Some pray, some pay

Observations on heritage

Britain's weary architectural conservationists have been using the magic words "John" and "Betjeman" more often than at any time since the death of the Bard of Suburbia some 23 years ago. Last month Sir John's memory was invoked with the unveiling of a statue of him at the revamped St Pancras Station, which the great populariser of historic buildings did much to save from the bulldozers in the 1960s. Now his name is being muttered in connection with a smaller, yet in many ways more important, piece of the nation's past.

The Priory Church of St Bartholomew the Great, tucked away in a corner of Smithfield, London, is one of the capital's most precious architectural treasures. Founded in 1123, the church is a rare and exceptionally beautiful example of medieval architecture. It has survived the Reformation, the Great Fire, a Zeppelin bomb, the Blitz and London's last V-2 rocket. Great St Bart's has served a parish that has seen hardships and horror, from the execution of "heretics" just beyond its doors to the barely less subtle cruelties of mass poverty, disease and overcrowding. For much of the past nine centuries the church cured London's impoverished sick, who were dragged and carried inside to seek spiritual balm at the tomb of the Great St Bart's founder, Rahere. The church and its now-vanished priory were Augustinian, known both for skill in healing and a willingness to live "at one" with the common people.

Now visitors, common people included, must part with £4 just to step inside - making it the first functioning, consecrated English parish church to impose a compulsory entrance fee (though visitors who pray are not charged).

Not that it is entirely without income. Great St Bart's has "starred" in a succession of films and TV series - Four Weddings and a Funeral, Shakespeare in Love, Madame Bovary, Robin Hood and The End of the Affair. Film trucks and stars' caravans, pitched where state executions were once carried out, have become a more familiar sight than worshippers, with location fees bringing in many thousands of pounds over the years. But Great St Bart's needs more. Facing a potential bill for roof repairs in the region of £200,000, the church applied to English Heritage for £50,000 to help it out. EH turned the application down - because, it says, Great St Bart's had access to sufficient funds for the repairs. The church believes it does not.

The decision by Great St Bart's to charge visitors is far-reaching. Some cathedrals - Canterbury, St Paul's - already levy entrance fees to non-worshippers, but their place in the to-and-fro of parish life is remote.

For all its architectural glory and filmic charm, Great St Bart's remains a "local" church - among those at prayer, you can find office workers, students, meat porters from Smithfield Market, patients from St Bart's Hospital next door, their families and hospital staff.

"What would John Betjeman have said?" is the lament of those who fear the theme-parking of Britain's heritage. Probably rather a lot, because for many years Sir John lived in a house on Cloth Fair, overlooking the church.

He loved it, apparently. But did he love it as a Christian, as a place of worship? Or did he just adore being there? For the first time since 1123, only the former can enter free; the rest must pay a fee.

This article first appeared in the 17 December 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas and New Year special 2007