Friendless Churches and Faithless Futures – Steeple Chasing by Peter Ross

One boon of the lockdowns, as we sought solace beyond our isolation, was stumbling upon digital escape routes for which we felt a kinship. Mine were strangely consoling. Among the social media tumult of misinformation and malice what a relief each day to receive via Twitter an Eric Ravilious artwork (@Ravilious1942) or a snatch of Seamus Heaney verse (@HeaneyDaily)? Best of all was my discovery of the Friends of Friendless Churches. I was not alone – there were 46,000 followers of @friendschurches helping spread the word about a tiny 65-year-old charity ‘caring for 60 redundant but beautiful places of worship in England and Wales.’

I also follow @BatsinChurches. This project tailors the interests of our 18 native species to the delicate structures they choose to inhabit. Both these niche organisations – the first mostly privately resourced, the second a Heritage Fund recipient, each a labour of love – get their moment in the spotlight in Peter Ross’s vivid trawl across the ecclesiastical edifices of our island, Steeple Chasing (Headline, £22, published May 11).

Appropriately enough, Friendless Churches is the focus of the chapter titled Dust. The author meets its director, Rachel Morley an Irish woman in her thirties, on site on a bend of the River Monnow just across the Welsh Border. St James Llangua is nearing the end of its working life. It’s not in a good state. Can they afford to rescue it it? It will take £300,000 to fix the roof and make it safe. That’s half of the Friends’ annual income. 

Further chapters are entitled Steel, Fire, Stone, Bone, Fen, Light etc in this award-winning Scottish feature writer’s neo-WG Sebaldian quest for meaning among the steeples and bell towers. Elegiac, yes but more… The melancholy element is inevitable, if not as pervasive as in its predecessor, A Tomb With A View: The Stories and Glories of Graveyards (Headline, £20).

That came out in 2020. This suggests a publisher cashing in with a quickfire follow-up. Far from the case. Steeple Chasing is given an extra dimension by the intervening pandemic. The quirky stories are still there, as is Ross’s wry charm, but essentially this is a book about people caring deeply. About the fabric of churches and the fabric of community. It has become a state of the nation book. While focusing on structured religion in decline.

The dressing-up box meets secret anointment excesses of this weekend’s Coronation (of the ‘Defender of the Faith’) made me wish for a simpler communion with history. Alone in a Norman church, perhaps, among fields. Such architectural survivors, of course, feature in Simon Jenkins’ comprehensive England’s Thousand Best Churches, which offers a star rating for each. This can easily become a tourist ticker exercise. I say this as a man already compiling a Steeple Chasing bucket list. On it for starters are two slightly spooky churches – Holy Trinity at Stow Bardolph in Norfolk and St Peter’s and St Paul’s at Chaldon in Surrey.

The former is host to a life-size wax effigy of one Sarah Hare, a member of the local gentry who died aged 55 on April 9, 1744 ‘after poisoning her blood with the prick of a needle’. It was her wish to be memorialised this way; the body itself is buried beneath the church floor. The face is “plump and over-ripe, ingrained dirt gives the impression it is veined like cheese, The eyes are blue. Dark curls fall across the forehead. The effigy has grown grubby and worn. The neck and décolletage are filthier than the face and the hands are filthiest of all. Her left index finger is coming away at the knuckle, “ writes Ross.

He compares the experience to Dorian Gray, Miss Havisham or the end of Don’t Look Now. “It would be the most natural thing in the world, the most dreadful thing in the world, if she smiled.” After which he takes tea with her descendant, Lady Rose Hare, who is rather fond of Sarah. The only other funeral effigies in the UK are in Westminster Abbey. Surely some Royal hangers-on were auditioning for the part last Saturday.

Grand Guignol in pictorial form at the Chaldon church, tucked in a fold of the North Downs. Dating back to 1170, ’The Ladder of Salvation of the Human Soul and the Road to Heaven’ is a 17ft by 6ft red mural depicting purgatorial torment. Demons stir a cauldron full of murderers, a hell hound chews a woman’s arm, devils press forks to the head of a money-lender until white-hot coins spill from his mouth. How precious to find such a masterpiece still in situ rather than transported to a museum.

As so often in the book, Ross’s empathy comes to the fore. Acknowledging it is intellectually quite complex, offering new ideas about the afterlife, he writes that “the total  effect is visceral. It must have been a fearful experience for medieval churchgoers to stand facing the altar with this horror show behind them. I bet they smelled the sulphur. I bet they felt the heat on the back of their necks.” 

Linking it tenuously to Picasso’s Guernica, Ross concludes: “it seems both ancient and queer and radical and modernist”. That could apply to Stanley Spencer. In the same chapter, Paint, Ross takes in his vast religious war painting, Resurrection of the Soldiers, at Sandham Memorial Chapel at Burghclere, Hampshire. I love these (sic) leaps of faith throughout Steeple Chasing.

The book ranges far beyond country churches. Sheela-na-gigs and other ruderies, wooden angels among Norfolk rafters, Glastonbury’s sacred springs, the abandoned brutalist seminary of St Peter’s outside Dumbarton. The mighty centres of Christendom are also tackled – Lindisfarne, Durham Cathedral, St Paul’s. With the latter, in the Fire chapter, his fascinating tangent features the air wardens who stood sentinel over it during World War II, when miraculously it survived. My favourite London contribution, though, is in the next chapter Cats. Worth buying the book just for this account of a feral Borough Market ratter enlisted to serve in the same capacity at adjacent Southwark Cathedral. Christened Doorkins Magnificat, she patrolled the grounds by night and found favourite spots inside to snooze during the day. This famous feline even met The Queen on one royal visit. 

Alas, Doorkins’ eventual end was hastened by being caught up in the 2017 Islamist terror attack on London Bridge with its fleeing crowds, sirens and flashing lights. After the Cathedral doors were blown open in a controlled explosion, she was never the same cat again. No spoilers. Buy this fabulous book to find out what happens to Magnificat.

A YouTube postscript

Each time I finish reading a Peter Ross book there’s a pattern developing. I Google a film. In the case of A Tomb With A View it was One Million Dollars, Anife Kellehers’s documentary about Dublin’s Glasnevin cemetery that’s also an elegy for its legendary tour guide, Shane MacThomais (who committed suicide aged 44, though that’s not mentioned in the film). It’s a remarkable watch.

In Steeple Chasing John Betjeman’s A Passion for Churches gets a mention in relation to Norfolk’s rich holy building heritage. The BBC screened it in  1974 and it’s still available grainily on YouTube. Watch it and be amazed at how 50 years has transformed Britain (an absurd lapse into medieval kingship ritual aside). Did people really look like that? Was it all so grey? It out-Larkins Larkin, a vastly superior poet to Betjeman (witness Church Going or An Arundel Tomb). And yes, at least in the country parishes, we were still clinging on to being a church-going nation.