Michael Palin: my seven of the best

by
22 May 2015

The former Python and national treasure describes churches that have meant the most to him

REX

CHURCHES, of one kind or another, have played important roles throughout my life, although, I must admit that I am no longer a devout worshipper, if indeed I ever was.

I remember filming for the Himalaya series at Rawalpindi in Pakistan, in the only brewery in the entire country. There was only one outlet for the products of the Murree Brewery, and that was a hole in the wall at the back of Raffles Hotel on the Grand Trunk Road. Here, liquor could be purchased, but only after I'd filled in a very thorough form: "Mother's Name; Father's Name; Place of Birth; Religion."

As I was on camera I felt I should be scrupulously honest; so I wrote down "Agnostic" and pushed the form towards him. He took one look, shook his head, and pushed it back to me. How could I be more specific? I thought again, and after some deliberation wrote "Agnostic with doubts". I pushed this across to him, he took it quite happily and passed me a large bottle of Murree whisky.

"Agnostic with doubts" still remains an accurate description of the state of my faith. But I still visit churches whenever I can, and find great comfort in them. Two years ago, I was at a court hearing at the Rolls Building in Fetter Lane, London. The case was a particularly unpleasant spat between the Monty Python team and one of our producers on the film Monty Python and the Holy Grail. I was the chief witness for the Pythons, and was given a much tougher time in the witness box than I'd expected. So much so that my cross-questioning was still not completed by the lunch break.

As I was still under oath, I was absolutely forbidden to speak to anyone who was anything to do with the case. So I walked down to Fleet Street and sat at a fast-food counter and ate a sandwich I didn't really want. It was busy; people were coming in and out; I wasn't encouraged to stay. It was bitterly cold, and I found myself at the doorway of a church I'd never noticed before: St Dunstan's-in-the-West.

After the grilling of the morning, and the rushing of the lunchtime crowds, never was a church interior more welcome and more comforting. And I've done the same thing in New York and Paris and wherever else there has been a tumult to escape from. I've also listened to sublime music and wonderful choirs in churches around the world, and I still find that a special treat.

But there are seven churches that have meant more to me than most.

 

THE first is the church in which I was baptised in 1943, and in which my parents worshipped until 1966: St John's, Ranmoor, in Sheffield. Grade II listed, designed by Flockton and Gibb, and opened in 1888 after a fire destroyed all but the tower of the previous church; consecrated in 1879. The spire is the tallest in Sheffield.

Many of my most potent early memories are associated with St John's, Ranmoor, at which I was a regular attendee throughout most of my childhood. My parents were both regular churchgoers, which in those days put them very much in the majority in our neighbourhood.

My father was a bell-ringer. St John's had a ten-bell peal, and occasionally he would take me along, helping me climb the precipitous stairs to the belfry where I would watch him rising and falling gently on the rope of the Number Nine bell. From him I learnt my Bob Majors and my Grandsire Triples.

My father was also a keen chorister. The interior of the church was on a spectacular soaring scale; so I can remember early filial pride as he sometimes led in the choir, his singing being completely unaffected by his serious stammer. And very occasionally he would be chosen to play the organ, which was particularly impressive.

I would go out after the Nunc Dimittis to Sunday school across the road at the vicarage. On certain occasions, we were allowed to stay for the entire service, particularly when he had visiting speakers, my favourites being the missionaries: often bronzed, powerful men with wild hair who would grip the pulpit with one hand, the other having been lost at a mass baptism in the Limpopo.

Among the milestones celebrated at St John's was my sister's wedding (I was an usher), and my first terrifying performance in public: reading one of the lessons at the Christmas carol service, at which I remember my knees wobbling like those of a newborn giraffe, as I stood before proud parents, sister, and some 250 Sheffield worthies.

 

THOUGH I was born and brought up in Sheffield, my father was an East Anglian, the son of a doctor from Fakenham, and the two-week summer holiday provided the ideal chance for him to get back to the beloved county of his birth, and in particular to the magnificent churches in the area. I can remember that barely had we unpacked than my father was off to see a church or three.

In a BBC play I wrote in 1986, East of Ipswich, I fictionally recalled my frustration at having to accompany him rather than prowl the beach in search of pretty girls. But, actually, I rather enjoyed these church visits.

If the church was empty, I would climb up into the pulpit and deliver the stirring first few lines of an improvised sermon, delighting in being able to be in front of a captive, if entirely absent, audience.

In a sense, these church visits gave me a chance to feel what it might be like to be an actor. Ironically, my father had expressly forbidden me to even think of acting as a career. But he chuckled away at my attraction to pulpits. I think he could quite happily see me becoming a vicar, one of the few callings which probably paid even less well than acting.

In 1966, my father retired from his job at the export department at a Sheffield steelworks, and promptly moved to Southwold, which boasted a church as different in look and character from the Victorian Gothic of Ranmoor as the Suffolk coast was from the dark satanic mills of industrial Sheffield.

Indeed, Nicholas Pevsner, who wasn't one to scatter praise, called St Edmund's, Southwold, "the epitome of Suffolk flushwork".

The church is impressive: the tower is 100 feet high, the nave 144 feet long. And you could easily put your neck out gazing at the glorious painted roof with winged angels carved on the end of the hammerbeams. Not surprisingly, it gave my father great pleasure, and he rarely missed a Sunday service here.

Both my parents are buried here at Southwold, and I recorded in my diary my mother's funeral service, on what would have been her 86th birthday, on 14 January 1990:

"The service goes well. The church itself is a fine setting for it. The choir was out in force and hymns sung lustily. 'Guide Me, O Thou Great Redeemer', 'The King of Love My Shepherd Is', 'Immortal, Invisible', and 'Morning Has Broken'.

"The choice of lesson worked well. . . 'There is a time to every purpose under heaven' seemed to suit her departure so well. 'He hath made everything bootiful in his time,' reads Joe Hurran, in unconscious parody of the well-known turkey farmer. I read my address clearly, though received a bit of a knock when I mounted the lectern to find a piece of paper with 'Cleese' written on it. It turned out to be Joe's aid to pronunciation of Ecclesiastes!"

 

ONE of my happier memories of church-hopping was to drive with my father south down the A12, passing the proud and formidable church at Blythburgh, a quite magnificent building, towering over the surrounding estuary, then turning off to the altogether more intimate village church of St Peter's, Wenhaston. Like Southwold, there was much history here. The tower has stood since the 14th century. But, unlike Southwold, St Peter's had never been damaged by fire, and possessed original Norman windows.

But what made it really special, and what my father revealed to me with great excitement, was the Wenhaston Doom, a wall-painting of the Last Judgement dating back to the reign of Henry VIII. It's wonderful and unusual, though Pevsner, who'd clearly used up all his superlatives at Southwold, called it "distressingly rustic". I beg to differ.

I agree with John Seymour, in the Companion Guide to East Anglia, who called it "a quite marvellous panel". And, dare I say it, a quite Monty Python-ish vision of hell, which must have had quite an impact on the 16th-century congregation, distressingly rustic though they may have been.

 

EVERY now and then, I did manage to get away from my father's church trips. By chance, one of the girls I had been so anxious to meet on the beaches of Southwold became not only a close friend but, in April of 1966, we married at St Margaret of Antioch, Abbotsley, near St Neots, in what is now Cambridgeshire. The churchyard, with its tall chestnuts and ancient dark yew trees, bordered on to my mother-in-law's house. The church clock is kept going by a rota of local men whose perilous ascent to the winding mechanism would appal Health and Safety.

As we've remained married for 49 years, I'm obviously quite thankful for what happened here in Abbotsley. I'm also lucky to be able to see and enjoy it whenever we're up visiting mother-in-law, who's now 102, and has only recently given up reading the lesson there.

The church occupies the most prominent position at the top of the hill in the centre of Abbotsley village. It, and its predecessor, has occupied the same space since 1138. The structure dates back to the 13th century, and we know that in 1367 Balliol College, Oxford, became the church's patron.

This good-looking but unflamboyant church does have its curiosities. On the top four corners of the tower are statues of what appear to be knights, or certainly men at arms. They date from the 15th century, and are thought to represent the Kings Macbeth, Malcolm, Harold, and William. Though the provenance is shaky, their mysterious origins still add a special touch of character which differentiates this otherwise modest church from any other.

The problem with somewhere like Abbotsley, which is an increasingly prosperous commuter village for Cambridge, is that, though only a handful or villagers go to church regularly, many will turn out at Christmas and Easter. There is a genuine fondness for the church that defines this village. It may attract few regular worshippers, but it stands out boldly on every commemorative mug, tea towel, local magazine, photograph, and painting.

 

IN 1986, I received some family papers from a cousin of my father's. Included among them was a diary belonging to my great-grandfather, Edward Palin. He was a don at St John's College, Oxford, and one of the diaries, dated 1861, tells of a walking holiday in Switzerland, when he was 39.

On Lake Constance, he writes of meeting two American ladies: one of early middle-age, and the other, whom he presumes to be her daughter, called Brita, who is "17 years and six months old". He clearly falls for her, and writes regretfully, "if only our ages had been closer, how different things might have been."

To which had been appended much later, in red ink, the words: "We married in Paris in 1867, she has made me the happiest of men."

The girl, my great-grandmother, was an orphan from the Irish potato famines, shipped out to America and adopted by a wealthy spinster. My great-grandfather had to relinquish his position as Senior Tutor at St John's, as all dons were expected to be celibate. The college found him a living at Linton in Herefordshire.

He remained Vicar of St Mary's, Linton, for 36 years, from 1867 to his death in 1903, and is buried in the churchyard, alongside Caroline Watson, Brita, and their third child, Richard, who died at the age of 18, while still at school. The eldest of their seven children was my grandfather; the youngest was my Great-Uncle Harry, who was killed on the last day of the Somme offensive. I draw some sense of continuity with the past when I think of my great-grandfather addressing the congregation from the pulpit of St Mary's.

 

THERE have been many churches that I've seen on my journeys around the world, but none more modest in scale, yet more heroic in location, than the Naval Chapel on Cape Horn.

Cape Horn was a sailor's graveyard before the Panama Canal opened in 1914, and is still perilous. We landed there during the filming of Full Circle, to be greeted by a dog that clearly hadn't seen strangers for quite a long time. This is the diary entry I made on 15 May 1996:

"I'm surprised to find a chapel on Cape Horn. It's small, not much more than 15 feet long. The walls are made from planks of wood sheathed in rough, pine-tree bark. A tin-roofed porch protects the entrance, and rubber matting covers the floor. The altar is a wooden slab resting on two tree trunks. A plaster statue of the Virgin surveys the empty chairs.

"What light there is falls from two small windows, one on each side, both of them murky with sea salt.

"Out of one window is the Pacific Ocean, and out of the other the Atlantic. Nowhere else do the coastlines of the world's two greatest oceans come so close that by a simple turn of the head you can see them both.

"And that's not all. Behind me, through the doorway, I can see the point where America ends, where 15,000 miles of coastline peter out in a cluster of grassy rocks."

And so to the last of my selection of seven churches. This last is my local church, St Martin's, Gospel Oak, London NW5 - a very eccentric church, indeed; and for once it's impossible to disagree with Pevsner when he describes it as "the craziest of London's Victorian churches".

Elizabeth and Wayland Young, in their book London Churches, were more specific, likening it to "a duck-billed platypus", though somewhat qualifying this eccentric judgement by adding that "this is not an expression of the author's liking or approval, rather an expression of faith in the oddness of the human, and therefore of the divine imagination."

It was made to the designs of Edward Buckton Lamb, and for a cost of £11,114 5s. 6d., a cost borne largely by John Allcroft, a glove manufacturer from Worcester with strong Evangelical beliefs, who was moved to spend some of his fortune on the moral and spiritual improvement of this rough and deprived part of expanding London.

Suitably, perhaps, the first incumbent was the Revd Joseph Medland, whose training had been largely among the convicts in Tasmania.

The interior is full of weird and wonderful architectural and decorative flourishes. Perpendicular Gothic prevails, though not as we know it. The apse with its richly coloured and textured ceiling is almost Byzantine. There is fine stained glass, and complex carvings on the capitals and mosaic panels on the walls.

Set among bland and functional modern estates, St Martin's is as incongruous as it is eccentric. But before one is tempted to dismiss St Martin's as an ecclesiastical folly, a sort of Disneyland of devotion, it's worth remembering that it's not only Grade I listed, but has pride of place among Simon Jenkins's Thousand Best English Churches.

For me, the importance of St Martin's is inextricably tied up with the development in the area, in which my wife and I have lived for nearly 50 years. In the 1960s and 1970s, much of Gospel Oak was razed to the ground to create new estates accommodating higher population densities. Street patterns were destroyed, and the scale of the housing became monumental, with long concrete blocks replacing the human scale of the brick terraces.

Standing like a beacon in the middle of all this, to remind us how it once was, was the chunky, fanciful tower of St Martin's.

Even this was threatened at one time, but this indomitable Kentish ragstone tower has become a survivor, a survivor keeping alive the memory of the all-but-lost history of this ill-favoured area.

 

FOR my part, I feel very strongly that, if the idea of a community is to mean anything at all, then we must value the churches that are at their centre. Not just because so many are beautiful buildings in themselves, but for what they can still offer - as they used to offer - as havens, shelters, places of protection, places that it doesn't cost a penny to enter, and which won't cost you a penny to stay all day.

We must not be afraid to try and use our churches, open them for believers and non-believers, and even "agnostics with doubts" to enjoy. They are an archive of hopes, dreams, fears, skills, talent, and troubles, which should surely be available to as many people as possible. They are a precious expression of our past. And it is the duty of our present generation to deliver them intact for the future.

 

This is an edited version of a talk Michael Palin gave to the National Churches Trust on 26 March.

For more information about the National Churches Trust, visit www.nationalchurchestrust.org.

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