Church congregations may be dwindling, but Emma Rose Barber has done her fair of calling in at the House of God. From around 4,000 London churches, she’s selected 111 of them to feature in her appropriately-titled book, 111 Churches in London that You Shouldn’t Miss. Here are 14 of those churches which she suggests we pay a visit.
A few years back most of the hospital, which this chapel was built for, was demolished so as to build smart new housing. The chapel has been kept and turned into an arts venue, making it accessible. The space is stunning: colourful, ornate, glistening with gold and many veins of marble, with different surfaces and textures of paint and mosaic on every available surface.
A reference to the frail is found in the stained glass windows designed by the legendary Victorian firm, Clayton and Bell. Other memorials to people who contributed to the hospital over the years include one to Diana Beck (1902-56), a neurosurgeon and the first ‘medical woman on the staff of this hospital’.
The church is a roll call of all that is tactile, sensuous and substantial. Here are just some: at the centre of the church interior is a conical shell-like construction, 36 feet (11 metres) in height to a single roof- light. It is known as the shaft of light, and makes the space accessible to all faiths. Look at the Rona Smith geometric screen, which is also the north window, facing onto the street. The spiralling shapes means you are not looking at the illusion of a window, but a real one, essentially a work of art. And then there are the font, drinking fountain and garden fountain by the Turner Prize nominee Alison Wilding, where smooth materials make perfect receptacles for water.
The stained glass window, made of 1,000 pieces of glass, is all hand-cut. It was designed by Pierre Fourmaintraux (1966). The surface of the glass is chipped, so that when the sunlight appears, a dazzling effect is particularly intense.
When Mary Wollstonecraft first set up a school on this Green in 1784, Stoke Newington was a small country suburb near London. There were tall Georgian houses and trees in the Green and this is where Mary first got involved with dissenting religions. If she looked out of the window of her school, she could see this rather elegant chapel.
Another woman associated with the church and who worshipped here is Anna Laetitia Barbauld (1743-1825) for whom there is a dedication plaque in the church. Her husband, Rochemont Barbauld, was preacher from 1808, but he went mad, and drowned himself in the New River. A plaque inside, “With wit, genius, poetic talent, and a vigorous understanding, she promot(ed) the cause of humanity, peace, and justice, of civil and religious liberty”, suggests a woman of some status at the time.
The west end portal has a wide pointed arch and relief sculptures of the Crucifixion with Mary and John, beside the habitual figures at Crucifixion scenes. They are constructed in extensively carved and grooved drapery, very much in the idiom of Gothic sculpture, and reminiscent of statuary found on the great northern French cathedrals. Below, within the arch, is a statue of the Virgin and Child. Beneath the main sculptural group you will see a sleeping figure, resting his head in his left hand. This is Joseph shown as an old man to make this look like a Nativity scene. In this commonly depicted narrative, he is often shown asleep, having worked as hard as he did to bring his child Jesus into the world.
A unique thing about this church is that Scottish-born architect, Sir Ninian Comper, designed everything himself; he was the true interior designer with vision, as well as being the architect. See the extra ornamentation that previously would not have been allowed: the curtains around the altar, the roof with carved flowers and coloured angels.
Yet when it was first built, the church’s design must have been received negatively by those familiar with the cool and light and white classicising features of 18th-century London churches — those designed by Nicholas Hawksmoor or Sir Christopher Wren for example.
This was once a church, dating back to 1100, but now it is a shell, apart from the tower, which was built by Sir Christopher Wren (1695-1701). This is a fairly remarkable thing, as nearly all of the City churches’ towers were destroyed in the Great Fire (1666). But most of this church was then destroyed in the Blitz during World War II.
Still, it is a very lovely shell, a place to sit, a place to idle in, a place to dream, a place to forget. What remains shows how the consequence of a tragic twist of fate turns into fortune. It is rather like a poetic ruin, redolent of ruined buildings that became so fashionable during the period known as Romanticism in the 19th century, where plants trailing around corners and piers of buildings were a common feature to celebrate the unintentional wonder of broken walls.
The Arts and Crafts Movement (c. 1860-1920) sought to revive manual artistic work and processes that were thought to have been forgotten during what was seen, by some, as the ugly advance of industrialisation. You can see the sort of visual appearance adopted by the movement in this building (dating from 1875). A church to savour with its surface decoration and imagery and nothing left blank or white. Although when the church was first built, it was all white and lasted this way for 20 years.
The interior preserves the work of a unified cohort of craftspeople. Much of the work was paid for by one Lady Adelaide Law. You will see her good taste and a grand ambition for things. The interior has light, and colour, space and height. But there is another reason why you need lots of time to visit, and that is because you will be met by three charming volunteers, all keen to share their love of the church with you. Except for Sunday services, the church opens only on one Saturday a month for visits, so it feels special indeed.
If you wonder what the Brutalist style (c. 1950s-70s) is, this church might just show you. While, when it was first rebuilt in 1958-60, it might have seemed very different from what was there before, its layout harks back to early Christian building styles. At the time, cutting-edge materials were used: a concrete floor, woodwork tiles in the ceiling and bare brickwork.
Charles Lutyens, the great‐nephew of the architect Edwin Lutyens, designed the mosaics that you see on the walls inside (1963-68). The church, probably seen as quite shocking at first, is functional, easy to use and devoid of Victorian trimmings and accessories, which had become the norm for many London churches prior to the war. Now, it seems refreshing and honest.
How can you miss a church close to one of the most beautiful garden suburbs of London? This is the Bedford Park Estate (begun 1876), with the church (begun 1879) situated at its southern edge. There are elegant red-brick houses with white painted gates, and each one is slightly different. To go there is to arouse envy, which may not be a good thing. The exterior of the church, with the contrast of red brick and white joinery mirrors the houses and is all pink and green within, replicating the plant border by the exterior in the church garden.
One striking feature inside is a painting of the Visitation (1922), a well- known image of the Middle Ages and Renaissance periods. This narrates the moment when Elizabeth, the future mother of John the Baptist, who had been barren, celebrates the news of her impending birth with the much younger Mary, the soon-to-be mother of Jesus. As is habitual, the scene shows them embracing. It is fun to work out which is Elizabeth, and which is Mary. The clue lies in the fact that Elizabeth, as an older kinswoman to Mary, usually looks older. Sometimes we see their husbands lurking behind. Not that they had much to do with these conceptions!
The Midland Railway tried to build a tunnel through the churchyard in the 1860s, but this caused havoc with buried bodies and was debated at the House of Commons. Apart from its pretty location and proportions in an unprepossessing area, this church has many interesting historical connections. Joseph Grimaldi, a clown, mar- ried here in 1801. Mary Wollstonecraft, who, pregnant (with Mary Shelley), by William Godwin was married here in 1797, only to be buried herself in the churchyard by the end of the year.
What you see of the church today is largely Victorian; it is delicate and small and with an entrance portal of faux dentilled Romanesque decoration. The church is perhaps one of the earliest Christian sites in London. It was one of the favourites of Elizabeth I and she continued to allow Latin mass here after the Reformation. Indeed, it was throughout history a place of Catholic safety, and many escapees from the French Revolution are buried here.
A church built for 2,000 Italian immigrants in the area known as the Saffron Hill slums. The church dates to 1863, when Italians were working in the vicinity as musicians, organ grinders and artisans. It was built at a time when there was quite a lot of hostility to the Catholic faith.
It might be worth trying to visit the church when the bells are rung. It houses a very large bell indeed and, apart from Big Ben, is thought to be one of the largest bells in London — and presumably one of the loudest?
The church has had a dramatic history. In the entrance loggia is a memorial to some 446 Italians who lost their lives in the SS Arandona Star. This large liner transported Italian and German civilians and a small group of prisoners of war during World War II to Canada. However, on 2 July, 1940 the ship was sunk by a German U-boat, off the north-west coast of the United Kingdom.
This magnificent church built on one of Henry VIII’s hunting grounds, is on the ‘Buildings at Risk Register’; so go before it is too late. Completed in 1933, it is a brutal but striking edifice, with staggeringly good architecture, even though the architect, N. F. (Nugent) Cachemaille-Day (1896-1976) put drainpipes inside the interior pillars, which has caused many a damp problem.
Look at one of the biggest statues that you will see anywhere of Christ holding an orb, while blessing with his other hand, in dense dark stone. What a contrast to the barren brick simplicity of the exterior. The statue’s boldness is sustained in the stained glass behind Christ at the east end. Here are four tall vertical shaped windows (executed by Donald Hastings), slits all in blue: a celestial sky for the church goers.
The church is dedicated to a female saint called Winifrede who was born c. 600ce at Holywell in Wales. Urged by her parents to fear God, her wish to enter the church was not that easy. For Caradoc, the son of a prince, was obsessed with her, and while Winifrede tried to flee, he beheaded her outside church. A well sprang up at the spot where her head had landed. St Beuno discovered the severed head and placed it back with the body, covering it up with his cloak. Miracle of miracles, like Sleeping Beauty, Winifrede awoke and, for his sins, Caradoc was swallowed up by Heavenly forces. Thereafter she became a Holy abbess and built a healing well.
The church’s ancient dedication meets the modern in a stunning painting by London-based artist Kate Wilson. Religious art is alive and well in many London churches, which provide fantastic locations for contemporary artists. In a side chapel, turned baptistry, full of statues, stations of the cross, radiators, pews, candles, a font and a red-brick wall, her horizontal painting rich with deep blue represents the baptismal waters. This is a bold image devoid of the figures you might expect to see: John the Baptist and Christ. While she paints water, at the heart of Baptism, the artist was not imagining the River Jordan, but based her work on studies of water at the River Wandle, a river that flows through Wimbledon and joins the Thames at Wandsworth.
The Swedish Church, known as The Ulrika Eleonora Swedish Parish, beckons with the sign of coffee within. Ulrika Eleonora was the Queen of Sweden from 1718 to 1720, who, at one time, may have become the wife of King George II and was profoundly religious.
Although a buzzer needs to be pressed to enter, this church is open for business and is most hospitable, as witnessed not only by the welcoming sign, but the community centre and the café. You might be greeted with the word Hej, the Swedish for ‘hello.’
Every year the church organises a Christmas market where you can buy Swedish goods: candles, buns and decorations. Originally, the Swedish Church was in Wapping (from 1728); the present church contains furnishings from the original interior.
111 Churches in London that You Shouldn’t Miss by Emma Rose Barber is available to buy, RRP £12.99