The joy of church-crawling

Published: Tuesday, October 2, 2012


In The National Churches Trust Annual Review, 2012, author and journalist Harry Mount writes about the joy of church-crawling

The memorial service for Anthony Powell, author of A Dance to the Music of Time, was held in May 2000 at the Grosvenor Chapel in Mayfair. This pretty little yellow-brick church withb a Tuscan porch was built in 1731 for Sir Richard Grosvenor, ancestor of the current Duke of Westminster, who still owns the surrounding Grosvenor Estate.

Hugh Massingberd, the late presiding genius of the architectural history world, gave the address. ‘Welcome, my brethren, to the Eisteddfod,’ he began, with a nod to Frankie Howerd, who began his shows that way. 

Massingberd moved on to Powell’s story of a Norfolk parson who arrived early to officiate at a funeral in a church he hadn’t been to before. A keen antiquarian, the vicar took down an iron helmet from the tomb of a knight killed at the Battle of Bosworth. Unable to control his curiosity, he donned the helmet to see how heavy it was, only to find he couldn’t take it off. As the mourners filed into the church behind the coffin, they were, in Powell’s words, ‘surprised to be received by a cleric wearing a knight’s bascinet’. The priest proceeded to carry out the burial service in this kit. 

‘I wonder what he went for – visor up or down?’ Powell asked Massingberd. The story encapsulates what exceptional treasure  houses British churches are. Churches are so deeply embedded into the physical and historical background of Britain that it’s sometimes difficult to recognise quite how odd a combination of things they constitute.

The beauty of churches

We take our churches for granted; it’s good to remind ourselves, from time to time, what a unique amalgam they are - of religion, history, sculpture, art, architecture, local biography, geology and geography. Still, you don’t have to be religious to enjoy the beauty of churches, even if a monk friend once tried to persuade me otherwise, when I told him I was agnostic.

 Do you go quiet inside churches?’ he asked.
‘And do you take your hat off, if you’re wearing one?’
‘And do you feel somehow different when you’re
in there? Different to the feeling you get in a lovely
country house, say?’
‘Well, then, you’re religious.’ 

It’s true, I’ve often been moved in a pretty, secular room, but in a less reverent, hushed way than in ancient, architecturally appealing churches. And outside them, too: gravestones make for an internationally exceptional, if nationally widespread, collection of regional sculpture, dating back more than half a millennium. Like the Bosworth memorial in Anthony Powell’s anecdote, they are one of the thick, long-accumulated confections of stone that are British churches. 

Before the fifteenth century, there were barely any tombstones in our graveyards. Although the ground was used for burials, the dead weren’t memorialised, other than in priests’ prayers. The earliest memorials – raised to the grand and the armigerous – were inside the church: the first memorable tombs, from the twelfth century, incorporated carved stone coffin lids into the floor. 

My heart leapt on a recent church crawl, when I saw the first effigy of an earl sculpted in his robes of estate, and not in armour: the alabaster one of the 5th Earl of Arundel, who died in 1415 and was buried in the Fitzalan Chapel, Arundel, West Sussex. In ‘An Arundel Tomb’ (1956), Philip Larkin wrote about the effigy of this earl’s father – the 4th Earl of Arundel, Richard Fitzalan, buried in Chichester Cathedral next to his wife, their hands touchingly joined together: 

“Side by side, their faces blurred,
The earl and countess lie in stone,
Their proper habits vaguely shown
As jointed armour, stiffened pleat,
And that faint hint of the absurd
The little dogs under their feet.” 

Personal meaning

I have talked about gravestones and tombs, and still haven’t got on to an actual church building. If I had to choose a single one that best gathered the disparate strands which combine to produce the unmatched thrill of church-crawling, it would be St Bartholomew the- Great, next to Smithfield Market in central London. 

St Bartholomew’s has its own personal meaning - as most churches do to their immediate neighbours. I was brought up in nearby Islington, and it was the casualty ward in neighbouring Barts Hospital that first grabbed my childhood attention. A Barts doctor sorted out a fingertip squashed in a collapsed ironing board when I was eight; another took care of a frenulum linguae - the plate of skin under the tongue - burst by a ruler I was holding in my mouth when I was 11. 

By the time my brother got married in the church in 1997, I’d grown a little more interested in buildings - although on the day, I was more concerned about getting my brother and the ushers to the church on time. Just like Hugh Grant in Four Weddings and a Funeral - the Duckface jilting scene was filmed at St Bart’s - we were late; well, not quite late, but not as early as the angry guest in the choir I had to kick out in order to seat the first division of family members. 

These days, I take a group of students from the City and Guilds of London Art School to St Bartholomew’s. Each autumn I go back, and each autumn I am moved by the mammoth, simple, early 12th century columns of thechoir, the oriel window in the nave and the gaudy alabaster tomb of Sir Walter Mildmay, a Tudor Chancellor of the Exchequer. It is this combination - of ancient stone and remembered, serious events, of fraternal matrimony, of squashed fingers - that mingle aesthetic and spiritual feelings like nowhere else. In ‘Church Going’, Larkin wondered what effect churches would have on a visitor if, one day, they fell completely out of use. They would retain power as serious houses on serious earth, he thought. True, certainly, but, as long as they remain in use for their original purpose, there is an added dimension to their packed quiver of capacities.