John Betjeman, the patron saint of English parish churches, once warned against praising British buildings too much. Be careful before you call Weymouth the Naples of Dorset, he said. How many Italians call Naples the Weymouth of Campania?
Saint John was spot on, of course. When it comes to the pure ideals of church architecture, London isn’t a patch on Rome or Florence. The Holy Redeemer Church in Exmouth Market, Islington, may be inspired by Santo Spirito in Florence, but it doesn’t match, let alone surpass, its beauties. Still, as Michael Hodges’s scatty book shows, my God, there’s an awful lot of beauty, and intrigue wrapped up in London’s 1,200 Anglican and Catholic churches.
Even this hefty volume can only squeeze in 420 of them. All the same, after a lifetime of London church-crawling, there are hundreds I’ve never seen. My next target is St Andrew’s, Kingsbury, home to the Greatest Hits of the Gothic Revival: altar by Pugin; litany desk by Burges; lectern by Butterfield; chancel screen, reredos, font and pulpit by Street. My cup runneth over.
Hodges throws in a lot of juicy anecdotal information. I didn’t know that T.S. Eliot worshipped at my local church, St Silas’s, Kentish Town, a miniature Albi cathedral. Or that Graham Greene got married at St Mary’s, the charming little Catholic church in the Tuscan style in Hampstead.
Collecting a lot of London churches together produces some pleasing patterns. Churches on the edge of London were less likely to be remodelled — or bombed by the Luftwaffe. So you find more Norman work in the suburbs. How I long to visit St Mary Magdalen, East Ham, with its Norman blind arcade and chancel, dominated by a clumsy-classical monument to a 17th-century Earl of Westmoreland.
The book is a reminder, too, of the sheer scale and number of Victorian Gothic churches, in London and across the country. For decades, they’ve been scorned — and, yes, just like Weymouth and Naples, they aren’t quite as heart-stopping as their ancient inspirations.
Still, they are a wonder of faith and, very often, beauty. Just before Christmas, I took refuge from Biblical volumes of rain in William Butterfield’s All Saints,
Margaret Street. I was dumbstruck by the Pre-Raphaelite scenes in the north aisle, painted on tiles by Alexander Gibbs in 1876.
At the end of last year, the General Synod of the Church of England released an honest, depressing report about how under-used English parish churches are. At least the survival of London church buildings looks assured. Alpha — the evangelical movement inspired by Holy Trinity, Brompton — has successfully
colonised several churches, including Butterfield’s Gothic colossus, St Augustine’s, Queen’s Gate.
Thanks to soaring property prices, any church — however dodgy the roof — is worth saving. St Matthew’s, a delicate Doric church in Brixton, is now shared with Babalou, a live music venue, and the Brix, a community centre. Better for God to do a deal with Mammon than be vanquished by him.
This is a chaotic ragbag of a book. The index is done by church name, not by location. So there are 65 St Mary’s churches listed together — not much use if you can’t remember the name of the church you’re looking for. It’s aimed squarely at church buffs —terms like ‘Decorated’ or ‘Perpendicular’ aren’t defined. And ruin bibbers, randy for antique — in Philip Larkin’s words —will turn first to Pevsner, who, as Hodges admits, is a major source for his book.
Michael Hodges is a fairly odd fish, too. A former banker at Morgan Grenfell and HSBC, he is keen to remind us, in the book’s mini-biography, that he is Chancellor of the Order of Malta, and is married to ‘the Hon. Victoria Addington’. But then he comes over all modest and apologises for a ‘somewhat jejune’ book. He apologises, too, for his photographs. Before embarking on this book, he admits, he hadn’t taken a picture since the late 1960s, when he owned a Brownie 127.
Still, the book is useful reminder of Betjeman’s truism: ‘Our churches are our history shown, in wood and glass and iron and stone.’
Available from: Heritage of London Trust, 34 Grosvenor Gardens, London SW1W 0DH