England's Thousand Best Churches

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9780141011264: England's Thousand Best Churches

Parish churches are England's glory. They enshrine the history of a people, most of whom have lived far from the capital, court and Parliament. These people - their art, architecture and faith - are seldom recorded or celebrated. The parish church is their public monument. Simon Jenkins has travelled the length and breadth of England to select his thousand best churches. They are of all periods and denominations, though most are mediaeval foundations. Organized by county, each church is described, often with delightful asides, and is given a star-rating from one to five. The four- and five-star churches are listed as the "hundred best". The county sections are prefaced by a map locating each church and illustrated with photographs by Paul Barker from the "Country Life" archive. These churches house a gallery of vernacular art without equal in the world. From the Norman grotesques of Kilpeck to the Quaker simplicity of Come-to-Good, from the painted saints of Ranworth to the mighty fan vault of Sherborne, from the rose Madonna of Willoughby to Sara Losh's Cumbrian homage to love, these works would rank in any national museum. Simon Jenkins has brought this museum, located in some of England's most beautiful places, to public attention and asks that we treasure it for the next millennium.

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Review:

Churches, for Simon Jenkins, "have Ruskin's sense of "voicefulness, of stern watching, of mysterious sympathy ... which we feel in walls that have long been washed by the passing waves of humanity." In this fascinating compendium, beautifully illustrated with photographs by Paul Barker from the Country Life archive, Jenkins scours the hills and dales, cities and hamlets for England's Thousand Best Churches and comes up with some old favourites, welcome inclusions and surprising additions. Alphabetically divided by county, Jenkins' parish churches cover all epochs and denominations and are star-rated from one to five. Each church merits a description that is never less than engaging and instructive and serves to remind us of a time when the church was the hub of parochial life in a way that in many areas has diminished today. The church of St Mary and St David in Kilpeck, Herefordshire, for example, "widely regarded as England's most perfect Norman church", boasts some astonishing grotesques: "a pig upside down, a dog and a rabbit, two doves, musicians, wrestlers and acrobats. All the life of a busy and bawdy Herefordshire village is depicted on its church, with no respect for the decorum piety." St Senara in Zennor, Cornwall, possesses a 15th-century bench-end depicting the legendary "Mermaid of Zennor", as well as being the resting place for the last Cornish speaker in the county. The remote timber-frame church of St Thomas à Becket in Fairfield, Kent, rises up from Romney Marsh and has sheep grazing around the door.

Jenkins pays particular attention to the exquisite Wren and Hawksmoor churches in the City of London, such as St Bride Fleet Street and St Martin Within Ludgate, erected during 1670-1720 as part of the rebuilding of the city following the Great Fire of London in 1666. Most were damaged in the Blitz of World War II, but have been extensively restored, even though their parishes have disappeared around them. England's Thousand Best Churches is a varied, informative and entertaining overview of what constitutes, in Jenkins' view, "a Museum of England". From Cumbria to Cambridgeshire, "it is through the churches of England that we learn who we were and thus who we are and might become. Lose that learning and we lose the collective memory that is the essence of human society." --Catherine Taylor

From the Author:

corrections to entries welcome
The 1000 Best Churches contains a mass of detail. Readers corrections to any errors of fact in the church entries would be welcomed for any new edition. Please send to author, c/o Penguin, Wrights Lane, London W8 or email simon.jenkins@the-times.co.uk. Many thanks

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