I am invited into St Peter’s with a group of local kids, who are filming the renovation for posterity. “Remember,” one of their leaders, Mark, says, “we watched those films from the 1920s. In 50, 70, 100 years — people could be watching your films.”
“That’s creepy!” one of them shouts.
We pick our way through the mud to get to the church. Set in the southern tip of Epping Forest, the church’s graveyard is romantically overgrown with ivy and wildflowers in a way rarely seen except in countryside.
An early Victorian brick building, built as a chapel of ease to cater to the exploding population, the church’s Romanesque design recalls less Walthamstow than Venice. It was designed by John Shaw, son of the more famous architect of the same name. The pair were famous for, among other things, pioneering the use of semi-detached housing.
When we get inside, it is divided with scaffolding and vast sheets of polythene. The kids zoom about with handheld cameras whilst I chat with Peter, the project manager. “It all looks a bit dramatic because of building works,” he says.
“It smells of woodchip,” says one of the kids. On either side of the east window are wall paintings, also covered with polythene, depicting the last supper and Jesus with the apostles.
The walls of the church are moving; if nothing was done, it would have fallen down. As is often the case, a later extension is pulling down the rest of the building.
The plan is to divide the church in two and add a new upper level with lift and stairs. This will allow space for an activity room, kitchen and cafe, which will generate a sustainable income for the future of the church.
It has already been through several remodellings. Light filters through the tall north windows, peppered with small patches of stained-glass colour. This wall was rebuilt after a 1945 hit by a V2 rocket, work which wasn’t completed till eight years later. In 1975 the organ caught fire and the remaining fixtures and fittings had to be replaced.
What’s unique about the church, explains Peter, is its setting. “You don’t often get churches in places like Epping Forest.” This opens up opportunities for environmental activities. Funding is now attached to outcomes for people, not just building restoration.
“The graveyard is unique.” It’s full now, but soon volunteers will prune the undergrowth to make the earth more suitable for the wild flora and fauna that are spreading in from the wood. Already clumps of snowdrops and crocuses are nodding their heads among the grass.
There will be a patio area, with a fire pit for activities — fires are banned in Epping Forest, which is owned by the City of London, still regulated with ‘by hook or by crook’ and other ancient rules.
You can walk through trees all the way from here to Epping. Dog walkers are constantly passing, he says: many say they would like to stop and have coffee, something the new cafe will allow. They hope that here, conversations will start that could help combat loneliness.
This area — Wood Street — used to be the home of the silent film industry, so plans include hosting amateur film groups, film production lessons and a film watching club. A second strand is theatre — the kids group I’m with today use Peterhouse, the Parish centre, a short walk away. Community groups are constantly looking for cheap performance space.
“You don’t often get the opportunity to refocus the church — what it does in the community. The church has a mission to help the community, whether they are religious or not,” Peter says. Target groups are lone parents, the elderly and the disadvantaged.
I ask him what views in the congregation have been. “With any project of this size you get the supporters (who are few and far between), the haters who are a small group, and the majority in the middle that you need to bring on board,” he says.
The thing that galvanised action was a survey last April that said unless works happened urgently the church would need to close down. “Families have been born here, christened here, married here,” he says.
“You have to have the ability to sacrifice some of your religiousness,” Peter says, to survive. The costs of renovation are too much for the congregation alone. He recounts a discussion about whether theatre groups should be allowed to swear in the church. Eventually, doubters were won over. “Lots of people are religious but they’re not churchgoers. The devout churchgoers are few and far between.”
In the chancel, he shows me a mosaic that they have uncovered. Part of a WW1 memorial, it had been thought lost. It will now be relaid in the floor before the altar.
The organ has gone to the church of Morris Merrell, the man who built it.
As I am leaving, one of the workmen calls me back in. He shows me a large timber beam, lying on the ground in the mud. One end is burnt charcoal-black. He explains how, when they dismantled the balcony, they found it had been burnt — beneath the stairs, in a fire of which there was no record, and which no one could recall.