Chelsea Haven

The architecturally eccentric church of St Simon Zelotes provides unexpected peace

Sherry was long the traditional tipple after Matins at St Simon Zelotes in Chelsea, where my father is vicar, and it was a ritual religiously observed by the congregation. Sadly this tradition is on the wane and the post-service coffee and cake is bitter sweet. 

St Simon’s sits opposite Lennox Gardens. It was built in 1859 by Joseph Peacock, an eccentric architect with a taste for untamed Gothic details, pastiche and asymmetric carving. “Altogether we fear the building will be no gain to art,” was one contemporary comment.

Soon after we moved, my mother decided that the scarlet carpet was neither a gain to art nor spiritually enhancing and so commissioned her father, the architect Quinlan Terry, to replace it with the original tile pattern on stone.

We fixed two benches outside the church, which are rarely unoccupied. By day, builders sit and eat their sandwiches and mothers wait for their children after school. By night, romantic tourists sit in the soft glow of the street lights and a homeless man sleeps.

We leave the church open all day. I love reading the comments left in the visitors book; people from around the world write so often of “peace” and “home” that it is perhaps inappropriate to call it a visitors book.

St Simon’s was adored by John Betjeman, who described the church as “vigorous and eccentric . . . like a very strange dream”. My grandfather and Betjeman were members of the FAB society, which was set up by the arts and crafts architect Charles Voysey as a place to exchange rare foreign art books. There were dinners every quarter at which my mother and aunt, then children, would wait on table. I wonder if Betjeman and Grandpa ever discussed St Simon’s, or Peacock, its wilful architect.

Equally vigorous and eccentric was my favourite parishioner, who sadly departed soon after the carpet. Then in her mid-eighties, Eliza had had three husbands, and “hadn’t murdered any of them”. She brightened the gloomiest of Sundays with sparkly green eye-shadow and Barbie-pink lips, glowing from under the broad rim of one of her many hats. I once asked her how many hats she had, to which she replied, “My mother told me, ‘Never let the side down’.” I understood her perfectly.

A number of the flock often drifted into the vicarage for post-post-service sherry. Over a dry Tio Pepe, Eliza confided to me that she was on the hunt for a lover. I cast my eye around the room to scope out the potential. How about the visiting prebendary? An eligible bachelor who had been up at Oxford in the 1950s, lively as a spring chicken and presently reading aloud from P.G. Wodehouse to an audience of young and old bent double from laughing. “Too old,” she said, “they must be younger, they’re better at it.”

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