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Re-listing as Grade II* marks churches’ links to Festival of Britain’s 70th anniversary

05 August 2021

Young visitors find Coventry interior ‘so retro’ says vicar


The nave of Christ Church, Coventry

The nave of Christ Church, Coventry

TWO listed church buildings — Christ Church, Cheylesmore, in south Coventry, and Calvary Charismatic Baptist Church, Tower Hamlets, in east London — have been upgraded from Grade II to Grade II* to mark the 70th anniversary of the Festival of Britain this summer.

Only 5.8 per cent of listed buildings are Grade II*, deemed to be of more than special interest. Two other churches — St John’s, Waterloo, and St Mary and St Joseph, in Tower Hamlets — are among seven sites, including the Royal Festival Hall, whose list entries have been updated by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport to recognise officially their connections with the Festival.

The Festival of Britain ran from May to September 1951, attracted eight million visitors, and promoted British design, science, technology, architecture, industry, and the arts. Historic England’s chief executive, Duncan Wilson, said: “It raised the spirits of the British people following the austerity of World War II, and showcased Britain’s innovation to the rest of the world.

“The Festival had a major influence on design and architecture, and its legacy can still be seen today in our buildings and public artworks. We are delighted to be able to celebrate the Festival as it reaches its 70th anniversary, and we hope that people will continue to appreciate its legacy for years to come.”


Calvary Charismatic Baptist Church (formerly Congregational and then Methodist) was built in the 1950s and was part of the festival’s “live” architectural exhibition.

Designed by Cecil Handisyde and D. Rogers Stark, with precast concrete panels with copper-sheet cladding, it is listed as “combining Modernism with whimsy and Englishness . . . an early example of an English nonconformist church designed in the modern style, with recreational facilities and meeting rooms to supplement the main worship space. The site was widely renowned and became a model for subsequent churches of many denominations.”

Christ Church, Cheylesmore, designed by Alfred H. Gardner, was built between 1956 and 1958. In common with “festival” architecture, it has a concrete frame and is covered with a lightweight, vaulted copper roof.

“The lavish interior is considered one of the most eclectic of its era,” its listing notes. “Some notable architectural features include the hanging bird-cage light-fittings, likely inspired by the Lion and Unicorn Pavilion from the Festival of Britain, whose overall form the building resembles.”

Light from 22 square panels of thick glass streams in from all angles. The building, with its wealth of purple and gold, is described as “a particularly lavish example of buildings directly inspired by the Festival . . . perhaps the most eclectic Anglican interior of its date, richly imaginative yet light-hearted, and whose whimsy makes a striking contrast to the church’s strong Evangelical tradition.”

The Revd Arthur Woo, who has been its Vicar for nine years, said that when he first walked into the building, his reaction echoed that of many others: “Oh, that’s different.” It was an amazing space, he said: “It’s big and it’s beautiful, and it certainly has the sense of being there to remind you of the holiness of God.”

HISTORIC ENGLAND ARCHIVESt John’s, Waterloo, before the 1940 bomb damage, which left mainly the walls and crypt, was made good

While some visitors guard their thoughts about 1950s architecture, Mr Woo has observed a resurgence of appreciation by a younger generation: “When people in their twenties and thirties come in, they just ooze about the church.

“They say, ‘It’s so retro.’ All this emanates from the Festival of Britain; so they think we are ahead of the curve. The number of times I’ve sat down with a 20- or 30-year-old in one of my pews, and it is as if God himself has come down and smacked them in the face.”

Upkeep of such buildings was expensive, he acknowledged; nor did they readily lend themselves to becoming carbon-neutral, but the congregation felt privileged that the church had been recognised as a special part of the Church of England’s portfolio of buildings. “We’re hoping the listing will help us in some ways to preserve it, and we’d love to have more people come in and visit us,” Mr Woo said.

“We are a parish church, and we want to be more integrated into the fabric of society and for its good. It’s not just a museum piece that you can come and look at: it is a very lively congregation that seeks to do good and turn a piece of beauty into something that is also going to feed the hungry.

“For those in tune with the Festival of Britain, and who want to resonate with those values post-pandemic, it’s about new beginnings. We have the building blocks in ourselves to go out and recover from bad, traumatic events, and go and excel in the world.

“If that is your heart, and you understand what the Festival of Britain architects were trying to do, then please come to Christ Church. You might find God. There is something quite special about that.”

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