St-Peter-in-the-forest, Walthamstow — ancient forest and the birthplace of silent films

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. 

St Mary’s Ashwell — a thousand voices crying down the centuries

“Are you Robert?” I say as I come in. 

“Robert? Robert’s gone, hasn’t he,” he says, addressing two women over my shoulder. I look around in confusion. “I’m only joking,” he says then, “I’m Robert.”

So I meet the Reverend of St Mary’s. It’s a big church, made for a large village in the 14th century, in connection with the local abbey. “It was meant for greater things — this was going to be the local market town, a role instead taken by Baldock.”

The church is made from ‘clunch’ stone, which is unusually soft. The main problem is the tower, which is cordoned off behind a sign that warns of falling masonry. It was rendered in concrete 100 years ago, Robert explains, “they used to think it protected mediaeval buildings”. 

Its spire was added in 1415, after Agincourt, to celebrate Henry V’s great victory. “It will not fall down tomorrow, but it has to be fenced off — and it will not get better.”

They are applying for four million pounds from the Lottery. “It would be impossible for a little village like this to raise it from coffee mornings in a century.”

Robert came here as vicar in 2015, although he grew up locally. “My mum still lives in Baldock,” he says, “that was a factor.”

“Ashwell is a very vibrant community,” he says, flicking me through a list of upcoming events in church, inculding the annual music festival. They still have a railway station; a lot of people commute to London. There is a primary school, a butcher and a baker, and three pubs. There are two services most Sundays, total attendance being about 100, which on high days and holidays can go up to 600. They have choir, flower group, Mother’s Union. 

In the corner there is a charity table; a plastic box for food bank donations. Food poverty isn’t a problem in this community. “The collection gets taken to Letchworth,” he says. 

The chancel, bare from the Reformation and white in the winter sun, was recently restored. “Most churches pre-Reformation would have had wall paintings,” Robert says. I can trace the remnants of dark twisting paint on the base of some of the columns. There are fragments of recovered mediaeval stained glass in the upper windows. 

Over the altar hangs a figure of the Risen Christ by John Mills, a sculptor who lives locally. Christ hovers as if borne up on a current, palms upturned, before the outline of the cross. 

In the Lady Chapel is the work of another famous artist, Percy Sheldrick: William Morris’s carpet weaver, whose work is also in Westminster Abbey. He embroidered an altarpiece in memory of his mother who had lived locally. His nephew still lives in the village. The Queen Mother was a fan — she came to see his work on a private visit. 

But this church’s most famous works of art are informal: the graffiti scratched into the yielding walls. A scrawled runic sentence in the tower commemorates the Black Death of 1349. 

“There was a plague

1000 three times 100, five times 10 a pitiable fierce violent (plague departed)

A wretched populace survives to witness

And in the end a mighty wind Maurus, thunders in this year of the world 1361”

The storm on St Maur’s Day 1361 was so strong it blew down the spire of Norwich Cathedral; it was thought to have extinguished any remains of pestilence in the air. 

Further evidence of the plague exists in the form of a suspected plague pit, now guarded by three fat yew trees, next to the churchyard wall. 

Below this is a sketch of Old St Paul’s Cathedral, surprisingly accurate, which must have been made between 1360 — when Ashwell tower was built — and 1561 when the spire of Old St Paul’s fell down. Mediaeval drawings of this accuracy are rare, even in manuscript. 

There is a sweet smell of cleaning fluid from the ladies dusting with multicoloured wands. After Robert has left, one of them directs me to look at the columns. “Have you seen the graffiti over here?” she says. “I think they did it for when they were inside, for the Black Death.” There are mysterious roundels, possibly mass dials, and outlines of other buildings — churches and castles. 

On one column are scratched many names and dates, name over name, grinding deeper the ancient paint, fingers scratching in desperation, a great cloud of spirits, a thousand voices crying down the centuries.

St James Leckhampstead — “If it’s the Lord’s will, you can do it”

When I enter the church I see a man in overalls, on the phone, lying on the floor in the aisle between the pews. He raises his head as I enter. “Oh, is that you?” he says. He finishes the call and stands up, dusting himself off to shake my hand. “I’m Ian.” He has a bottle of water and a banana in his hand; a prayer cushion is on the floor where he has been napping.

Ian has been the churchwarden here for twenty-five years. His father was churchwarden before him and his great-grandfather before that. Between them, they have nearly 100 years combined of service.

Ian shows me the font, from 1100, early English. It was brought from Upper Chapel Farm, the village church before this one — dated 956, as was the bell, which is the earliest non-recast bell in the country — dated 1347. He peers at a typed note, framed on the wall, which affirms this. “Well, it must be true,” he says, “because my mother wrote it.”

The present church was built by Revd Robinson of nearby Chieveley in 1860. It was designed by Samuel Sanders Teulon, noted for his use of polychrome brickwork.

Michelle, the second churchwarden, arrives, breezing in on a gust of the same energy that helped raise £200,000 to fix the roof from a village of 300 people in just 18 months.

“A lot of things went right,” she says.

“The Lord was really helping us out,” Ian agrees.

“I had my neighbour making jam,” Michelle says, “she raised £200.” A National Churches Trust grant helped them meet their target. 

The roof leaks and tiles fly off on this windy upland part of the Downs. “We sold tiles to parishioners for £5 each,” Michelle says, pointing to a stack on the floor, inscribed with names of the departed: PC Andrew Harper, killed last summer in the line of duty, four weeks after his wedding, and ‘All Fallen Firefighters.’ 

The roof renovation will start when the spring weather comes round and finish in August, with a break in between to accommodate a wedding. The interior will get spruced up, the interior roof sealed with white plaster to bring out the woodwork.

Then, they will embark on the third and most important phase. “Doing the roof doesn’t contribute to a sense of community at all, but putting in a kitchen and toilets will,” Ian says. 

“People have said, ‘it’s the warmest church to come to socially, but the coldest in temperature’,” Michelle laughs. Plans include underfloor heating, movable pews, a creche and a meeting room. The designs show a glass gallery in front of the west window that will still let in the light: “I hate the look of two boxes at the back of the church, like was done in the 70s,” says Michelle. 

This will finally mean Marianne, Ian’s wife, won’t have to bring all of the cups and the tea urn on a Sunday. 

The aim is to attract a different audience. A concert last January drew people from Wantage and Swindon. “There is no other building in the community that can do such things.” There’s a Christmas party every year, where people come who wouldn’t normally show up on a Sunday. “That’s the point,” Ian says, “it’s got to be more open.”


“There are a lot of ladies who have lost husbands, who live here alone in a rural community, young mums — and you do feel very alone here,” Michelle says. 

The challenge for the next phase of the campaign will be fundraising. “We can’t go back to all our supporters asking for money again,” Michelle says. So they are instead going to organise a funfair on the 4th of July, one ‘big bang’ event to raise the majority of what they need. “I’m a firm believer that if you don’t give something a go, you’ll never know,” she says. 

“If you go about it, there is a lot the Lord can supply to you. If it’s the Lord’s will, you can do it,” Ian agrees. 

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. 

St Peter’s Church, Gayhurst Court, Gayhurst, Bucks: cracking the codes — of WWII, and a mystery statue

Birds are singing at the top of the road leading to Gayhurst Court. The sun shines through a milky haze; there is a gatehouse made of honey stone and a freshly red-painted letterbox. The Georgian church and Gayhurst House appear from the undulating country, rumpled like a sheet, punctuated by stands of bare ash trees.

“I’m actually Catholic,” Christine tells me. I am sitting in her kitchen inside the converted coach house, looking out at the church across the drive. She is secretary of the PCC as well as for the company in which all of those who live at Gayhurst Court are shareholders. She and her husband have lived here for fifteen years. 

“But we just feel we should support [the church]. It’s a focus for community.” It is the only public building in the village. “It’s a hamlet, but there’s nothing else.”

The tower, with its unusual cupola, needs urgent works. The parish — of only nine people — has tried desperately to raise money, but two lottery bids have failed and three years of fundraising have yielded just £28,000 — about a third of what’s needed. They’ve hosted receptions and cream teas, Christine has auctioned off stays in her second home in France; they’ve sent out a picture of the church with barbed wire around it. “We didn’t actually say — you might want to be buried there, but you might want it at certain times in your life.”

Perhaps at the expense of the surrounding villages, The nearby town of Milton Keynes continues to grow. There was a proposal to build a ‘garden village’ in Gayhurst. “It will happen eventually,” says Christine, “not in my lifetime.” She opposed it, because she didn’t feel they would provide the infrastructure (sewage, roads, schools, GP surgeries) to support the thousands of new homes. Yet in surrounding villages, shops, pubs and schools are closing. Christine sees the church as merely another victim of this trend.

“To be worth saving, you have to have something specific,” Christine says, reflecting on the unsuccessful Lottery bids. “But I think we do.” She means the fine marble statue of Nathan Wrighte and his son George, which — resplendent in the nave — is unsigned. The Wrighte family, who bought the estate in 1704, built the current church in 1730, over the site of a much older mediaeval building. The sculpture was originally thought to be the work of Roubilliac, a prominent 18th century artist, but it now seems this is not correct. Legend has it that George died before paying for the work, lumping his son — also George — with the bill, who refused to inscribe the statue. 

Going back earlier, the house was home to Everard Digby, implicated in the Gunpowder Plot. His son, Kenelm, was a prominent Royalist during the Civil War and, among other claims to fame, invented the modern wine bottle. 

The heritage can prove an attraction; a centenary Remembrance service attracted around a hundred people. They invited the descendants of men listed on the memorial and the Wrens who were stationed during the Second World War, when Gayhurst was requisitioned as an outpost of Bletchley Park. It was the Wrens who hooked up the power in the church.

There is a tapestry framed in the church; a piece of fabric they sewed their signatures on. Christine describes one of the women who came back. “She never married. Bit of a battleaxe, frankly. They lived in Nissen huts around the house; the only time she was allowed in was to hear that her fiancé had been killed in action.”

The church is in a typical Palladian revival style: a boxy shape with high rounded windows that let in the light, articulated inside and out with Corinthian and Ionic pilasters. Inside, painted coats of arms hang; one of them captioned with the motto ‘Resurgam’. Christine theorises these are older than the church. There is an unusual altarpiece; a triple panel painted in black and gold, bearing the Nicene Creed, the Ten Commandments and the Lord’s prayer. Inlaid above in wood is a Masonic triangle, inscribed with the Hebrew legend YHWH. 


Christine points out to me the memorial plaque to William Carlile — “ the first MP to drive a motor car,” — and the last owner-occupier of the house. His second wife, Elizabeth, is commemorated with a small plaque in the chancel; she died in 1995. “People round here used to know her,” says Christine, “she used to put on airs.”

She recounts meeting a woman who was once a maid in the house, who told of how Blanche, the first wife, “would order up fresh flowers from London — they came all the way up in a carriage.”

Outside, Christine points out the ornamental stone posts in the garden. “All of these used to have obelisks on top, but the USAF shot them off during the war for target practice. We looked into restoring them, but it’s too much money.” They have to prioritise. It took £30,000 to refurbish the roof of the house alone. The fate of the church is still uncertain.

Church of the Holy Cross, Camden, WC1: Pearls, Pacific islanders, prostitutes — and the Moon

When Fr Chris Cawrse came to Holy Cross 13 years ago, King’s Cross was seen as ‘a dark place’. Its image was of “dead land, full of old sheds and warehouses. The sort of place where, if there was a murder, you’d find the body.”

Renewed interest of developers north of the Euston Road have burnished the area’s image. There is still council housing up and down Cromer St. Opposite Holy Cross is a laundrette with a decades-old sign depicting the waves of the sea, ‘Casa Tua’, offering ‘Italian wine and gastronomy’, and a studio for yoga and osteopathy. 

Fr Chris points out where the carvings in the war memorials have worn away; soft yellow stone weathered by acid rain. In the corner of the church, by a closed door, is a favourite spot for rough sleepers. St Mungo’s, the homeless charity, runs a residence nearby. 

There has been a resurgence in church membership, which, Fr Chris concedes, “seems a miracle from this odd setting.” The members represent 15 nationalities; Sunday attendance is 50, including many travellers staying in hotels nearby. “It’s refreshing,” he says, “every Sunday there’s a subtle change in the energy.”

As we are talking, a lady named Paula comes in and makes us a cup of tea from a kettle plugged into the floor. The steam rises like incense; air from the heating vents shimmering. There are fresh flowers next to the icons, which are brightly painted, with satin garments and bejewelled crowns. 


The building itself is Victorian, its weathered brick blending unobtrusively with the high residential blocks and trees of the surrounding street. It was built in 1888 in memory of James Goodenough, who was fatally shot with a poisoned arrow by the inhabitants of the South Pacific island Santa Cruz, where he had landed aboard his ship HMS Pearl. 

In the 1980s Camden Council built a community garden adjacent to the church, attaching a mural-covered wall to the eastern end of the building. It’s this wall, poorly founded, that’s now collapsing: pulling away the side of the building. Fr Chris shows me through a side room filled with articles of devotion: a container with burnt ends of incense, palm fronds stacked in a corner, a pair of forceps on a tray.

We continue to the vestry, which is painted a postbox red and smells faintly of candle wax and cloves; there is an ancient TV on a stand and an ecclesiastical calendar open on the desk. Long cracks are visible in the walls and floor; a stained glass window had to be removed for safekeeping. 

Jonathan, the church architect, happens to come in whilst we are talking. They are planning a full refurbishment after 130 years; connecting the crypt below with the main church in the manner of St Martin-in-the-fields. This will allow festivals and events; performances of words and music. Nevertheless, it is important that, in between, the church returns to the calm that “envelops and settles you.” 

The crypt is already busy with construction: it’s been rented to a drama school for disadvantaged students, which will finally give the commercial income needed to refurbish as well as fix the subsidence issues in the vestry. But Fr Chris is keen that work on the building doesn’t drain energy. “We don’t want to become bogged down in maintenance, and lose focus on the mission.”

They want to be, “a church turned inside out,” offering the spiritual energy that comes from worship back out to the community. On Saturday they will have one a series of meetings with local people, discovering their wants and needs. “People normally inhabit commercial buildings, like Starbucks —  not buildings designed for contemplation.” 

Still, the Christian faith, for some, can prove a barrier. A large portion of parish residents are Muslim. In autumn 2019, the church welcomed the artwork Museum of the Moon: a seven-metre-diameter scale model of the moon, by artist Luke Jerram. Fr Chris describes how two Muslim women who had lived in the area for 40 years had come to the church for the first time to see it. 

“The moon proved that people will come that wouldn’t normally.” He speaks about depression and loneliness in the modern age, how the congregation has welcomed some agnostics. “Everyone is looking for a path to inner fulfilment.”

The church has long been a place of sanctuary. They made national news in the 1980s when the English Collective of Prostitutes took up residence for two weeks in protest at police violence and harassment. “The church managed to say that their lives really matter, and they couldn’t stay — but then they came back, because they had made friends.” He pauses. “There isn’t a year that goes by when someone doesn’t tell me that story.”

“It takes some effort to keep buildings emphatically as churches,” Fr Chris says, speaking of their future plans. There is a meeting space downstairs for breakfast clubs and an African Women’s Group; plans for a dementia cafe. But they are wary of becoming simply a venue. “We do not want it to become a bland place.”

Later, when I am leaving, Fr Chris has gone to a chapel to take small-group prayer; a string quartet are setting up for rehearsal; people are coming and going, whispering and laughing. A large Christ on the cross hangs from the ceiling, flanked by the two Marys. The lighting casts a cruciform shadow. There is a sound of drilling from the street. Outside, they are digging up the road opposite a halal grocer’s to install fibre-optic broadband. No-one notices me leave. 




Newington Green Meeting House, Hackney N16: a ‘non-religious’ church reviving the Dissenters’ legacy

The Newington Green Meeting House is a non-religious church. At least, this is how members of New Unity, to whom the Meeting House is home, put it. “It’s based around the idea that humans will make the world a better and kinder place, rather than God,” says Nick, the communications manager. 

The little box-like building, now with a fresh coat of paint, perches at the edge of a drizzly Newington Green. With its arched windows on either side, it almost looks as if it is smiling. After the English Civil War, dissenters against the established Church gathered here. They created an Academy for those non-Anglicans who were barred from Oxford and Cambridge. The Meeting House followed, built in 1708.

They sum up their message as ‘Believe in Good’. Including atheists, agnostics and people of all faiths, it is a movement originally born out of liberal Protestantism: of the desire to question scripture and use reason to approach matters of belief. They reject the notion of a world controlled by supernatural forces, but retain many Christian ideas, such as the power of love.

Through the bare trees, Nick points out to me the home of its most famous vicar: Rev Richard Price. It was here — in London’s oldest brick terrace, dating to 1658 — and in the church, that Price hosted Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine; the philosophers David Hume and Adam Smith; and the Prime Minister, William Pitt. Mary Wollstonecraft was also a devotee. 

Terry, the site manager, is finishing his cigarette and coffee from La Belle Epoque Patisserie. His firm specialises in heritage work: they have done jobs on St Mary’s Church on Upper Street, Charterhouse School and Westminster Abbey. He has agreed to take time out of the hectic final four weeks. 

“This hasn’t been the easiest job,” he says. The restoration — sponsored by the National Lottery Heritage Fund —  is based on reviving that dissenting legacy. This has involved, among other things, burrowing under the Victorian Sunday school to create a basement complete with yoga studio, toilets and a ‘wet room’. “We had to make sure the building didn’t tip.” 

They have taken meticulous care over the original features, replacing cracked bricks with reclaimed London Yellow Stock. In ‘the crush’, a small area formerly used for post-worship tea and coffee, they have shored up an original black iron fireplace. This corridor no longer deserves its name: it’s been widened for access to the large new kitchen and social area which will now host socialising on a Sunday. 

The main room is a festival of builder’s tools stacked among the box pews, one of which has been refashioned as a tea stand. Carly Rae Jepsen jingles from the radio. Nick points to the other side of the room: Mary Wollstonecraft’s pew. Terry shows us the new ramps on either side of the stage, the floral-and-leaf detailing in the oval skylight, repainted in green and blue, and the new plasterwork on the walls where damp had crept in. “Look at these beautiful hinges,” he says, pointing out the bullet-like knob on one of the pews. He can’t find equivalents to replace them. 

Up on the balcony, we get a look at the new wooden booth that will house audiovisual equipment and a mixing desk. Nick explains how a British priest came to collect the historic organ for a church in Burgundy. “He dismantled it pipe by pipe.” New Unity are accustomed to professional musicians — mostly piano or guitar — at their gatherings. “Someone else needed it more and we needed the space.”

The congregation want to showcase this history. “We were conscious not to turn it into a museum,” says Nick. Still, the Meeting House will be open most of the time, with someone on reception. The entranceway, immediately inside the front door, will be refashioned in bronze, glass and gold. “It was very dark before, not very welcoming,” Terry says. 

Back out on the Green, we chat about the Dissenters’ legacy. Much of the building will soon be completely accessible to the disabled. They hope to open the space up for use by school groups, historians, the local Turkish — and other minority — communities.  “We don’t know who will be the next Mary Wollstonecraft today,” Nick says. “Maybe we can plant seeds in peoples’ minds.”


St Andrew’s, Leytonstone, E11: Faith, Hope and Charity

You can see St Andrew’s Leytonstone from the bridge over the A12. Past a shopping park with a giant Tesco and a McDonald’s; cars lined up at the lights like rugby players at the start of a game. Onto a delicate footbridge, blue-and-red painted, where six lanes of traffic thunder out to Essex from Canary Wharf. In one direction, the tall buildings of the City: the Shard, the cluster of sentries just east of Bank and St Paul’s. Across the bridge, ahead: a long terraced street built on London clay, terracotta brick; the flèche of St Andrew’s just visible above a line of skeletal trees.

The building itself is a solid mass, fashioned of a strange flinty stone that piles up: pebblelike, almost transparent, capped in by honey-coloured corners. It was completed in 1893 by Arthur Bloomfield, a famous church architect of the time: commissioned by the Cotton family in memory of their father, William, a great philanthropist, who had owned the land. Outside the door are signboards, professionally printed, in red, blue and orange, advertising baptisms, a fairtrade stall, Bistro Night. Multicoloured banners proclaiming the church ‘open’ flutter in the breeze. 

I find Fr Paul next to a portable heater throwing out warmth. I remove my coat as he offers me a cup of tea, which he makes in a kettle plugged into the wall. There is a kitchen next-door, but “we’re not allowed to use it because the nursery’s been”. I sit down at a table with a pink and green checked cloth. Fr Paul removes a paper slip requesting 50p for tea. 

He came to the church three years ago, after it had spent decades under threat of closure. It still adheres to an Anglo-Catholic tradition. “The liturgy is beautiful, but it’s like a small amateur theatre putting on Twelfth Night. And the theatre down the road does Puss in Boots, better.”

Besides, the ground beneath us is moving. The choir vestry is pulling away the north wall: he shows me the cracks, breaking the plaster like a lightning fork. You can trace them all the way down the middle of the nave: the floor is twisting. “If we do nothing, first it will be declared unsafe,” he says. Then it will fall down. 

Preventing this will cost close to a million pounds. They are applying for a Heritage Lottery grant. But the real question, for Fr Paul, is ‘why?’ The hall — the half of the church screened off by wooden partition wall — is used all the time: for senior citizens’ groups, art classes, surgeries with local councillors. They’re opening it up in the evenings now for use as a study space, a quiet place for teenagers to come and do homework with tea and toast. Through the half-open door I glimpse retirees sitting on chairs, eyes closed, hands hanging with thumb and forefingers together for ‘armchair yoga’. Gentle music plays as the woman at the front speaks soothingly.

But the part nextdoor — “the spiritual part” — is too often locked, unloved. “It’s a very visual symbol of the church being divided.” There are stained glass windows that continue into the hall. Made by the Arts and Crafts artist Margaret Chilton, they are some of the 20th century’s most important. Vivid with tiny gemlike panes, Impressionist lines frame Pre-Raphaelite faces. She did the first one in 1917, and then offered another “whenever there was a lull in business.” As a result, the collection is unique — spanning her whole career. 

The task — as he puts it — is to unite these two sides. “How can we get people to say — ‘this is my church’ — even if they don’t come on a Sunday?” Part of this is learning to share — not being overly protective. After all, “nobody can do anything as bad as those cracks”. 

So, an experiment in opening up the church is in its second week. They are starting with Mondays — and hopefully soon it will be Tuesdays, and Wednesdays as well. Fr Paul describes receiving a message from someone locally whose partner had died — young. She had asked, “when is the church open so I can just sit and be still?” 

“I had to say, “never.””

He remembered a fundraising workshop where one of the leaders said: “you have to stop saying, ‘this is our problem, can you help us?’ and start asking: ‘how can we help people with their problem?’”

He points to the three windows next to the door, that depict Faith, Hope and Charity. “The problem is that people have lost these.” The building might be at risk, but “this is what we stand for.” So, in 2020, “the building might be falling around us, but we will start anyway — we will be that centre of faith, hope and charity.”

“I’m hopeful,” he says. People are happy, the congregation is diverse and growing, finances are good. They plan to move the statue of the Virgin and Child — a piece in minimalist marble, after Eric Gill — closer to the door. “To say — ‘this is the God bit’,” explains Fr Paul.