Tuesday, 31 March 2009

St John the Baptist, Croydon

Architecturally, modern Croydon has a grim reputation, with its uninspiring office blocks, pedestrianised zones and shopping malls - a perspective only confirmed by the view from the railway line to Brighton.

But Croydon is actually an historic place, for the Archbishops of Canterbury built a Palace here, adjacent to what is now the parish church. Better still, much of this historic legacy survives. Set amongst trees and lawns, the church feels a world away from bustling, modern Croydon. Of Saxon foundation and mentioned in the Domesday book, Henry VII and Henry VIII visited, and it is the resting place of numerous Archbishops.

The present church is largely a Victorian rebuilding of a late mediaeval Gothic church, following a fire in 1867 which left only the tower, south porch and walls standing. Fortunately, the architect responsible for the restoration was Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, who incorporated the remains in a competent Victorian Perpendicular design to the original floor-plan.

As you enter under the original West Tower, the 92ft high nave is an impressive sight, with generous aisles lending a feeling of spaciousness. The floor-plan is square, with no transepts, and the aisles lead to chapels either side of the richly-decorated chancel.

A large number of original fittings survived the fire: there is a splendid 15th century brass eagle lecturn; the impressive painted tomb to Archibishop Whitgift (d. 1604); a handsome marble renaissance memorial to Archbishop Sheldon (d. 1677); numerous 15th and 16th century memorial brasses; and niches and other elements of the original fabric. A more modern feature is a complete Victorian scheme of colourful encaustic tiling in the chancel.

The church is the busy centre of parish life, and services provide an opportunity to listen to the excellent choir (CD recordings available). For details of services, recitals and concerts, see web-site.

The adjacent Archbishops' Palace is now a school, but guided tours are available, to see the 13th century undercroft, the impressive 15th century Great Hall, Chapel and dining rooms, as well as the Long Gallery and other domestic rooms (see: www.friendsofoldpalace.org).

Church Street, Croydon, CR0 1RN Website

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