Michael Palin - My favourite churches

Michael Palin describes how churches, of one kind or another, have played important roles throughout his life.


In a career spanning five decades Michael Palin has entertained and enthralled television, film, and stage audiences as a writer and performer, in comedy, drama and documentary. In a talk first given to Friends of the Natiomal Churches Trust in May 2015, he describes how  churches, of one kind or another, have played important roles throughout his life.

I must admit that I am no longer a devout worshipper – if indeed I ever was. I remember filming for the Himalaya series at Rawalpindi in Pakistan – in the only brewery in the entire country. There was only one outlet for the products of the Muree Brewery and that was a hole in the wall at the back of Raffles Hotel on the Grand Trunk Road. Here liquor could be purchased but only after I’d filled in a very thorough form: Mother’s Name; Father’s Name; Place of Birth; Religion. As I was on camera I felt I should be scrupulously honest so I wrote down “Agnostic” and pushed the form towards him. He took one look, shook his head and pushed it back to me. How could I be more specific? I thought again and after some deliberation wrote “Agnostic with doubts”. I pushed this across to him, he took it quite happily and passed me a large bottle of Murree whiskey.

“Agnostic with doubts” still remains an accurate description of the state of my faith. But I still visit churches whenever I can and find great comfort in them.

I want to share with you seven churches that have meant more to me than most. The first is St John’s Church, Ranmoor, Sheffield, the church in which I was baptised in 1943 and in which my parents worshipped until 1966. Grade II listed, it was designed by Flockton and Gibb and opened in 1888 after a fire destroyed all but the tower of the previous church, consecrated in 1879. The spire is the tallest in Sheffield.

Many of my most potent early memories are associated with St John’s, Ranmoor, at which I was a regular attendee throughout most of my childhood. My parents were both regular churchgoers, which in those days put them very much in the majority in our neighbourhood. My father was a bell-ringer. St John’s had a ten-bell peel, and occasionally he would take me along, helping me climb the precipitous stairs to the belfry where I would watch him rising and falling gently on the rope of the Number Nine bell. From him I learnt my Bob Majors and my Grandsire Triples! My father was also a keen chorister. The interior of the church was on a spectacular soaring scale, so I can remember early filial pride as he sometimes led in the choir, his singing being completely unaffected by his serious stammer.

Though I was born and brought up in Sheffield, my father was an East Anglian, the son of a doctor from Fakenham, and the two-week summer holiday provided the ideal chance for him to get back to the beloved county of his birth, and in particular to the magnificent churches in the area. I can remember that barely had we unpacked than my father was off to see a church or three.

My attraction to the pulpit

Actually, I rather enjoyed these church visits. If the church was empty I would climb up into the pulpit and deliver the stirring first few lines of an improvised sermon, delighting in being able to be in front of a captive, if entirely absent, audience. In a sense these church visits gave me a chance to feel what it might be like to be an actor. Ironically, my father had expressly forbidden me to even think of acting as a career. But he chuckled away at my attraction to pulpits.

I think he could quite happily see me becoming a vicar - one of the few callings which probably paid even less well than acting.

In 1966 my father retired from his job at the export department of a Sheffield steelworks and promptly moved to Southwold, which boasted a church as different in look
and character from the Victorian Gothic of Ranmoor, as the Suffolk coast was from the dark Satanic mills of industrial Sheffield. Indeed Nicholas Pevsner, who wasn’t one to scatter praise, called St Edmund’s, Southwold “the epitome of Suffolk flushwork”. The church is impressive, the tower 100 feet high, the nave 144 feet long. And you could easily put your neck out gazing at the glorious painted roof with winged angels carved on the end of the hammerbeams. Not surprisingly it gave my father great pleasure and he rarely missed a Sunday service here.

One of my happier memories of church-hopping was to drive with my father, south down the A12, passing the proud and formidable church at Blythburgh, a quite magnificent building towering over the surrounding estuary, then turning off to the altogether more intimate village church of St Peter’s, Wenhaston. Like Southwold there was much history here. The tower has stood since the 14th century. But unlike Southwold, St Peter’s had never been destroyed by fire, and possesses original Norman windows. But what made it really special, and what my father revealed to me with great excitement, was the Wenhaston Doom – a wall-painting of the Last Judgement dating back to the reign of Henry VIII. It’s wonderful and unusual, though Nicolas Pevsner, who’d clearly used up all his superlatives at Southwold, called it “distressingly rustic”. I beg to differ.

I agree with John Seymour in the Companion Guide to East Anglia who called it “a quite marvellous panel”. And, dare I say it, a quite Monty Python-ish vision of hell, which musthave had quite an impact on the 16th century congregation, “distressingly rustic” though they may have been.

Every now and then, I did manage to get away from my father’s church trips. By chance one of the girls I had been so anxious to meet on the beaches of Southwold not only became a close friend, but in April 1966, we married at St Margaret’s Church, Abbotsley, near St Neots, in what is now Cambridgeshire. The churchyard, with its tall chestnuts and ancient dark yew trees, bordered onto my mother-inlaw’s house. The church clock is kept going by a rota of local men whose perilous ascent to the winding mechanism would appal Health and Safety. As we’ve remained married for 49 years, I’m obviously quite thankful for what happened here in Abbotsley. I’m also lucky to be able to see and enjoy it whenever we’re up visiting mother-in-law, who’s now 102and has only recently given up reading the lesson there.

Church and community

This good looking but unflamboyant church does have its curiosities. On the top four corners of the tower are statues of what appear to be knights, or certainly men-atarms.
They date from the 15th century and are thought to represent the Kings, Macbeth, Malcolm, Harold and William. Though the provenance is shaky, their mysterious origins
still add a special touch of character which differentiates this otherwise modest church from any other. As does this rather outstanding tomb in the churchyard. It marks the last resting place of the Reverend Mr Heylock, who died in the early 17th century. Heylock left legacies in trust which are still honoured in his name today – eleven worthy people of the village receiving about £20 each at Christmas. A small, but, I think, important link that has remained between church and community that has lasted for three hundred and fifty years.

In 1986 I received some family papers from a cousin of my father’s. Included amongst them was a diary belonging to my great grandfather, Edward Palin. He was a don at
St John’s College, Oxford and one of the diaries, dated 1861, tells of a walking holiday in Switzerland, when he was 39. On Lake Constance he writes of meeting two American ladies, one of early middle-age and the other, whom he presumes to be her daughter, called Brita, who is “17 yearsand six months old.” He clearly falls for her and writes regretfully “if only our ages had been closer how different things might have been“. To which have been appended much later, in red ink, the words “We married in Paris in 1867, she has made me the happiest of men”.

The girl - my great-grandmother - was an orphan from the Irish potato famines, shipped out to America and adopted by a wealthy spinster, Caroline Watson, who brought her to Europe for her education. My great-grandfather had to relinquish his position as Senior Tutor at St John’s, as all dons were expected to be celibate. The college found him a living at Linton in Herefordshire. He remained as vicar of St Mary’s, Linton for 36 years, from 1867 to his death in 1903 and is buried in the churchyard,alongside Caroline Watson, Brita and their third child Richard, who died at the age of 18, whilst still at school.

The eldest of their seven children was my grandfather - the youngest was my Great-Uncle Harry, who was killed on the last day of the Somme offensive. I draw some sense
of continuity with the past when I think of my greatgrandfather addressing the congregation from the pulpit of St Mary’s.

A sailors’ graveyard

There have been many churches that I’ve seen on my journeys around the world, but none more modest in scale, yet more heroic in location than the Naval Chapel on Cape Horn. Cape Horn was a sailors’ graveyard before the Panama Canal opened in 1914, and is still perilous. We landed there during the filming of ‘Full Circle’ to be greeted by a dog which clearly hadn’t seen strangers for quite a long time.

The Naval Chapel is small, not much more than 15 feet long. What light there is falls from two small windows, one on each side, both of them murky with sea salt. Out of
one window is the Pacific Ocean and out of the other the Atlantic. Nowhere else do the coastlines of the world’s two greatest oceans come so close that by a simple turn of thehead you can see them both.

My local church

The last of my selection of seven churches that have meant something to me is my local church, St Martin’s, Gospel Oak, London NW5. A very eccentric church indeed, and for once it’s impossible to disagree with Pevsner when he describes it as “the craziest of London’s Victorian churches”.

The interior is full of weird and wonderful architectural and decorative flourishes. Perpendicular Gothic prevails, though not as we know it. The apse with its richly coloured and textured ceiling is almost Byzantine. There is fine stained glass and complex carvings on the capitals and mosaic panels on the walls. Set amongst bland and functional modern estates, St Martin’s is as incongruous as it is eccentric. But before one is tempted to dismiss St Martin’s as an ecclesiastical folly, a sort of Disneyland of devotion, it’s worth remembering that it’s not only Grade One listed, but has pride of place among Simon Jenkins’ ‘Thousand Best English Churches’.

For me the importance of St Martin’s, Gospel Oak, is inextricably tied up with the development in the area, in which my wife and I have lived for nearly 50 years. In
the 1960s and 1970s much of Gospel Oak was razed tothe ground to create new estates accommodating higher population densities. Street patterns were destroyed, the scale of the housing became monumental, with long concrete blocks replacing the human scale of the brick terraces. Standing like a beacon in the middle of all this, to
remind us how it once was, was the chunky, fanciful tower of St Martin’s. Even this was threatened at one time, but this indomitable Kentish ragstone tower has become a survivor, keeping alive the memory of the all but lost history of this ill-favoured area. But there is hope. The current vicar, Chris Brice, has enthusiastically and tirelessly worked to bringthe community back to the church, and, after a successful appeal for funds, the iconic tower has not only been restored and repaired but the lost pinnacle, so distinctiveon the early prints, has been re-built in all its glory.

We must value churches

This short survey of my favourite churches ends in both senses of the word, on a high note, a recognition that what has been achieved at St Martin’s, Gospel Oak, can be
achieved elsewhere. A recognition that the local church still means something to the community. A recognition that English churches remain an enormously valuable part of our national heritage. For my part, I feel very strongly that if the idea of a community is to mean anything at all, then we must value the churches that are at their centre. Not just because so many are beautiful buildings in themselves, but for what they can still offer, as they used to offer, as havens, shelters, places of protection – places which it doesn’t cost a penny to enter, and in which it won’t cost you a penny to stay all day. We must not be afraid to try and use our churches, open them for believers and non-believers, and even “agnostics with doubts” to enjoy. They are an archive of hopes, dreams, fears, skills, talent and troubles, which should surely be available to as many people as possible. They are a precious expression of our past. And it is the duty of our present generation to deliver them intact for the future.