Is Norwich the best city in England for parish churches?
Norwich often boasts of having “more prereformation churches than anywhere else north of the alps.” ! You can see from the chart in my last post that Norwich and London each have many more churches in their old centre than the British cities with the next most; but I have squashed Norwich’s claim put about for 40+ years from that John Betjeman documentary about having more than York, London and Bristol together. My chart in the previous post explains.
An old video on Norwich named “City of Distinction” called the collection “an embarrassment of riches”. The fact that Norwich’s are nearly all perpendicular (late gothic) and made of dark flint is both something that makes it special, and potentially boring.
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St George’s Colegate (right) and St Laurence’s in St Benedict’s St, both Norwich
I even had a little mental exercise with distilling the overall number to a tiny proportion of the best, keeping them as varied as possible. I do it to Norwich and various other cities and areas, especially the ones featuring in these 5 posts on cities of churches. It’s usually easy to pick a few really good ones – though none are perfect. What would be missing is their place on the townscape. St Benedict’s Street in Norwich is characterised by its churches; much of the street is churchyard. The towers welcome on corners and end vistas. I also realised these offer functions which are important to the life and character of the city: not only would some mean a loss of a particular kind of congregation, but that there’d be no puppet theatre or artist run exhibition centre or community spaces. Separate buildings mean that not only can congregations diversify, but so can other uses – all artists don’t have to vie over the same space under the same management. But I’m not suggesting we actually pull any churches down, just analyse where the really good ones are.
I thought that Bristol’s bunch might beat Norwich because Bristol’s so varied. Norwich has no Georgian churches – I can think of only 2 in the whole of Norfolk (plus a private chapel). But Bristol has one whole one, two part ones and three in suburbs, including a Gothick one. Bristol can claim to have important church buildings from 1160 -1960 (1140 actually but 1160 has more of a ring about it). To be fair, in that statement, I am creaming from the entire city. In walled Norwich, there are no modern churches or major furnishings (save the new Cathedral windows and two in St Margaret’s) and nothing of interest in the suburbs – not in my opinion. The only church within the whole extra mural conurbation of Norwich that I’d single out is at Eaton for having a thatched roof next to a modern extension.
Christ Church, Bristol in and out; and with tower of All Saints (right)
It’s not true that Bristol has a wider selection of gothic than Norwich; it too focusses on the last period, including St Nicholas which was rebuilt in pastiche by Georgians (and again after being bombed). Neither city has anything seriously Early English, both having their best examples in Victorian neo Gothic churches (Christchurch Clifton and St John’s Catholic cathedral in Norwich).
But actually, several of Bristol’s churches are not of interest. I’m not missing any of the ones destroyed by bombs, only the leaning tower of Temple – I’d have preferred the earlier round church for its main body.
All Bristol c-wise: St Peter’s, Cathedral gateway, St James, Temple
The Norman of Bristol other than the cathedral’s chapter house and arch of its gatehouse is quite mediocre (St James and a few bays of All Saints) and if we’re bringing cathedrals in, Bristol has nothing on Norwich cathedral which is one of the very great Norman churches of Europe and thus the world (a statement sure to please Norwich organisation HEART).
Bristol has Britain’s very greatest gothic non cathedral, in my opinion and in old Queen Bess’s – St Mary Redcliffe. It’s supremely satisfying and apart from adding a little more colour, there’s nothing I’d change or add, unlike almost any other church – including cathedrals and abbeys – that I an think of. Best of all is the gilded stone ribbed vault – only one other British parish church has one, to my knowledge (St Mary Otterly in Devon).
St Mary Redcliffe Bristol – porch (left) and with some contrasting local specialism – graffiti
St Stephen’s (inside and out) and St Werburgh’s (with corner turret), Bristol
Also late gothic, St Stephen’s isn’t in the same league but it is consistent and satisfying. It could be merged with the Lord Mayor’s Chapel (not counted with parish churches) for its similar long box shape and gilded flat wooden roof, adding the Lord Mayor’s fan vaulted chapel; but tall, pinnacled, traceried, Somerset-like St Stephen’s tower is far more striking than the Lord Mayor’s hidden one. Displaced St Werburgh’s also has a good tower – once at the crossroads of the old town, it’s now a climbing centre in a eco conscious suburb.
I like the idea of a church on the town gate, but the church of St John’s itself does little for me.
Crypts of St Nicholas (top) and John; St John on the Wall, Bristol
The interior of St Thomas has something that Norwich hasn’t and I quite like the Classical/gothic mix and match idea, it’s just not successful here. St Michael’s and Pip ‘n’ Jay are not architecturally interesting, I think.
City wide, if I were to choose my favourites for outstanding or varied examples of churches in Bristol, I’d pick Regency St George’s (the concert hall) and the glass from the two 1960s Pembroke Rd offerings in Clifton; Georgian Redland Chapel and possibly the displaced medieval St Werburgh’s, now of the hippy suburb of allotments.
I’d keep Christchurch (old city) as the all Georgian church, possibly swapping the spire for neighbouring All Saints’ cupola.
So Bristol perhaps isn’t richer in some ways than Norwich, but it does have that superlative medieval church, the only one in the country that completely satisfies me, and it also has Georgian and modern. Although Norwich has more medieval undercrofts than any other British city, I don’t know of any crypts under its churches (only the Canary Chapel in the Close), but Bristol has at least the two pictured. There’s no tower as good as St Stephen’s Bristol in Norwich and no ceiling there like Bristol’s St Stephens’ and the Lord Mayor’s Chapel have. Bristol’s red and light stone give a warmth not found in Norwich, although the grey stone is duller than Norwich’s ubiquitous flint.
Left: St Paul’s in Portland Square. Unnerving eh?
I would like to borrow some of its churches for Norwich – as I’ll summarise in the last part.
I’m fond of Bristol, as a city, and its church collection. I may well do a post with pictures of all Bristol’s central churches and chapels, on my new blog.
Next time, we go to three other cities of churches….