Zadie Smith's new novel NW has a more profound sense of place than just about any book I've read. The place is Willesden (part NW10 and part NW2) - the fictional Caldwell estate, the more gentrified streets by Queen's Park, along Willesden Lane and Kilburn High Street. The 'NW' of London.
Early on in the novel, there is a description of a church in 'NW' which won me over - an unlikely arcadian spot in the urban jungle of Willesden and around. It prompted me to find the church Zadie Smith had in mind - not a difficult task, but hugely rewarding. Here it is - followed by what the novel says of it:
'She turns away, lifting her head slowly and spots it first: an ancient crenellation and spire, just visible through the branches of a towering ash. Another twenty yards and the full improbability of the scene is revealed. A little country church, a medieval country church, stranded on this half-acre, in the middle of a roundabout. Out of time, out of place. A force field of serenity surrounds it. A cherry tree at the east window. A low encircling brick wall marks the ancient boundary, no more a defence than a ring of daisies. The family vaults have their doors kicked in. Many brightly tagged gravestones. Leah and Nat and the children pass through the lychgate and pause under the bell tower. Blue clockface brilliant in the sun. It is eleven thirty in the morning, in another century, another England. Nat uses the baby's muslin to wipe her forehead of sweat. The children, till now raucous and complaining in the heat, turn quiet. A path threads through the shady graveyard, the Victorian stones marking only the most recent layer of the dead.' (Zadie Smith, NW, 2012, p.60)
St Mary's is by a roundabout not in the middle of it. The vaults and graves - including that of the novelist Charles Reade (The Cloister and the Hearth) and his mistress - are in a better state than Zadie Smith suggests. Otherwise this is unmistakeably, precisely, Willesden's hidden gem of a parish church (if you are trying to place it, it's at the south end of Neasden Lane).
The Norman font at St Mary's
Leah and Nat and their brood enter the church, one of the kids climbs the Norman font - 'c1150, Purbeck marble' - and they read of the church's remarkable story.
'Parish founded in 938 ... nothing of the original church remains ... present church dates from around 1315 ... Cromwellian bullet holes in the door ... becoming the famous shrine of Our Lady of Willesden'
Unlikely as it may seem, the main details are borne out by St Mary's parish website and a notice in the church about its venerable and much venerated history.
In the novel, Zadie Smith's characters come across the young vicar at the church. In reai life this weekend, as I am taking photos of the outside of the church ... I come across the young vicar. He's new to this church, just a couple of weeks into the job, and unaware of Zadie Smith's glowing write-up.
There's an active congregation, he says - about ninety worshippers most Sundays. For churches in middle class corners of London, he says, it's often about managing decline. But not here in Willesden.
Part of his purpose is to revitalise the church as a pilgrimage centre. Unlikely as it may seem, the 'Black Madonna' of Willesden once attracted large numbers of devotees. 'Well, it's a lot closer to London than Walsingham', the new vicar points out.
The current madonna - mentioned by Zadie Smith - is imposing and modern. Though the holy waters which once added to the church's lustre - there's a spring under the building - have stopped flowing. 'The Holy Well is out of order ...' a sign proclaims, a touch prosaically for such a hallowed tradition.
One details Zadie Smith omits. St Mary's was where Gladstone worshipped on occasion, as a plaque on the wall records. He had an association with Dollis Hill and nearby there's a Gladstone Park.
I'm won over to St Mary's. I'll be going back. Perhaps see you there!
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