Where is England’s smallest church? The question must have preoccupied nerdish retired vicars for centuries and is probably best answered then forgotten. Despite the title of this survey, John Kinross fails to give a clear answer. ‘Smaller’ churches would have been fine, but smallest raises expectations.
The apparent shortlist is Culbone (Somerset), Dale (Derbyshire), Wide- mouth Bay (Cornwall) and Lullington (Sussex), though readers may devastate me with alternatives. Culbone is a delicious place nestling above the Bristol Channel beneath Exmoor, accessible only on foot a mile through the forest. On a sunny day with birdsong in the trees and sea glinting through the leaves, it is as sublime as any spot in England. Dale Abbey is shorter but wider, an atmospheric preaching box with a Mad Hatter’s tea-party of skewed pews and furnishings. Smaller than both must be the Church of Our Lady, Widemouth Bay, at 258 sq ft. But this is pipped at the altar rail by Lullington at 256 sq ft. The last is merely a chancel fragment and may not qualify. I think it does.
That said, Kinross gives us a pleasant selection of the churches he has visited over the years. ‘It was,’ he says, ‘the small, musty ones that seemed to speak more of God.’ Many will agree. They have an intimacy and an antiquity which make them peculiarly appealing to the present age, to believers and non-believers alike. Small churches seem more ecumenical, more meditative. They are places where we can reach out and literally touch the past, filling them with our thoughts and fashioning them after our own creeds. Larger churches are more Anglican, more dressed and solemn — and often more savagely restored.
Kinross has a good eye for ecclesiastical picturesque. He has Norman Worth Matravers on its wild cliff in Dorset, and Brentor on its Devon moor. He has lovely Didling, a South Downs drovers’ church. He is rightly enthusiastic about the Sussex Mardens and the Romney Marsh churches, even if some are quite big. He has most of my favourites, such as Norfolk’s Hales, Shropshire’s Heath and the Cumbrian hikers’ church at Wasdale Head, its graveyard filled with those who died on the looming fells.
These are by no means all of England’s small churches and some are bigger than ‘small’. If the Quaker Meeting House at Jordan’s in Buckinghamshire, why not the smaller, exquisite Come-to-Good meeting house in Cornwall? Georgian churches such as Stanmore, Esher and Willen are not particularly small or even picturesque.
Kinross adds little by way of new information or anecdote to these places, and the entries are cursory. But I am not complaining. This is one more spotlight turned on England’s most precious architectural relics. It should hasten the day when the whole community, not just the Church of England, is charged with their upkeep and, where appropriate, their reuse. Anything that staves off the day of the padlock and the vandal is welcome.