Book Review: Steeple Chasing: Around Britain by Church

OHCT Trustee Stephen Slack recommends this informative and entertaining book by Peter Ross entitled Steeple Chasing: Around Britain by Church

Peter Ross is a journalist and writer who has already written successfully about Britain’s graveyards.  In Steeple Chasing he turns his attention to the church buildings of the British Isles.  Do not expect a systematic account of the Christian history or architecture of these islands, a theology of place or of folk religion, or an analytical assessment of the place of Christianity and its buildings in modern society.

Rather, this book falls into that currently popular form of writing that, to build up a picture of something or someone, links descriptions of places and people encountered on a journey.  The thread binding this journey together is a post-Covid tour of church buildings in the British Isles (‘a pilgrimage of sorts’) undertaken as a result of the feeling that, as expressed by a character in Golding’s The Spire, ‘Life is a rickety building.’

The picture Ross paints by doing so is a rich and diverse one.  Some of the places he visits (several cathedrals, and parish churches such as Kilpeck) are well-known.  But others are more unexpected – such as Pluscarden Abbey (a brutalist post-war building now brutalised by vandals), Mornington Parish Church (in its guise as a Covid vaccination centre) and St Mary’s, North Pickenham (restored essentially by one man after having been allowed to fall into a ruinous state).

And Ross is at least as interested in people as in buildings.  Some of those ‘encountered’ on the journey (such as St Cuthbert, Bede, John Donne and Stanley Spencer) are well-known.  But others are less so – for example, Ivor Bulmer-Thomas (founder of the Friends of Friendless Churches) and Sarah Hare (whose effigy at Holy Trinity, Stow Bardolph, is the only surviving one in wax outside Westminster Abbey).  Nor are they all figures from the past:  Benedictine monks, stone masons and volunteers at the charity set up by St Martin-in-the-Fields all talk movingly about their work.  And beyond them we encounter the lives of many others – cathedral guides and vergers, the firewatchers of St Paul’s, Derbyshire well-dressers, pearly kings and queens, and many more.

Nor is the wider context inhabited by these places and people ignored:  Ross does not flinch from being honest about the problems associated with our extraordinary heritage of religious buildings – not least that of maintaining them in the face of religious decline – and whether there might be better ways (such as different funding models) of doing things.  And his informative account of enthusiasts recording bats in a Norfolk church throws an eirenic light on a very contentious issue that helped me to see the complexities in it.

All this is well presented and organised; and Ross writes fluently, has a good turn of phrase and a dry sense of humour (deployed tellingly, for example, in his not entirely sympathetic account of New Age worship in a Glastonbury chapel).

As to his own relationship with the rich heritage he is exploring, Ross has no personal faith (‘I left the Church.  But churches never quite left me’) and seldom expresses any experience of the numinous.  And whilst his journey seems to have met his objective of being ‘buttressed and braced by history,’ that appears to be the result of meeting many good people rather than anything else.  But he nonetheless emerges as a strong advocate of the need to protect and preserve our inheritance of religious buildings – both for the architectural and artistic traditions they embody and because of their role in telling the story of our peoples and, indeed, people: ‘Churches hold within them Britain’s history, national and personal.’

Chasing Steeples therefore provides an insight in how to frame a case for protecting our built religious heritage that will find purchase with well-disposed non-believers – a constituency whose support those who love that heritage will increasingly need to cultivate.  But that is not the reason for reading the book:  read it anyway, as there is much in it to inform, entertain and amuse.

Steeple Chasing: Around Britain by Church, by Peter Ross. (Headline Publishing Group), May 2023, Pages: 400, 240 x 162mm
ISBN-13: 9781472281920. Hardcover £22.

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