St. Peter’s, Notting Hill, Kensington Park Road
Clap clap clap to the beat of the drum. Dance and swirl, dance and swirl to the angel. St. Peter’s Notting Hill sells itself as a welcoming venue for the under 3’s – playgroups galore for that young and biddable, adorable audience.
Arriving at Notting Hill tube station one humid August morning, I looked at the useful map of the locality, now commonplace on the wall in London stations. I must have looked perplexed. I was working out a route that would take me down Kensington Park Road, and eventually left towards Holland Park Avenue with the intention of meeting a friend at Paul for lunch. I had some time to kill and wondered if I might write about another church visit. I had not planned to visit St. Peter’s, but there it was, marked on my intended route. A fortunate find for my Shy Churchgoer visit for today. However, my study of the map must have been so intense that not just one, but two tube station men offered me a leaflet entitled ‘continuing your journey from Notting Hill Gate’ containing another useful map, bus routes and even a handy index. It felt churlish not to accept this and after reassuring them twice that I needed no further assistance, I emerged from the gloom onto the road. But there was not a hill in sight. Of of course, that is why this area is called ‘Not-in-hill’. I turned south to walk down the gentle hill of Kensington Park Road, tall houses flanking each side, very few modern fillers and to boot, hardly any traffic, either of person or vehicle. This was of course one of the most desirable residential areas of central London with gated, private garden sanctuaries, mews, churches in garden squares and not a Costa anywhere.
Against the scene of the white tall houses that characterises this area, St. Peter’s is painted orange. This is the design of Thomas Allom, a mid-nineteenth century architect, also known as a topographical illustrator, particularly of places such as Syria and China. The classical looking façade with grand columns and the notice board with the word ‘relevant’ on it bade me in. This church was open and even though lines and lines of push-chairs were parked in the vestibule, I was allowed to enter in to the holy place. I did ask though, as I was slightly nervous of being predatory around so many young children. I could not help thinking how easy it would be to kidnap one, as some were naturally straying from their parents or carers in the church’s large space. I assumed that the word ‘relevant’ applied to the fact that now churches such as this are regularly being used as spaces for all and for all, now, today, and not just on Sundays. The nave chimes in with modern living. And here I witness the rites of passage for the very young taking place in a building that has the rights to do so – and must indeed if it is to stay open and thrive. The other notice-board message that heralds the function of this church is its ‘prayerfulness’. And then I see that there is a gilded, gated chapel that is the sacred space for prayers and messages to pray for various people attached to a notice-board at the entrance. Indeed everywhere I look in this church there is a message or a notice or a warning sign of some description. The words announce that this place is alive and well.
The décor of the church: light and white with that seeming purity only broken by some highly coloured stained glass and some gilded capitals on the columns and on the mosaic in the apse seemed fitting for a church in an area that was built up out of wealth and prestige. The church hails itself as one of the last bastions of Victorian Classicism and how fitting in an area that was no doubt the neighbourhood of many an imperialist figure.
So how markedly different the mood seemed today as I heard (knowing better not to watch) an energetic, determined woman leading ‘The wheels on the bus go round and round’ as little children sat on laps and suffered the song. Very few were joining in, let alone dancing to the beat. There was more clatter at the back of the church, where a kitchen (much smarter than mine at home) showed off its sparkling units to all, as tea and biscuits were being laid out. I saw a young carer coming in with a take-away smoothie. I smiled at another young woman. To the right of the kitchen was a lift which enabled those who could not use the staircase to go up to the balcony where there were many more seats offering a fantastic view of this rather elegant space. I was amused to see the lift’s entrance on the balcony level beside the top of a gilded column which suggested that the balcony was a later addition as most of the column was obscured. Also on this level was another miniature kitchen: the use of space here not determined anymore by idealistic liturgical needs, but that of something altogether more quotidian and ill-defined. The stuff of interior design programming that needed the best solution to work within a limited space and budget. Here in this corner a vignette of the accumulating requirements that all churches today are under-going in order to fit and function with daily life.
The nursery rhymes continue. The piano player is a man, with Simon Rattle like curly, thick grey hair. He has to refrain from temptation, as beside him is a plate of what look like tempting nuggets of soft white joy – something we might associate with Les Liasions Dangereuses rather than in this setting today. He seems to have a change of heart. Suddenly, without any prior warning to the under 3’s, he starts to play Chopin. Perhaps he discerns that his young audience are not as captive as the leader might wish. And who knows, Chopin might just be a better bet.
So as I think about leaving, I reflect on this word ‘relevant’ and reflect on how the church is building itself anew again out of the mouths of babes. By and by they will not be the silent ones. In this area, they will I assume become the vocal ones as their burgeoning status in life will expect. But for now, the only voice is the adult leader, ready now I suspect for one of those tempting sweet-meats.
Outside it starts to rain. I imagine stealing all that gilding on the capitals from the columns and pouring it onto the street to pave the streets. Although I realise that this might not be the best area to pave with gold. And I walk away content that the silky rain is just as promising.
St. Mary’s Church, Houghton-on-the-Hill, Norfolk, New Year’s Day 2016
Houghton on the Hill is not to be visited in a hurry. There is a church at Houghton on the Hill. But hark, where is the hill and where is the church? Or indeed, where is the church on the hill? Do not err and trust in finding the church by seeing it from the bottom of a hill or by the sighting of a tower, square or round (we are, after all in Norfolk) for neither will be found. And neither will the edifice be located if you rely on the instructions that were given to me over the phone by a very friendly gentleman in the days leading up to Christmas. I rang to check that the church would be open on New Year’s Day, as I knew it had disciplined opening hours. I was assured that it would be, as the man I spoke to told me that the gentleman who had ‘discovered’ the church could not keep away. Read on to discover more dear reader. So the time to visit is between the hours of 2-4pm each day. The man on the phone told me just to find the road between North and South Pickenham and then follow the brown signs, those comforting guides when looking for heritage sites. They will be my sign, my light. After all, it is nearing Epiphany. How easy it sounded just to follow the road to the brown stone church.
Well it was a cold, grey, gloomy, uneventful 1st January. The first day of 2016 to be precise. My companion and I decided to drive to the church on our way back from walking in the woods at Sandringham, the Queen’s estate. We needed to warm up, as our bed and breakfast hostess had turned the central heating off and we had interrupted her catching up on missed Christmas television as the first thing she announced upon our arrival on New Year’s Eve was that she was watching the final programme of Downton Abbey. We were cold and a cold coming to Norfolk we had of it. And is the church easy to find? We soon realised it was not. This was not a church close to any road, or even minor road. No, this was a church approached by a muddy track. It is situated in solitude and isolated somewhere in-between, it is true, the two Pickenham villages. I stress the somewhere in-between, for only upon consulting a walking guide to the Peddars’ Way could we find the right road. But the church’s very isolation and the slight difficulty we had in finding it made the visit all the more enchanting. But there was something else that will make the visit unforgettable. This was the gentle- man, Bob, indeed the quintessential gentle-man, who met us there.
Expectations were running high by this point. For this is no ordinary parish church and it is not cared for by any ordinary person. It is not a plague church as I originally speculated, based on its isolated location. For, even though it is now situated on its own, it was once part of a village. But at the beginning of the 20th century a local land-owner decided to destroy the village in order to create more hunting land for himself and I presume a few cronies. How medieval, how Ceausecu I pondered. And so he did. According to Bob, this less than ordinary man, the custodian, curator, restorer, Saviour, promoter, expansionist and fount of all knowledge about the church, the land-owner would have knocked the church down too. But Bob came to the rescue and fought to re-build and save the church. For twenty-three years he has been doing this and what has happened only Bob can tell us. In the 1990s, he overthrew the whip yielding powers and determined whim of one man to save a small medieval church from complete obliteration. And that was before he even knew that layers of plaster packed and embedded down on the walls were some unique examples of Romanesque wall paintings. Bob was neither a medievalist nor a church conservation architect, but through determination, will and a regard for the things that matter, he, almost single-handedly saved this church. For all. For ever. So if you want to hear the story of remarkable church saving from destruction and bureaucratic mine-fields, sniffy locals who objected to his plans, satirical sketches about Bob and the devil and the fight to conquer Christianity and its values in a small, remote field, where his own flowers grow, go and see him any day, between the afternoon hours already mentioned.
You will find Bob waiting for you in his little yellow car. There he sits, long flowing white beard draped over the steering wheel. He sees you arrive and park and after a little while, when perhaps he is certain you have really come to see the church, while gently giving you time to gather yourself, he opens the door of his car and greets – quiet, unassuming. Slightly stooped and with the most celestial sparkly blue eyes, he walks slowly towards the church door, walking stick in one hand, bunch of keys in the other to open the glories of his discovery. No patience is needed, as the steady gait of this man helps one prepare for the surprises within. After every rich and strident anecdote about the church and his unexpected discovery of the wall paintings, with their Throne of Mercy iconography, the devil roundels, the Apostles holding serpents rather than scrolls, the individually characterised faces of the good to go to Heaven, he emits a cheery laugh. We hear too that St. Paul had a girl-friend. I wondered if he wrote letters to her as well as to the Ephesians and the Corinthians. We hear too of Bishop Usher and his dating of the Bible and Pope Innocent II who loathed women, blaming Eve for everything as you might expect. His explanations move from discussion of the wall images to images in his book collection such as the bloody exploits of Judith and Holofernes, exquisitely engraved. My companion says afterwards that he wants to become a scholar of the publishing history of Bibles and prayer books. For Bob will even give you an appetite for printed books and the histories of The Book of Common Prayer which relate to the political wrangling and personal desires of our monarchy from the past. All of this laughter and knowledge is infectious. But other than the chance to smile and laugh and share thoughts with a man passionate about his project, you look and learn – and remember. As he talked and I looked around, I saw that the rustic pews had what looked like home knitted cushions on them. For in many ways, we are in Bob’s home. And at the back, is his own St. Mary’s archival research centre: files of papers, documents and images relating to the church; and books that he uses to consult and educate. Bob will delight, enchant, entertain and enthuse. He even knows how to warm up a laser pointer that he uses to point out images by placing it in his trouser pocket. So tarry a while with Bob and the church and its walls, some of which is painted in cinnabar red imported from medieval China, he says; but which are so need of some more money to maintain and restore. But Bob will and can do it, I am sure.
New Year’s Day. A quiet country lane. Slush, wind-fallen detritus on the muddy way. I choose visiting a remote country church over sale shopping – any day.