The 'craziest of London's Victorian churches', according to Nikolaus Pevsner - the only place of worship in my part of London to feature in Simon Jenkins' England's Thousand Best Churches - and it has a rare Grade 1 listing ... yet many of those even on its doorstep know little of St Martin's, Gospel Oak.
Gospel Oak - at least the part south of Mansfield Road - hasn't half been knocked about a bit. Oak Village and its westerly extension Elaine Grove are a wonderfully complete and serene survival of the more stylish sort of mid-Victorian terracing. The surrounding post-war estates - build on streets which were bombed out or cleared as slums - are rather less enchanting. And Lismore Circus, at what should be the heart of a reborn Gospel Oak, is about as fly blown as you'll find in inner London. But just a hundred yards away, on not so much a back street as a back-of-beyond street, is the magic of St Martin's.
You can see it from Kite Hill, indeed from much of the Heath - with a curious, awkward, incomplete-looking tower flying the St George's flag. 'I know few towers so tormenting as this one in proportion, modelling and silhouette', wrote the architectural historian Sir John Summerson. 'Most towers answer a question. This one asks.'
The tower must have been even more remarkable when the pinnacles which once adorned it were in place.
The interior is arguably even more outlandish: a spectacular roof - alabaster in profusion - and some exceptional William Morris Company stained glass that somehow survived the wartime raids (there's a railway line, and what was the Kentish Town depot, close at hand).
The building dates from 1865, and was the work of Edward Buckton Lamb, who was - as the church history notes - 'an idiosyncratic enthusiast for the late Perpendicular style, at a time when it was very much out of favour with the architectural establishment.' In other words, about as out-of-step as you could get and still be at the dance. And ever since St Martin's has astonished and agonised, as much as inspired, those within an expert eye on things ecclesiastical.
'To include this church', commented Elizabeth and Wayland Young in their London Churches - 'is not an expression of the authors' liking or approval; rather an expression of faith in the oddness of the human, and therefore of the divine, imagination. Thus must Adam have felt on first seeing the duckbilled platypus'. Ouch!
The Morris stained glass is marvellous. The interior has an ample measure of magic. And rather against the odds, the church has survived as a key part of the community.
St Martin's was established in the low church tradition and that - as best as I can tell - is where it remains. Just as Father Pope's Butterfield-designed St Mary, Brookfield - at another corner of NW5 - has remained resolutely high church.
The original vicarage at St Martin's hasn't survived. But the three-storey church hall (pictured) has - again an extraordinary piece of architecture for a north London side street. It's now, in this most Francophone corner of London, a French language nursery school and kindergarten.
LATER: And if you are curious about what St Martin's tower looked like with pinnacle attached, I've come across this image on the 'net.
Here it is courtesy of a photo from a 1952 volume of the Survey of London:
Now I understand Pevsner, Summerson and their ilk a little bit better!
I come to hurl stones at you Andrew! But gently, to get your attention. We live in ‘fly blown’ Lismore Circus. You are right, those post-war planners did not do the appearance of our area any favours. However, we have the fragments of a warm diverse community and our very own pocket eco area; “Lismore Circus Community Woods”, which has an abundance of plants and flowers and encourages wildlife and insects, lovingly protected and tended by local residents.
Leave a Reply.
Andrew Whitehead's blog
Welcome - read - comment - throw stones - pick up threads - and tell me how to do this better!