Hidden Sunbury: The Church That Wasn’t There

It took me several years to notice the church that wasn’t there any more. I realize now that I had walked past it many times in the first few years that I lived in the area without noticing it. I suppose under the circumstances that’s not so unusual and I think that the camouflage hiding it was so effective precisely because of how disarmingly nondescript it looked. Even when I did notice the quiet façade, my first reaction was little more than a piquing of my curiosity rather than some jaw-dropping moment of revelation.

When I did actually become aware of the church, it still wasn’t immediately obvious. It’s not as if a monument of Gothic architecture leapt out to waylay me and ask me for contributions for its quota. No, somehow this church was hiding. In fact, the best way I can describe it was that it was disguised as another building altogether. To the outside world, there was simply a black marble plaque with dirty white lettering, diffidently set on the wall of an office block. The bricks of the office were as grey as the pavement before it, as if the builders of the office block had been vaguely embarrassed by it and so had been less inclined to make it stand out as a proud corporate headquarters.

The plaque noted that “on this site used to be St Saviour’s Church”, but made no mention of how or why it had been demolished. For some reason, that made the back of my mind tickle. There was a date on it too – 1985 – but the building it was placed on seemed a good twenty years older than that.

I wondered if this bore any connection to the much grander St Saviour’s that stood proudly round the corner from the parade of shops on another arm of the roads leading away from Sunbury Cross. That building had a bright limestone gleam that no amount of weeds and cracked asphalt had managed to obscure. The spelling on its contacts board was certainly identical to the name used here, which suggested a re-use or a migration of some sort. I peered closer at the entrance.

A plain glass door and a dimly lit corridor could be seen leading into the depths of the office block. There was no one in sight, suggesting that the building was unattended by more secular disciples than the plaque suggested. A column of doorbell buttons and a speaker unit next to the door suggested a multi-tenancy arrangement, but a passing glance didn’t give any clues about who was using this space. The handwritten labels were all long faded away.

Like every one else, I would normally have mentally shrugged and carried on my way towards the Troll Bridges, but that itch in my hind-brain wouldn’t stop nagging at me to find out what was going on, especially with all the other oddities that lurk in the shadows round here. You’re probably not at all surprised to learn that I’m the sort of person who habitually walks towards trouble rather than away from it. So I stepped onto the tiled doorstep of the entrance and reached for the plain steel handle set at waist height in the glass.

The moment in which the handle changed into a cast iron knob, and the door became dark oak, was a little scary. I kept my grip on it, feeling both the rough and pitted texture of the iron and the sleek brushed steel of the unassuming office block at the same time. I’d love to say that it was the weirdest set of sensations I’ve ever had, but that accolade went to the time I woke up to find a ghost sharing my pillow. To this day I still can’t make my mind up if that was the scariest or most wonderful night of my life.

Perhaps if I’d let go and stepped away, I wouldn’t have found it again. I could feel a nagging sense of worry with a small voice at the back of my mind telling me to walk away. It didn’t feel like my normal internal voice however, the one that berates me for sticking my nose into other people’s problems or mutters darkly when I make horrible mistakes.

It made me think the reticence was instead whatever was letting the old church hide behind the fabric of this building; so I pushed through. I remember feeling the very solid weight of the door that was totally at odds with the transparent surface that glimmered in and out of focus like a badly tuned TV station.

A few steps over the threshold and I could have been forgiven for thinking the modern world did not exist. The thrum of passing traffic receded, and  the light became more golden-hued, as if it was suddenly summer rather than the rather gloomy October that I’d just been walking in. It wasn’t the only sudden difference. I was suddenly surrounded by red brick and stone arches in a building that I was pretty sure didn’t really fit what I’d seen outside. To say it was mildly odd was more than a quiet understatement.

Most churches are aligned, by which I mean that the altar is at the East end of the building. That’s where you’ll usually find the imposing stained glass windows depicting saints or biblical events that flooded their buildings with washes of colour when the sun is in the right position. This church wasn’t aligned. I’m not saying it was somehow a place of evil, far from it, it was just not what I’d expected. I guessed it had been, or perhaps still was, a mission church that had then been built up.

The style of the building seemed to be a clash of influences, which made me think it was something that had evolved on this site. It felt like an old layout built in newer materials, as if someone had tried to build a Norman church out of breeze blocks, plaster board and concrete. Maybe I’m being unkind, I do that quite often. I should have chosen nicer words  because this space felt loved, like a cherished memory. The light was warm and everything was in a sort of soft focus.

The altar was set up at the west, with well polished silver and an immaculate cotton frontispiece that featured a stylised red and gold sunrise behind the Golgothan crosses. The whole dreamlike quality of the place had me convinced until then that I was hallucinating the whole thing. As a result, when the Verger politely coughed to get my attention, I therefore rather impressed myself by not leaping my own height in the air. I hadn’t actually expected to see anyone here.

He was polite enough to let me hurriedly regain what remained of my composure before speaking again. He was also gracious enough not to permit more than the ghost of a smile to disturb his unlined features.

“Can I help you?” he said. He held what looked suspiciously like a leaflet in his hand. His suit was clean and his shoes respectably polished. His round framed glasses reflected the soft light around us, and in appearance he looked to be either a well preserved pensioner or a slightly haggard middle aged man.

“I don’t know, I was curious about the sign and walked in. Where am I?” On the basis that this likely couldn’t get any weirder, I went for honesty.

“This is Saint Saviour’s Church-As-Was – a refuge and mission house for those who have fallen between the cracks and need the safety and help of the Church.”

“I’m not sure I understand.” The stability of what I was seeing seemed to waver for a moment, and I decided to stop trying to make sense of what I was seeing in case it winked out of existence and left me stranded in the middle of some filing cabinets or something.

“When the decision was made to move to the new church, there were many who held a grand and enduring love for this Mission Church that we had built up. The building may be long gone, but its memory is still strong enough to hold this space, so we maintain it and keep it.”

“I imagine the Church is a bit bemused to have unreal estate – they’ve always seemed to struggle to manage their real properties, let alone something like this.”

“Ah, I understand from the church wardens that this isn’t the first time that this has happened – and it’s probably why you’ve heard stories of properties and deeds rediscovered over the years. I imagine it gets hard to keep track of what’s physical and spiritual estate.”

“I suppose. So, do many people know about this?”

“A small number, but it’s mostly people who stumble in off the street, a warm place for lost souls and homeless people. We’re particularly busy in colder winters, and at Christmas of course.”

“Of course.” I said on reflex. Then a thought occurred to me: “When I leave, I won’t forget about this place will I?”

“Not if you don’t want to. There are a lot of people who don’t come back, but then people in crisis aren’t always focused on anything other than their immediate situation. Alcohol, drugs, or even simple illness and exhaustion are all enough to cloud memories after the fact. It’s sad, but just one of those things. We do what we can.”

“Stupid question, thinking about it, otherwise you’d not be here.”

“Oh we go where we’re sent.” He smiled, a thin line that suggested a private joke. I’m not entirely stupid, and the last piece of the puzzle slotted into place. He saw my expression change and said the traditional greeting found all over the Bible: “Do not be afraid.” It was a little late for that really.

“I think I’d better be going.” I said. I wasn’t sure I wanted confirmation of what he was – some things are best left ambiguous.

“Of course. You know where we are.” He smiled, and I of course smiled back, because there are some fights that you just don’t want to have, and I really didn’t want to have a broken arm when I had so much Christmas shopping to do. I made my excuses and left soon after, but I did eventually go back. I’ve been back several times in fact, though usually to raid the holy water stoop. It’s definitely still there, and if your need is great, you can find it too. Just don’t annoy the staff.

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