Book: Betjeman's Best British Churches

Sir John Betjeman is best known for his poetry, but he loved churches, and his book Best British Churches, first published in 1958, and updated this year by Richard Surman, must be the definitive guide.  There is a fascinating, detailed introduction, with some poems on the history and architecture of churches. Then about 2,500 churches are described county by county with beautiful colour photographs, drawings, diagrams and detailed maps. Richard Surman has added a new section on Scotland.

When I find a book like this I end up spending hours looking for favourite places, and I wasn't disappointed here. The book includes many small out of the way ones, and in each short entry touches on the essence of the building, whether it's in the description itself, a bit of historical information or personal comment. Betjeman has a poet's eye, and notices details a casual visitor might miss.

He points out that Dr Johnson used  to worship at St Peter and St Paul's in Langton, in Lincolnshire when he visited his friend Bennet Langton at the manor. Apparantly one day Johnson took took off his coat and rolled down a hill there.

The 11th-century monastic church of St Mary at Lastingham, with its fragments of Anglo-Saxon sculpture, its groined stone vaults, its apse and crypt is, he says “unforgettable, one of the most moving places in England.”

St Peter at Hackness, near Scarborough, is a "romantically set church in a deep wooded valley, with two great treasures; a carved Saxon cross and a pearwood Oberammergau carving against the 15th century font cover.”

Of the tiny 15th century church of St Mary in Honeychurch, Devon, he says: "the blackest-heart pagan would smile at Honeychurch  as he pushed open the door and saw this touching little interior."

One London church I couldn't find, was St Etheldreda's in Ely Place, London. I hope  next time the book is updated it might be included.  However, the book doesn't claim to include every old church in the country. There are many thousands.  This beautiful, practical, up-to-date guide is a wonderful reference book for anyone who loves churches or is interested in historic buildings.

Betjeman’s Best British Churches, updated by Richard Surman, is published by Collins priced £35  and available from all the main bookshops.

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