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England's Thousand Best Churches Hardcover – 5 Jul 2012
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'Masterly, perhaps a masterpiece' Independent Books of the Year
About the Author
Simon Jenkins writes for The Times and the London Evening Standard - both of which he has previously edited. In 1998 he was voted Journalist of the Year.
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There are of course disagreements about omissions and ratings; in my own area around Bristol, for instance, I would have included Blagdon, and Hill near Berkeley. This is partly caused by Jenkins’s severe attitude towards access: if it isn’t easy to get in, it doesn’t go in the book. It’s worth looking around the internet for amateur websites on people’s experiences of visiting churches in a locality to find what’s not in the book.
I like the way Jenkins is idiosyncratic and personal sometimes, railing against thoughtless town planning or inadequate conservation, or noting how timid the Church of England became, etc. He also has a happy way of elevating features into something you wouldn’t have thought of. For example, at North Cadbury church in Somerset there are a series of lively 15th century bench-ends depicting local people going about their business. “These works seem full of incident and made by carvers intrigued by human physiognomy. To this extent they are Renaissance rather than Gothic. The Virgin and Child might be any harassed mother” he says. I wouldn’t have seen it like that without him. Or, of a particularly bombastic and implausibly over-the-top late 17th century memorial in Sherborne Abbey, he says there are two supporting putti “weeping stone tears, whether of mirth or sadness is not clear.”
This kind of thing is his best writing. Where I take issue with Jenkins is he views his material from a distance. He says collectively churches are ‘The Museum of England’ and that’s how he views it – fixed, dead, like an exhibit. He can be a bit flat sometimes; he describes rather than engages with the building. There isn’t much sense of wonder or awe and he writes as an outsider. He brings people into things sometimes, but not nearly enough. I would have liked more about the role of a church and its liturgy in the lives of individuals and communities.
However, the book is invariably the first I reach for when planning an excursion, and is the most useful and reliable practical guide I know of. Betjeman is also good, especially in his introduction, which in most if not all ways makes up the few gaps Jenkins leaves.
THIS BOOK OPENS UP A WEALTH OF INFORMATION AND SITES OF CHURCHES TO VISIT AND EXPLORE.
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