As we snake our way through one of the toniest neighbourhoods in London in a shortcut we use to get to Richmond Park, we pass a lovely Church of England churchyard. Picturesque steeple, a nursery, and an impressive looking fellowship hall or venue or whatever they call it, built of stacked stone and glass and with the coolest building ornament ever.
Classier than your average yard deer or concrete critter
On our regular drive-bys, I’ve noticed two things: the church seems popular for posh weddings, and being within walking distance of Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Association, the church has a nice little money spinner in charging £20 ($32+) a day for parking during the tennis.
Where the other .05% worship
They’ve had banners up for weeks advertising their open day and I kept making a mental note every time I passed, that we must check it out. Curious, I was.
And curious no longer. For last week (and yes, I’m late to blogging it) we stopped in to St Mary’s open day. I’m not sure what I was expecting really. Maybe some singing or some egg and spoon races or balloons. But what we got was an open church and that’s about it. Our timing was a bit odd though, I have to admit. On the Saturday they were running it in a split shift to accommodate a posh wedding in the middle of the day. We just squeezed in shortly before earliest guests arrived in their finery.
Members of the congregation were friendly and on hand to answer any questions and they seemed quite tolerant of the young master rummaging through a stack of the previous week’s order-of-service leaflets and scattering them among the aisles.
We were intercepted by a young man (twelvish?) in an old man’s hat (Bear Bryant stylee) who wanted to know if we had any questions or if we wanted to go up into the bell tower. Bell tower? Oh, really? Hell, yeah. Though of course I didn’t say that, it being a church and all.
We had the toddler in tow so bell tower may not have been the best idea. Bill did manage the steps to the gallery, and then the steep half-ladder/half-steps to the bell-pulling area. But we decided that climbing the ladder up to the next level would not be wise.
Not for toddlers
Simon managed to snarfle trip up into the tower with our tour guide’s mother. So I stayed with Bill and our young tourguide who provided an antique hand bell for Bill to play with. The youngster was astonished when I told him that I’d played in the handbell choir at church when I was younger. (Do I look so unchurched?) He explained in great detail why you must not touch the bells (essentially your nasty, dirty finger grease degrades them) and then opened up a case of brand new bells within nasty, dirty, greasy toddler-hand reach. And of course, the shiny array of bells proved irresistable. And only then did he bring out the bag of white gloves so beloved by handbell choirs*.
We were warned against touching any of the bell ropes. Which, of course, also proved a temptation. And apparently they proved irresistable to Simon, too. I saw a bell pull quiver and later my husband reported that he’d been the cause, resulting in an admonishment from the volunteering parishioner: “One does not touch the church bells without permission.”
Our tour of the bell tower thus ended, our young guide showed us round the sanctuary, highlights including a moth-eaten donkey no doubt used in many a Nativity play and a flag from the HMS Inflexible, which were informed that no one was allowed to touch unless they were connected with the church as he bunched and groped the ancient cloth.
We had a brief interlude with a genuinely informative fellow (the vicar?) who told us about the beams painted in a folk English style (truly amazing) and about how the architect of the church (whose name I can’t remember, but who later apparently became a famous Victorian architect) rebuilt it as one of his first commissions. Apparently one of the only specifications of the job was that he increase seating capacity in the building. The interior seems vast, much bigger than you’d guess from the road, but apparently it doesn’t seat many more than its predecessor and fewer than you’d reckon from looking around.
We took a stroll through the cemetery, accompanied by our young guide who told us how dangerous it was to climb on the monuments and then proceeded to show just what a risky endeavour it was.
Don't try this
And, of course, the toddler – not having a full understanding of the concept of risk, just wanted to climb up, too.
The cemetery is home to some truly impressive Victorian monuments, including the tomb of Sir Joseph Bazalgette, the engineer who built the London sewer system. The state of his grave sadly mirrors the condition of his civil works. And although he has a monument on the Embankment, it’s a shame to see his final resting place so decrepit.
No thanks to Thames Water
We could see the wedding guest beginning to file in so we decided to take our leave, but not before the young man showed us an abandoned bucket of wallpaper paste (?) and advised us it was sticky and would not be wise to get it on your hands and then proceeded to dip his fingers in the goo.
*bringing back memories of how I refused the church-issued knit handbell gloves in favor of some of my grandmother’s genuine white fashion gloves from the 50s and 60s left in a drawer long after they’d slipped from vogue and her death or how my brother went through a phase of altering all gloves he came into contact with into fingerless things – including most of my grandmother’s stash, mother’s leather gloves, and a good proportion of First United Methodist’s handbell supply leading to his eviction from the youth choir.