Country & Garden: Country Matters - Private passion, public spirit

Country Matters
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The Independent Culture
For the last 10 years, Simon Jenkins has been pursuing a hidden agenda. While keeping up a front by contributing his political columns to newspapers, he has been privily scouring the length and breadth of England in furtherance of his private passion, England's parish churches. Now, in a hefty and handsome tome - finely illustrated with colour photographs - he presents brief accounts of his 1,000 favourites, according each of them a star rating, as if it were a hotel. Only 18 achieve five stars, but every church, however humble, is described with love and attention to detail.

A thoughtful introduction outlines the role of the church in history and today, drawing attention to the difficulties caused by the progressive diminution of faith among the population. There is also an excellent glossary, explaining architectural terms that often bring laymen up short: clerestory, entasis, hatchment, lucarne - all are made clear. The book is bound to infuriate thousands of readers, however, for the author's approach is uncompromisingly secular. He sees churches not as places of worship, but rather as historic buildings. He has lost count, he writes, "of the number of church guides which assert, `This building is not a museum, it is a place of worship.' I disagree. A church is a museum, and should be proud of the fact."

Further, he more or less writes off religion as a force capable of preserving the structures he so much admires. He cannot believe that in 100 years' time, parish churches "will still be in the sole custodianship of the Church of England". Rather, he imagines, the church will guard the chancel and its "formal places of worship", while "the wider community takes responsibility for the nave and the remainder of the fabric". It seems to me that he greatly undervalues the efforts already being made by latter-day parishioners to look after their inheritance. He writes as if it were the Church of England that maintains the buildings; in fact, it is almost always the ordinary people of a community who raise funds for repairs, clean, arrange flowers, mow the grass and so on. In my own parish (population 30-odd), it is a handful of intensely loyal people who keep things going.

Although "not a practising Christian", Mr Jenkins has by no means escaped the power latent in his subjects. At the start of his quest, he recalls, he could not "see in a church that quality believers call holiness". Now, at the end of his journey, his "response is more muted". In a moving passage, he describes an evening outside St Michael's at Up Marden, high on the Sussex Downs: "I could sense the air filling with the ghosts of villagers climbing the hill to that tiny building. I sensed their coming for a thousand years. As they arrived, they hurled their hopes against those walls, wept on altars and filled rafters with their cries. That shed called a church had received their faith, and offered in return a humble consolation. Now mute in death, these people communicated to me as they did to [TS] Eliot, `tongued with fire beyond the language of the living'. I could not be immune to the spirits of such a place."

And so he goes on his pilgrimage, county by county, guided by his "principal definition" that a church must be "in some sense parochial". For this reason, he excludes cathedrals, and the majority of his jewels are rural - although he grits his teeth to include some that have been swamped by suburban development. Gloucestershire - I am glad to see - wins highest honours, with no fewer than four five-star edifices, the Abbey at Tewkesbury and St Mary's, Fairford, among them. Every entry is crisply written, and many are lifted by amusing asides. In St Mary's, Aldworth, on the Berkshire downs, the author is delighted by the effigies on the tombs of the De la Beche family, nicknamed John Long, John Strong, John Never Afraid and John Always Afraid.

Describing the 17th-century tomb of Elizabeth Russell in All Saints' at Bisham in Berkshire, he records that her ghost is said to haunt the neighbouring Bisham Abbey, now a sports training centre. She allegedly beat a son to death for blotting his exercise book, a salutary warning to Britain's sporting stars. He could have added that the ghost seems to have carried her violent traits down the centuries. In the 1920s, when my grandparents rented the house, a young woman once came down from London for the weekend, bringing with her a poodle that habitually slept on the end of her bed. In the middle of the night she was woken by the dog's growling. When she sat up and leant forward to pat it, a hand seized hers in a terrible grip, hauling her bodily forwards. The moment the young woman screamed, her own hand closed on nothing - but she was so frightened that she demanded transport back to London, there and then, at 2.30am.

Now and then our guide gets carried away. Of the tiny church of St Nicholas, at Ozleworth, near the south-western tip of the Cotswolds, he writes that "cedars glide across terraced lawns". Those living close by have the impression that the 150-year-old trees remain fairly well rooted. Maybe Mr Jenkins had had a pint or two of Uley Old Spot ale before he tackled the escarpment? On the whole, though, his judgements are persuasive, and his enthusiasm is uplifting.

It is sad that he gives scarcely a single inscription from the thousands of gravestones that stand or lie around his chosen shrines. Often memorably pathetic or unintentionally ridiculous, these little eulogies receive no mention here. At the start of the book, he acknowledges that every parish church records (in the words of Thomas Gray) "the short and simple annals of the poor". But by concentrating on interior monuments, he has told of the well-to-do people who commissioned or restored the buildings, rather than the ordinary parishioners who worshipped in them. His emphasis is on the long and complex annals of the rich.

But this is a minor quibble. Many thousands of amateur architects, whether church-goers or not, will enjoy and profit from his tremendous labour of love.

`England's Thousand Best Churches' by Simon Jenkins is published by Allen Lane, The Penguin Press, price pounds 25