Parish Churches of Greater London
by Michael Hodges
Heritage of London, £25
There are many Londons. London of the football stadiums, London of the museums and galleries. Criminal London, gastronomic London, concert hall London, and on it goes. But as Michael Hodge’s book illustrates, there is perhaps no London richer in attraction and variety than London of the churches.
For so much of its history, London was, among other things, a profoundly Christian place. No more, of course, but the architectural residue of the ages of faith remains. Church buildings, if no longer citadels, are still London’s “outposts of belief”.
In stepping forward to be our guide to this vast field, Michael Hodges has surveyed each of London’s 32 boroughs (with the City excluded) and selected 420 churches, all of which are or have been Anglican or Catholic parish churches.
Each church is given a short pen portrait and a clutch of photographs. The text sticks mostly to the factual with a light dusting of the author’s own opinions. The book is meant to whet an appetite which will then be satisfied by visits to the churches themselves.
Hodge’s guide feels like a true labour of love for a man who, in his wry introduction, sketches out his far-from-bitter journey from Anglicanism to Catholicism. He took the photographs himself and has done a splendid job. Indeed, his book is also a tribute to the power of digital photography, something he took up in the knowledge that hiring a professional photographer to help him with this book would have made the project financially impossible.
Hodges deals with the boroughs in alphabetical order, so the book begins on the Broadway in Barking, where St Margaret of Antioch stands on the banks of the River Roding in the former grounds of the Abbey. Captain Cook was married here in 1762. We finish in Westminster at the modernist Notre Dame de France off Leicester Square, merging into the adjacent flats with its relief of Our Lady of Mercy by Georges-Laurent Saupique and paintings by Jean Cocteau.
All kinds of treasures are held up for viewing along the way: Christ Church on Brixton Road, Byzantine Romanesque in style, with its outdoor pulpit, for instance; or St George’s on Bloomsbury Way. The latter is by Hawksmoor. It has a spire based on the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus, crowned by a figure of George I.
Horace Walpole thought it was “a masterpiece of absurdity”. Anthony Trollope was baptised there in 1824. St Peter in Dagenham is the first Catholic church to feature, admired for its return to the original arrangements after a 1980s re-ordering and for its classical baldacchino.
There is no shortage of surprises. Did you know about St Mary of Eton in Hackney? This was founded by the college in 1880 as the church of the Eton Mission. The mission survived until 1967, until as Michael Hodges notes, it was “sadly swept away by the climate of the times”. Meanwhile St Mary, Holly Place, in Hampstead is a tiny church in the centre of a recessed terrace of cottages.
It was built by an émigré French priest in 1816. Graham Greene was married there. General de Gaulle attended Mass at St Mary during the Second World War. Closest to my own neck of the woods in Surrey is St Raphael’s. It was built in the mid-19th century by Charles Parker for Alexander Raphael, an Armenian immigrant who became an MP. The square Italianate campanile dominates its stretch of the Thames. Louis Philippe attended Mass there in his exile after abdicating the French throne in 1848. Samuel Johnson can rest easier. With Michael Hodges as their guide, no one now need be tired of London. Splendid stuff.
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