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Here beginneth the first lesson... how to unlock the secrets of our churches

BY day, Richard Taylor heads a team of lawyers at Sheffield-based legal firm DLA Piper.

But behind the scenes he is a best-selling author and ecclesiastical expert and tomorrow night he presents a new six-part series on BBC 4 showing how Britain's churches have shaped our lives and history.

In Churches: How To Read Them, the lawyer-turned TV presenter travels to more than 70 churches all over the country, explaining how their symbols, imagery and architecture have inspired, moved and even enraged people down the centuries. The series follows on from the success of Taylor's unlikely literary hit – How to read a Church – which has sold about 100,000 copies and been translated into five languages since it was first published in 2003.

"It was just supposed to be an enthusiasts' book but it soon became obvious that people were interested and it was meeting a need," he says. "The book is more of a guide, whereas the TV series is more historical. It starts with the first missionaries back in the

7th century and goes right up to the 21st century, tracing all the history and the drama of the story, and what it means."

Taylor's interest in churches and chapels has grown over the years and he rejects the idea that they are merely out-dated relics of the past. "Everyone has gone into a church at some point and seen something and wondered what it is. But it's easy to be deluged by it all and, if you don't understand, it can be overwhelming and you turn on your heels and walk out. So we try to explain what things are and why they're significant, like an image of a woman dressed in blue which you find in many churches," he says.

"The series doesn't assume any prior knowledge, it's a back to basics look. It's about helping people understand what they are seeing in front of them because that little bit of knowledge makes a visit to a church so much more rewarding."

He feels there is a lot more to Britain's churches than many people realise. "The history of the architecture is amazing. You can step into almost any church and see 1,200 years of history just by standing there and looking around. It's like Time Team without the mud."

Among those he visited are several from Yorkshire including St Mary's Church, in Whitby, which famously appears in Bram Stoker's

Dracula. "It's perched on the top of the hill, this squat medieval church and what's really fascinating is although it dates back to Norman times, it was completely reconfigured in the 18th century so when you walk through the door there are these box pews everywhere, I've never seen anything like it. By this time, the word of God was everything and if you go to St Mary's you have this gigantic pulpit, like a rocket in the middle of the church, where the minister would stand over the congregation. Yet you can still see the old church underneath with the medieval flagstones."

It is the intricate details, which shed light on past lives, that he finds particularly fascinating. "In one of the corners, the box pews made great hiding places and you can see lots of old graffiti scratched into the paintwork. Because it's Whitby there are a lot of ships with tall masts and you can just imagine when the minister wasn't looking the boys ducking down to draw something." Another Yorkshire church featured in the series is the Methodist Chapel at Heptonstall, in West Yorkshire. "It is the oldest Methodist chapel in continuous use anywhere in the world. John Wesley used to come here and it's a place that you can step into and almost feel a warmth and friendship radiate out, which is what Methodism was all about in the early days – togetherness and community. You head down a cobbled street and there it is, this hidden gem here in Yorkshire."

We often regard churches as high-minded, sombre places, but Taylor says this staid image isn't always accurate. "The amount of sexual

references you find appearing in churches will surprise some people. In the Middle Ages, they didn't hold back, they were far less prudish than we are now. In those days, the seven deadly sins were taken very seriously and people were left in no doubt what would happen to them if they committed any of them."

His tour of Britain's churches took him to all kinds of places both grand and small, but he says his favourite was St John the Baptist Church in Inglesham, Wiltshire. "It was a totally unassuming building, sat in the middle of the countryside. But, despite it's humble

appearance, inside, this church told the story of over 1,000 years of religious history – from Anglo-Saxon carvings on one wall, to medieval wall paintings on another and then passages from the Bible etched elsewhere from the Reformation.

"There was a knight buried under the stone floor, an 18th century pulpit that looked as though it had been plucked straight from a Jane Austen novel, and a roof that the Victorians had put on. That little place captured exactly what is so exciting about visiting churches in Britain, and what a treasure trove we have on our doorsteps."

It is this direct link to our ancestors, he feels, that explains their enduring popularity. "There's so much history in them, they are a fixed point in an ever-changing world – John Betjeman was asked why they're important and he said 'because they're always there'. Churches have seen so much drama and so much has happened inside their walls. There's been marriages, with people starting their lives together, and all the funerals. These big pivotal moments in people's lives have happened in churches which creates this special aura."

Even in our increasingly secular times he feels they have lost none of their appeal. "When you're out on a walk in the country what's nicer than popping your head into a church and having a poke around? I think people are as interested in this as they've

ever been."

n Churches: How To Read Them starts tomorrow on BBC4 at 8.30pm.

n Richard Taylor is one of the guest speakers at the Yorkshire Post Literary luncheon, at Harrogate Pavilions, on September 16. For information and tickets, contact Margaret Brown on 07731 690163, or email mbrownevents@hotmail.com

 
 
 

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