Judges and presenters of English Heritage’s Heritage Angels Awards, with Michael and Andrea Taylor of joint winners St Stephens, Hampstead

The Finest Specimen…

20th January 2012

… of brick building in all the land…

English Heritage’s Heritage Angel Awards (co-funded with the Andrew Lloyd Webber Foundation) for individuals or groups who save significant buildings at risk of being lost, were launched last year. Jack Watkins meets one of the first winners…

Michael Taylor, chairman of St Stephen’s Restoration and Preservation Trust, has a deprecating line in humour. Within minutes of welcoming me into the deconsecrated old church on Rosslyn Hill, NW3, he declares that he and his wife Andrea must be “the two stupidest people in north London.” That’s not how they are viewed in the conservation world, though. When they stepped forward to receive one of English Heritage’s Heritage Angel awards at a West End gala ceremony this autumn, it was a recognition of a lengthy struggle to rescue from oblivion one of London’s most striking – if too long undervalued – buildings.

Why, therefore, the self-flagellating modesty? Ah, well… that arises from 13 years of headaches and sleepless nights worrying over a deteriorating structure which the Church of England had seemed content to leave to rot. Now, thanks to the Restoration Trust, a massive input from the local community who dug deep into their pockets, as well as funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund and English Heritage, the building is back as a local centre for arts, entertainments and as the hub of the local nursery and pre-prep Hampstead Hill School.

Yet, despite a campaign that has raised £5.6m, at one stage the whole venture seemed to be heading for the rocks, as donations seemed to dry up. “I wasn’t a happy man between 2004 and 2006,” admits Michael. “I thought all our efforts were going to come to nothing, and that it would prove to have been a terrible waste of time.” Almost miraculously, the Wolfson Foundation came forward to offer a substantial sum, so that matching funds could be drawn, but the Trust still needs to raise a further £100,000 to pay off contractors. “It’s far from being a bed of roses, even now” Michael cautions.

Peruse the Heritage at Risk Register maintained by English Heritage and it’s clear that there’s hardly a borough or district in the country without its share of endangered structures. Most of these mean something to someone, yet the plight of St Stephen’s, Rosslyn Hill, has been one of the most tortuous cases of all, with the Victorian Society voicing uts concerns as far back as the late 1970s.

In order to understand something of the appeal of St Stephen’s, it helps to know a little of the context in which it was built. The church is a survivor from the 19th century, the last great age of church building in England. It was a period when people were assailed by doubts sown by Evolutionism. Many of the architects themselves were devout Christians, however, and, instead of continuing to favour the classical forms of a century earlier, they sought inspiration in Gothic Revivalism, which they associated with the religious certainties of medieval times. Their designs, spanning several decades, incorporating subtle changes of emphasis over the years, are generally full of colour, emotion and imaginative visual flourishes; their names – AWN Pugin, William Butterfield, JL Pearson, George Edmund Street and GF Bodley among them – still exert a peculiar fascination.

Beyond this group, however, SS (Samuel Sanders) Teulon, the architect of St Stephen’s, was something of an outsider, the son of a cabinet maker, a Low Churchman of French descent. Teulon’s designs had all the flamboyance and vivacity of many of his colleagues, but he was regularly accused of ‘incorrectness’ in his appliance of detail. His magpie approach took forms and materials from diverse sources – including, sometimes, the highly visual use of cast-iron in church interiors. By flouting the prescriptions of the influential Ecclesiological Society, he was accused of ‘want of repose’ and ‘needless eccentricity’. That was a reputation hard to shrug off, and one relatively recent architectural encyclopedia refers to his buildings as having ‘acquired a reputation for extreme ugliness.’.

St Stephen's after restoration

St Stephen’s, begun in 1869, was a commission particularly close to SS Teulon’s heart. He called it ‘my mighty church’ and, though he died before its completion in 1873, it is surely his masterpiece. It is a building which, if you have a taste for such things, has great drama. Approach from the west and it seems to blend in well enough with its surrounds, though the huge rose window and heavy tracery, visible through a wintry screen of leafless plane trees, hints at the excitement to come. The ground falls away quite sharply to the east, though, situated as it is on a bluff at the corner of Pond Street and Rosslyn Hill. As you stand below it on Hampstead Green, this stern, purple-bricked, granite-capped structure, topped by a square belfry tower, is quite overpowering. Some liken its appearance to that of a French cathedral, but Michael Taylor simply describes it as looming up “like some bloody great Norman castle.”

Inside, the visual delights continue, with typical Teulonesque eclecticism evidenced by Moorish and Byzantine effects taking their place alongside polychromatic brickwork and standard Early English Gothic, under a high timber-vaulted ceiling. John Ruskin was said to have described St Stephen’s as ‘the finest specimen of brick building in all the land’, yet by 1977 it had been declared redundant, ostensibly because of falling attendances, though cost of maintenance may also have been a factor. Michael reels off a list of schemes that fell by the wayside, most of which would have been detrimental to Teulon’s original design.

Andrea Taylor, the proprietor of Hampstead Hill School, which was set up by her mother in 1949, and which used the church hall, was “in great fear of what would happen,” explains her husband, “but the diocesan surveyor, knowing my background as an architect, invited us to inspect it. When we stood in the porch in 1998, it was the first time I had been been inside, and it was essentially a junk yard for the incumbent squatter. All the windows in the aisles were boarded up, and it was like the Black Hole of Calcutta. But… I felt that structurally it was in better condition than one might have expected, and my wife felt it had ‘school-use’ written all over it. We fell in love with it aesthetically, but we also saw a practical future.”

Having acquired a 99-year lease, part of that future involved taking advantage of the unusual geography to excavate new space below the nave, at undercroft level, so that the school could move in, paying a commercial rent to the Trust. The second phase brought the actual nave – after underpinning, cleaning and various other repairs and restoration – into regular use for the community, with events that range from vintage fairs and exhibitions, to music concerts and public poetry readings.

Michael describes St Stephen’s as “a landmark building on a prominent site, at the crossing of many ways.” It’s passed daily by those walking uphill from Belsize Park tube station to go to work in Hampstead or visiting the Royal Free Hospital. For years its condition was an embarrassment, a local scandal. Now the Heritage Angels Award is a recognition not just of the Trust’s work, says Michael, but of the efforts of the community, “whose gifts ranged from £75,000, to a £1 coin sellotaped to one of our appeal forms.”

Teulon’s ‘mighty church’ is back where it started, embraced in the bosom of its surrounds. There’s nothing stupid about it.

Find Your Local