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/ 4 June 2013

Reordering at St John Hillingdon

There are quite a few churches like St John’s, Hillingdon in the Northolt Archdeaconry – ancient Middlesex village churches which found themselves swamped by the rising tide of suburbia as Metroland expanded around them in the 1920s and 30s. Some of them are located in surroundings which still perceptible as old village centres and it doesn’t take too much imagination to picture them surrounded by open countryside. Despite its antiquity – a large chunk of the nave is C14 and the tower was built in 1629 – St John’s, however, is not one of them. The old village centre has been rent in two; the A4020 and a fairly remorseless stream of traffic carve through the centre of it. As vicar Rob Harrison says, most people’s contact with the church is limited to what they glimpse whizzing through on a dual carriageway at 40 mph. Beyond what admittedly feels almost like a country churchyard, a tempting looking pub and 16th century Vine House – fragments of old, rural Hillingdon – there are only long rows of semis.

In what is effectively a dormitory suburb populated chiefly by commuters you might expect the local parish church to be a fairly sleepy, sedate sort of place, probably barely open outside service times. But you’d be very wrong. Walking towards the church on a Thursday lunchtime you’ll hear jazz standards played by a very accomplished nine-piece band coming from within. And this isn’t just a one-off occurrence but now firmly part of the life of St John’s.

This – and so much more besides – has happened thanks to a reordering completed last autumn. It’s pretty unlikely that you’d walk into the church these days and find nothing happening, but if you did so having not visited for the last year or so you might wonder for a minute or so just what had changed. What has been done to the interior of this church is proof that by making just small alterations to the fabric – nothing to rouse the ire of English Heritage or the Victorian Society – you can bring about a far bigger change in the life of a parish. That’s not to say that it’s necessarily something that can be brought about rapidly, but even if it ends up protracting the gestation period it’s worth taking time to put in the groundwork so that you produce something that people really want.

Having inherited a church that really was permanently locked outside service times Rob began his reordering scheme about eight years ago by handing out to all the members of the church plans of the building as existing and without any internal fittings. He asked them to indicate what they felt could stay and what could go. Sixty people replied; one of them actually sketched out what was eventually was done. That may have been a happy accident, but the wider point is important – that this sort of exercise gives the members of a church family a sense of ownership of a reordering scheme by making them feel like they’ve guided its inception. And it all paid off as some of them who’d initially had misgivings about the project admitted to Rob once it was complete that they’d been mistaken.

But just what has been done here? Actually, the project had a head start as the first stage – clearing a space at the east end of the nave – had been done some years back when a number of pews were taken out to install a nave altar. But the platform, along with some by then very tired-looking carpet, was laid on top of the old wooden pew platforms. These were taken up, but that revealed the sort of fascinating, but also unwelcome surprise for which anyone carrying out alterations to an historic church has to be braced. When the medieval chancel of St John’s was demolished by Sir George Gilbert Scott and replaced by a new eastern arm in 1847-8 several monuments had to be relocated. These include the really stunning ones to Sir Edward Carr (d.1636) and Henry Paget, Earl of Uxbridge (d.1743), which are now in the sanctuary. But the vaults beneath were left intact, boarded over and forgotten about. Naturally they couldn’t just be concreted over, so after they had been surveyed (which included sending a camera on a flexible wand down the partly blocked passages leading to them) the plans had to be changed and lime and sand laid on top of a detachable membrane were put down instead, followed by York stone paving.

At the west end of the south aisle a handful of pews were removed to make way for a bespoke kitchenette and an area with seated with tables and chairs. The units are clad in oak and the design incorporates components salvaged and reused from the bench ends of the pews that were cleared to make way for it. The new seating is commercially produced, but in a shade of staining was carefully chosen to match the original woodwork. The new flooring is bi-coloured tiling laid diamondwise that matches the existing surface of the passage aisles. A number of pews have been retained and made portable as this area is still needed for seating on occasions when the church is packed to capacity.

This area looks a bit like a cafe and there are often people hanging out here, including Rob with his laptop, but it isn’t a commercial operation. Rather, it’s a self-service cafe and while anyone using the church is free to make use of it contributions towards running costs are expected. In fact, all the community use of St John’s is premised on a similar principle: the space doesn’t have to be rented, but the groups who make use of it are expected to cover the outgoings for heating and lighting. Rob says:

“The main thing is that they don’t subsidise the church nor we them. On that subject, replacing the luminaires in the nave with LED fittings has slashed the church’s electricity bill. The nave ceiling lighting now runs off 150W whereas previously individual bulbs consumed more than that and it was rare for a month to go by without at least one of them needing to be replaced.

Behind the cafe is what used to be vestry area closed off from the south aisle by a wall. Fairly down at heel until the reordering, it was completely refurbished and the partition walls were overhauled with new doors matching Scott’s handsome joinery elsewhere in the building. It’s now used for music lessons by a guitar and piano teacher. The remainder of the changes are fairly low key. In the transepts there are what look at a glance like squire’s pews, but that on the south side actually is an enclosure for a flower preparation area (the storage of items is carefully managed to make sure that they don’t protrude above the upper edge) while that on the north side is a storage area with a lockable cupboard for music equipment. Most of the pews in the south transept have been cleared to create a play area for small children, but the original frontals have been retained. This mitigates the visual impact and also, thanks to a small door added in the opening between, means that toddlers can’t wander off. All the new joinery is in oak and the panelling and chamfered detail harmonises well with the original pews. The design work was done by Andrew Norris, a surveyor with a good track record of working with historic buildings, including the wonderful Victorian pumping station at Abbey Mills in East London designed by Sir Joseph Bazalgette as part of his sewer system for the Metropolitan Board of Works.

So, about the jazz: the group that plays at St John’s on Thursdays is, in fact, only one of six jazz bands to use the building and that figure includes a jam session on Tuesdays. Rob reckons that it was his own enthusiasm for jazz sax that helped to get both these things going – word got around local musicians that he’d be sympathetic to anyone looking for a performance space and the church has good acoustics – but actually a jam session is a good metaphor for what’s been happening at St John’s. Because while the reordering project was carefully planned and designed, what goes on in the space that’s been created just happens.

Rob says:

“We don’t organise these things, we just allow other people to. Not trying to make money out of it makes a huge difference.”

It’s a bit of a gamble, but it’s paid off handsomely.

“My mental image is that you clear a bit of land and wait to see what grows on it. We’re monitoring it, managing it, encouraging things and seeing where that all leads.”

Indeed, the reordered St John’s has proved to be far more of a draw than anyone could have imagined. A history day held in the church on a recent Saturday at which Rob gave a presentation on it and someone from Uxbridge Library showed footage from their film archive drew 150 people instead of the expected 20. In addition to the jazz there is a twins’ group that uses the building one afternoon a week. It used to meet in a children’s centre run by Hillingdon Council, but found that it got on far better with the church’s laid-back approach. Then there’s also the knitting and crochet group. On Mondays there are three separate events going on at the same time and an already busy schedule looks likely to get busier still – the aim is to have the church in use constantly, making the most of a building that is now open daily from 9am to around tea time. A recent head count shows that there are now more people using St John’s for community activities than attending Sunday worship. But the fact that there isn’t a huge overlap between the congregation and people using the building outside service times doesn’t worry Rob especially:

“I don’t see bringing in worshippers as the prime objective because I think the ethos of the church filters into community users and so the ethos of the faith goes out into them. The primary dynamic is faith going out into the community, not the community coming into faith.”

What the reordering has done is make the church relevant to the wider community as well as being a worship centre.

Rob says:

“There is much more positive feeling about St John’s than there was 10 years ago. If we were a commercial organisation we’d pay huge amounts of money to achieve that. In a sense that’s the investment that the reordering was.”

The project took seven years from start to finish and cost £130,000 (almost all of it from voluntary donations) but it has clearly been time and money well spent.

This was written by Edmund Harris, formerly of the Parish Property Support Team.

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