While sometimes shooting them with a wide aperture and short exposure helps, sometimes all you can do is the ultimate cheat: flash them.

Acton, Cheshire

This flashed picture looks awful, but shows the re-masoned wall behind the two missing sedilia more clearly than anything

Ah, the flash. All those pictures of demon-eyed children round their birthday cake in the kitchen. For a professional photographer, it’s like a chef using a microwave oven. But like all but the most conceited gourmet will admit about microwaves, the flash has its uses. Essentially for any sort of aesthetic photography a flash is no-no because it absolutely destroys the ambience and subtleties of natural light. But for sculpture, this can be extremely useful for architectural historians. The intense light can bring out breaks and joins that can’t be seen with the naked eye. It can also highlight folds quite beautifully sometimes. It ain’t going to get on the cover of National Geographic, but it’s still wise to pop up your flash for a few close-quarter shots occasionally.


Chebsey, Staffordshire

The headdress distracts from her fine pair of ears

If you want to take decent interior pictures, you’ve gotta get a tripod, I’m afraid. It might make you look like a nerd, but on the other hand it does look a little bit like a you’re carrying a rifle, which might appeal on some level, and also if you got accosted by a ne’er-do-well you could always brain them with it. Most of the time I carry a plastic one that cost about £15. Generally this is totally fine – the main problem you will find is using it on high zoom, when it becomes difficult to move the mount steadily and get that perfect frame you want. Also, moving the camera 90 degrees and not having it be a bit wonky is also difficult. I have a metal one that had a former life as a telescope stand, weighs a tonne, but makes me look like I know what I’m doing.

Which of course, I don’t, really. I only have a bridge camera, so I don’t have a clue about the wide world of lens and SLRs. I hope this serves as a bit of an introduction on how to take the sort of dry, boring photos of churches that are useful for architectural and art history. But if this was the how to take pictures, there’s also the what to take pictures of, which I’ll save for another post.