St Mary’s Church, Kemp Town, Brighton — gusts, gulls and a modernist window

St Mary’s Brighton looks out on the sea at the end of the street. Today, it is so bright you need to shield your eyes, reflecting the first sun in weeks. It is at the top of a long, sloping arcade of charity shops, craft beer pubs and pastry-scented cafes, outside one of which I see a man sitting, clutching a small dog, staring up the street in dread. Gulls cry, wheeling. 

I barely notice the church as I come up to it, unfortunately obscured on one side by a public toilet, a later Council addition, now bricked up and covered with wheelie bins and posters. Behind towers the Victorian building, the front covered with scaffolding, bright red brick against today’s blue sky. 

The plan was to renovate this side, “to add something new and attractive to make it look appealing,” says Fr Andrew. An entrance foyer, a glass wall to entice people in. But now they are having second thoughts. Given the success of recent restoration works, “we realised, it’s better to restore it to what it was, than add a 21st century carbuncle outside.” They are now considering making it into a community garden. 

Inside, Fr Andrew sits at a table with Gary, the local co-ordinator for vendors of the Big Issue. They hand out five to six hundred a week here, Gary says, charging 25p per issue to the vendors, who sell in several pitches across the city. 

The church is at the centre of a varied neighbourhood. The hall nextdoor serves 50-80 breakfasts to the homeless a day. The church is open all but one day a week, hosting knitting group, English conversation, community drop-in for the elderly whom Brighton College students keep company. They had to change the platform in front of the altar to plywood — a hip-hop dance group paid for the replacement, having damaged the old one. 

They get 50-60 for service on a Sunday, and around 20 for evening prayer. “The church was built for about 1000, I’m unsure if that was ever the case,” Fr Andrew says. 

The church, in a seaside position, suffers badly from weather and wind. “We are so near to the sea, and the building being 141 years old — you’re keeping a constant eye on it, really.” It was built in 1878 by William Emerson, on the site of an earlier chapel in the Greek Revival style built in 1825. Emerson was more famous for his buildings in India, including Mumbai’s Crawford Market and the Victoria Memorial Hall in Calcutta. 

The stonework has required extensive restoration; a few months before my visit, an 80mph gust had come up through a vent and pushed out a stone column. 

Many of the windows have been fully taken out and cleaned. In 1987 a storm blew out the whole of the west window. There’s a new window there, now. “They picked up all the fragments, put them back as best they could. It lets a lot of light in.” The pink and blue colours mirror the design of birds and leaves on the adjacent organ pipes. 

The oldest window in the church shows the Tree of Knowledge, by George William Luxford. I am struck by the abstract glass, fragmented in a strikingly modern design. Letters scattered randomly about read ‘O Sapientia’ – ‘O Wisdom’. “I think that’s a hole, there,” Fr Andrew says, pointing to a patch of bright white. 

Fr Andrew points out to me where parishioners have left their mark: the prayer cushions Iris Henley stitched — “I did her funeral two or three years ago.” He takes me into the vestry, shows me all kinds of objects people have gifted or that came along with the church. The dedicated prayer book, well-thumbed in parts, “you can see they were doing the morning prayer a lot — they didn’t do so well at evening,” he chuckles.
The giant locked safe where they keep the parish registers. There is a handwritten note taped to the inside door, instructing how to stow the precious items inside, by a lady who is now dead. “That’s what’s important about maintaining a church,” Fr Andrew says, putting the parish registers back inside. “If you close it, you’ve lost all that history.”

As we meander back around to the back of the church people are sitting at a table with cups of tea, bickering about something. One man comes in with a shopping bag, sits down and starts reading the paper. “That’s John who rings the bells,” Fr Andrew says, “he’s in his nineties.”

When Fr Andrew came to the church, it was endangered. There was even talk of turning the building into office space. “Sheila,” he indicates the lady making us a cup of tea, “was the first person I met. I had bought a flat in Brighton as a bolt hole. A friend of mine was staying and wanted to go to St Barts, another church nearby. I said, shall we go in to that one across the road?”

“I remember the heavy velvet curtain, and Sheila saying to me, ‘how are you dear?’ She was quite savvy, she sussed me out first thing.” Soon, he was the parish priest. “I’ve come and never left,” he laughs. 

As I leave, people are drinking tea and chatting by the tables. Gary engages me in conversation about a photography course he did as part of the Big Issue, he advises me, “I wouldn’t use flash  here if I were you.”

A woman and a man come in. The man beckons Fr Andrew and says, “she wants to speak to a priest.” I give them some privacy as they sit on the stone bench by the font and talk in hushed voices. 

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