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Icons, Tears and Hope in Barrow Hill

The sun was just setting as we shoved open the battered gothic door and were greeted by that eerie silence that inhabits abandoned buildings.  The last sunlight was streaming through the William Morris stained glass creating a rainbow pattern on the tile floor and catching the specks of dust from the crumbling plaster work. This was our final pilgrimage on a cold April evening in 2022 after a failed campaign to save Saint Andrews Barrow Hill.

Our visit was a far cry from the atmosphere the building had on that 2018 summers evening when the TCPA had performed. Then the church was packed and ringing with the sound of our house band playing a tribute to Raymond Unwin and Barry Parker’s first, and perhaps most iconic, design achievement. Back then we felt that we had only just discovered this extraordinary part of British working-class heritage. An untold story of how a group of artists, writers and trade unionist met around Edward Carpenters Derbyshire table and, inspired by those such as William Morris, began to transform the housing of ordinary people.

Amongst their many achievements Unwin and Parker’s enduring partnership drove the greatest step forward in the housing conditions of working people ever seen in this nation resulting not just in the designs of places like Letchworth but the blueprint for hundreds of thousands of council houses at affordable rents with generous rooms, big gardens and walkable shops and schools. St Andrews was their first and much-loved design collaboration and knowing the budget was limited they designed and hand made the font and lectern and much else.

The church they struggled to build on a shoestring is now being sold and church law demands that furniture used in religious services must be destroyed unless they can be found some home in a reputable museum.  Between the support of the TCPA and the kindness and commitment of those few remaining parishioners we hope, subject to raising £500 for transport, that some of the Unwin and Parker items can be saved and moved to the Letchworth Heritage Foundation. The foundation itself has been amazingly generous in accepting these items into its care, reuniting these icons of the arts and crafts movement with Unwin and Parkers original drawings in their archive.

I will reserve my comments about Historic England role who failed, despite repeated attempts, to list the building for a longer piece in a forthcoming journal but it staggers me that they could not grasp the overwhelming social significance of these two brilliant campaigners and designers. Nothing can now stop the sale of this church or protect it from unsympathetic conversion or even demolition.

We are allowed, at least for a moment, to be angry. We have lost an icon of our founding story and that’s hard for any social movement to bear. But the very odd thing was that as the sunset and we sat in the twilight talking on the oak pews which Barry Parker had designed the atmosphere of this simple hall of the future wrapped around us and changed the mood completely. The realisation was simple enough. Be careful not to die in a ditch for the icons of the past.   Icons are ultimately monuments to a moment.  Its the ideals that really count and the ideals are still burning brightly.

We are invested in Saint Andrews because it was an icon of hopefulness in a hard time and because we know the part it played and weaving the fabric of the Garden City ideal. That ideal was one of the great threads of progressive change in the 20th century, a guiding light to a better condition of life which valued the diverse human condition and social justice over the destructiveness of obsessive private profit.

There are so many more important issues confronting us now including the desperate war in Ukraine, and many of you may feel that it is an indulgence for the TCPA to go on trying to construct a hopeful future. But being able to offer some sense of how peaceful coexistence can be achieved in a society founded on social justice is one of the most powerful ways of honouring those scarred by conflict and poverty. The TCPA’s Tomorrow 125 project is beginning to reconnect the head and the heart of the Garden City movement and will, with some good luck and goodwill, demonstrate that there is an immediate alternative, a sustainable and practical model of how we might live together.   In short to offer a measure of hopefulness in these bleak times.

So, it is with grateful thanks to Barry Parker and Raymond Unwin and to St. Andrews Barrow Hill for this last, and lasting, moment of inspiration. As befits a church, we say farewell in the glorious expectation of the better world you both proved was a practical possibility for working people.

We need your help!

If you would like to help us meet the cost of transporting the Unwin and Parker art work to Letchworth please visit our donations page.  We know there are many other more important causes but if you can help us we would be very grateful.

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