Unorthodox Things To Do In London's Churches

Will Noble
By Will Noble Last edited 16 months ago
Unorthodox Things To Do In London's Churches

Churchgoers in London these days can trade Hail Marys for Bloody Marys, prayer mats for yoga mats. Here's how to have fun in a church without getting on your knees (unless you actually are doing yoga).

The deliciously decayed Asylum in Peckham.

Thou shalt eat and drink

Traditional English church fare (wafers, bad wine, Digestives, bad tea) isn't up to much. Thank the lord then, that there's a spate of church spaces in London now serving up an altogether more divine class of cuisine. The crypt of St Matthew's in Brixton was a nightclub, before morphing into current incarnation Gremio De Brixton — a moodily-lit recess where you can slurp rioja and munch through mountains of jamón.

Beneath the famous Bow Bells, meanwhile, in the 1,000 year-old crypt of St Mary-le-Bow is Café Below. Swap hymn books for menus of homemade cuisine: slow-roasted beef, veggie risottos, excellent salads and decent beers and wines.

And while it's not as swish a joint as St Paul's Cathedral, the O'Neill's pub in Muswell Hill — a former Presbyterian church —  does offer the holy trinity of beer, live sport and ghost chilli chicken wings.

The cheaper, more romantic option is to picnic among church ruins, such as those as St Dunstan-in-the-East, or St John's Church Stanmore.

Dead comedians are reincarnated at Museum of Comedy. Photo by Arpad Lukacs, in the Londonist Flickr pool.

Thou shalt laugh

Ever get in trouble for tittering during a sermon as a kid? These days, there are monologues in churches you're expected to laugh at. Despite its title (and containing artefacts like Charlie Chaplin's cane) the Museum of Comedy is very much a functioning venue too. Nestled in the undercroft of St George's Bloomsbury, the snug performance space hosts stand-up sets, discussions, and comedic plays. This is also the place to witness 'reincarnations' of ex-comedians.

The enormodome of sanctimonious comedy venues though, is Union Chapel in Highbury & Islington.

Thou shalt be generous

The collection plate is just one way of donating in a London church. Some — such as City Temple on Holborn Viaduct, Hornsey Parish Church in Muswell Hill, and Our Lady of the Angels in Erith  — invite you to give blood (and in true church fashion, receive tea and biscuits for your trouble).

And let's not forget the decent old church jumble sale. Though church halls form the usual setting, the odd sale does unfold in the sacred space itself, such as the thrice-yearly jam-and-jumper fest at Leytonstone United Free Church.

Buy seeds at the Garden Museum's shop. Photo by Tere Sue Gildof, in the Londonist Flickr pool.

Thou shalt get cultured

Churches and the bowels of churches make for atmospheric galleries and performance spaces. Take the half-decrepit chapel in north Peckham, which has been pounced on by creatives, and turned into Asylum — a stage for art installations, plays and operas. (More traditionally, they also host weddings and funerals.) Wren's redbrick crypt of St Andrew Holborn has been known to stage the odd Shakespeare tragedy.

A church needn't even have its own roof any longer. The romantically decayed chapel in Nunhead Cemetery is momentarily filled with life from time to time, with performances from the likes of avant garde theatre group Arbonauts.

It seems there's not much you can't learn in church, either. Aside from the Museum of Comedy, there's the Old Operating Theatre near London Bridge, the Garden Museum in Lambeth (this has a café too), as well as smattering of crypt-cum-museums in St Brides (which contains remains of a Roman mosaic pavement), All Hallows by-the-Tower (more Roman souvenirs here), as well as the Royal London Hospital Museum, where you can swot up on your Joseph Merrick, Edith Cavell and Eva Lucke.

Bet you've never seen a nave like the one at Repton Park.

Thou shalt burn off that excess body fat

Of all London's glorious swimming pools, Repton Park has the most resplendent. That's because Repton Park is formerly Claybury Asylum, and the pool is its erstwhile vaulted-ceilinged chapel. Wouldn't it be wonderful if they did weddings here, and newly married couples could front crawl down the aisle.

A number of London's churches double up as makeshift yoga and fitness spaces. Make your body go into weird shapes at venues including Trinity Church in Golders Green and St Peter's Church, Clapham.

Live music at Union Chapel. Photo by cath dupuy, in the Londonist Flickr pool.

Thou shalt rock out

Most of us love the odd blast of Jerusalem or In The Bleak Midwinter every now and again, but church music needn't all be about The Man Upstairs. Classical music is easy to come by in London's churches these days. St Martin-in-the-Fields hosts recitals most days, including free lunchtime performances (you can also get lunch in its Café in the Crypt). St John's Smith Square is similarly a fount of classical music, and also has a café and restaurant.

Back to Union Chapel — its more traditional services are interspersed with live, guitar-laden shindigs, and the rather splendid music tea and cake events by Daylight Music.

And, since 1995, the bowels of Camberwell's St Giles have been flooded of a Friday evening with the meandering noises of jazz. Jazzlive is a singularly homely little venue, selling cheap bottled beers, and home-cooked food. Not three minutes away is Communion Bar — not strictly a church, but it does have cod stained glass, wafers and wine. A good place to brace yourself for those 10 minute sax solos.

Last Updated 18 October 2016

WHampstead

Stunned you didn't mention the ability to post a letter, have a coffee, and drown in a ballpit at St James' Church in West Hampstead -- the only full time post office in a church in London (and I think the country!)

Sue Condon

A couple of years ago I wandered into Christchurch Spitalfields and a young guy strolled in, sat at the piano and played a tune that I think was Yann Tierson's theme from Amelie. It was mesmerising and so beautiful that when he finished myself and some other visitors gave him a round of applause. He stood up and modestly nodded and just left the church. I subsequently found out online that he is a homeless fella who just likes to play the piano. I would love to find out more, but haven't been back there since.

Graham Miller

Loads of churches have cafés, books shops, maternity classes, baby clubs, food banks, youth clubs, knife banks, job clubs,... Whenever there is a knifing or a shooting in the community it is almost always the local church leader who is there providing free cups of tea and counseling for local kids whom they have known for years. At London City Mission we work with churches in some of the toughest parts of the city helping the homeless, the poor, the immigrants, the elderly. Churches have a message of diverse hope and goods news which your article has missed. You should come and visit the Time Out E14 Cafe of the year, "Café Forever" on the Isle of Dogs on a Sunday afternoon when it is transformed into a church and see what churches have to offer.

Ben

The Crypt of St Pancras Parish Church is an awesome little art gallery space and worth a visit.