I stumbled upon All Saints’, Isleworth after taking a walk past Syon House on a lovely (and uncharacteristically sunny) afternoon.
The first thing that struck me about this place was the fusion of the undoubtedly medieval and the even more undoubtedly modern. A fifteenth-century church tower stands tall next to the Thames. Attached to this relic of our medieval past is the rather striking red brick work of the 1960s. Looking upon this architectural mismatch is, at first, quite a jarring experience. However, once the eye settles and the confusion passes the building itself begins to appear really quite beautiful, particularly once the story behind the structure is revealed.
In 1943 two schoolboys set fire to the earlier church that stood on this site. As a result, the medieval tower and the outside walls of All Saints’ are the only surviving parts of the previous church building. The determined parishioners of All Saints’ raised the necessary funds for the rebuilding of their church through small but innovative fundraising schemes – from selling marmalade to the option of ‘buying a brick’. The modern sections of the church we see today are the product of the faith and work of these parishioners. It is also a tribute to the architectural flair of Michael Blee, an architect responsible for the completion of Douai Abbey and widely recognised for his church work.
Anne-Françoise Morel notes that the church itself was dedicated to All Saints in 1485 but the vicarage had been in existence since 1290. It is certain that the church had strong links to the nearby Syon Abbey. The rebuilding of the church during the 1960s was not the first transformation of this church. In the 1700s the church had fallen into a state of disrepair. Sir Christopher Wren was asked to re-design the building but his designs proved far too expensive. This resulted in the church being built to a different design between 1706 and 1707. Further modifications were made to the church in the 1800s, funded by the Farnell family.
I, sadly, could not make my way into the church, due to a rather large and imposing lock upon the tower gate. However, through the iron bars one can still see the courtyard – the nave of the church before the twentieth-century renovations. It is difficult to imagine what this space may have looked like with a roof. Indeed, seeing the openness of the courtyard through the tower gateway certainly gives the sense that this is a space challenging traditional conceptions of ‘church’ and ‘community’. The entire building is directed towards this central and communal area. It has an air of togetherness.
Within the churchyard one can also find a path made up of old, fallen headstones. At first looking down at your feet placed upon stones commemorating lost loved ones can be quite discomforting. However, by using stones that have fallen, instead of merely stacking them alongside the church walls, a larger memorial to former parishioners has been created. The path is a series of names, quotes, dates, shapes – a visual record of this parish from century to century, year to year. It once again emphasises this idea of a ‘community’, of people that have worshipped in this area across the ages and who have come to be linked through their final resting place on the banks of the river Thames.
All Saints’ may be rather unusual but it is beautiful in its own way. It is a place that defies traditional expectations combining the old and new, the modern and medieval. Visiting this place once again proves to me that London does not have to be all about Westminster Abbey or St Paul’s (although they are wonderful). History can be found in the humblest of settings and at the oddest of times…even on your normal Sunday afternoon walk.
Bibliography and Further Reading:
Bareham, Peter. ‘Obituary: Michael Blee’, The Independent, (1996), https://www.independent.co.uk/news/obituaries/obituary-michael-blee-1341947.html, Accessed: 9th December 2019.
‘Church of All Saints’, Historic England, (1951), https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1358287, Accessed: 9th December 2019.
Morel, Anne-Françoise, ‘All Saints, Church Street, Isleworth, London Borough of Hounslow’, Glorious Temples or Bablyonic Whores, Brill (2019), pp.343-346, https://doi.org/10.1163/9789004398979_028, Accessed: 9th December 2019.