Richard Taylor’s Top 10 Churches, from Churches: How to Read Them
1. St John the Baptist, Willingham: This tiny church sums up what is so exciting about visiting churches in Britain. In one corner there is a 1200-year-old Anglo-Saxon sculpture; on a wall are medieval wall paintings; from the Reformation there are painted words from the English Bible; it has a pulpit straight out of Jane Austin, and a roof that the Victorians erected. Over a thousand years of history, all waiting there for anyone who might be taking a walk in the countryside, pass the door, and fancy a little poke around.
2. Kilpeck: The church is built on a site of a pagan holy spring, which bubbles up directly beneath the altar before dividing into four streams. Above the altar is an ancient carving of four monster heads, from the mouths of which four rivers flow. The streams and the carving echo the four rivers that the Book of Genesis says flow out of the Garden of Eden into the world. Kilpeck is the Garden of Eden, right there on the English/Welsh border.
3. St Mary’s, Whitby: St Mary’s squats like a giant toad above the harbour into which Bram Stoker imagined the ship drifting, with all hands dead, that carried Dracula to Britain from Transylvania. Inside the church a chaos of family box pews fills every inch of space, surrounding a pulpit that shoots up like a rocket in the middle of the church. The church stands testament to the 18th century English values of property, family, and preaching.
4. Ranworth, Norfolk: The long screen displays medieval paintings as fine as you will find in any art gallery in the world. The saints look as if they are about to step off the boards and shake you by the hand. Most moving is a section where all the saints are women. This is the spot where generations of the women of the parish would have come to pray and express their hopes and fears, for marriage, a safe pregnancy, childbirth, celebration, or mourning.
5. Long Melford, Norfolk: The main church is a grand display of the confidence, wealth and taste of its medieval creator. But the lesser-known Lady Chapel behind it is also worth a visit. This was the court of the Virgin Mary, around which saints would have stood like medieval courtiers. It was gutted by Cromwell’s soldiers, but we found traces of the Mary still present: an image of a rose without thorns; a lily; and in the stone, the letters “MR”, for “Maria Regina” - Mary, Queen of Heaven.
6. Holy Trinity, Coventry: Only a few years ago they discovered at Holy Trinity one of the finest medieval Doom paintings in Europe. It is an image of Christ in judgement, displaying his wounds and surrounded by his saints, as the dead rise from their graves (sometimes, the wrong way up!) and are either ushered into heaven, or dragged into hell. The painting sums up everything that is so compelling about the medieval mind: life, death, drama, humour, hope.
7. The Old Methodist Chapel, Heptonstall : The elderly Yorkshire ladies who welcomed us into this little Methodist Chapel, the oldest in the world in continuous use, were the warmest and most delightful we met on our journey. The octagonal building they care for, which hangs on the hill above a deep valley, was just the same. If buildings have an aura, this one radiated friendship.
8. Great Malvern Priory: The priory would put many cathedrals to shame, with its vast Norman pillars, soaring ceiling and acres of ancient stained glass. We were there to see a rare survival, medieval wall tiles depicting the “Instruments of the Passion”, the crown of thorns, nails, and other objects associated with the Passion of Christ. These were images designed to help people to meditate on Jesus’ suffering, and so to comfort themselves in their own lives. As we probed the church, we found these images everywhere, on the walls, on the floors, in the windows.
9. St George and St Andrews, Edinburgh : This was the finest church that we visited but did not feature in the series. At the heart of Edinburgh New Town, built at the height of the Scottish Enlightenment, the church is an elegant oval adorned with images of the “new” learning, and is filled with 18th Century pride in the power of reason, and in Scotland itself, with patriotic thistles worked into the ceiling roses.
10. Holy Innocents, Higham: Holy Innocents takes its name from one of the most troubling stories in the Bible, when King Herod tried to kill the infant Jesus by ordering the massacre of all children in the region under the age of 2. Holy Innocents is a memorial to the several children of the local Victorian lord who died in infancy, and to his beloved wife who followed them to an early death. Her bust stands in a nook in the church exactly where he placed it, whilst the procession of saints and martyrs that strolls along the wall for the full length of the church, looks just as if it has stepped out of a children’s picture book.
Richard Taylor is the author of How to Read a Church