Cambridgeshire Churches

Cambridge, St Luke

St Luke is a big beast of a church, crouching alongside the busy Victoria Road in the northern side of town. The first church on the site was a wooden structure erected in 1863, and apparently constructed partially from an old circus. It didn't take them long, however, to acquire funds to make a more permanent building. The main church was constructed between 1873 and 1874, to a design by William Basset-Smith, who also built St Barnabas down at the other end of town on Mill Road. The tower followed in 1885.

I'm not normally a fan of Victorian churches - they are often very ugly, and even when they're not, they tend to be bland and formulaic. Basset-Smith made use of lots of traditional gothic motifs, but they are combined into something quite striking at St Luke. One thing about it is the shape of the church as a whole. From further away, the dominant feature is the tall tower in the south-west corner. The broach spire is visible from many places in Cambridge, and is decorated with little gabled openings. It sits on top of a sill decorated with bellflowers and machicolations, below which is a bell stage with big elaborate Geometrical-type openings. The tower below that point is clasped by cross-buttresses, and pierced by circular sound holes in its middle; and there is a little stair turret in the middle of the south face, leading up to a ringing chamber. It's quite grand, without being fussy.

Getting closer, the tower is balanced by the main body of the church. This is essentially just a long hall, with a very lofty roof and high aisles. Like the tower, it is mostly built of yellow brick with the details picked out in stonework. Most of it is quite plain and severe, with decoration reserved for the two transepts at the east end, and especially the polygonal apse. This has big two-light windows on its five faces, almost filling the width of the wall. They are framed with little engaged shafts on the corners, and have big roundels (quatrefoils, cinquefoils and so on) in the tracery.

There have been more recent additions to St Luke. One is a little timber and glass porch at the east end of the south aisle, which would ordinarily offer access to the church. (That gives some hint of the odd arrangement of the interior space, but bear with me.) The other is a much more ambitious staircase that has been tacked onto the west end. At first sight, it's hard to tell that it isn't original - there is a box of the same coloured brick as the rest of the building, and the only odd sign is a two-storey bay window which juts out sharply from the middle of the west face.

Entry to the church is through a grand portal on the west face of the tower. There is a shallow stone canopy that rises up through the first stage of the tower, sheltering a broad archway of many engaged pillars. Inside it, there are two doorways in an elaborate frame - above the doors the spandrels are filled with very rich leafy carving, surrounding big blind quatrefoils. It's very unusual for a Victorian church, and reminded me rather of Heckingham in Lincolnshire. Between the doorways a smooth grey pillar rises to support a very architectural niche, containing a statue of St Luke clasping his gospel.

With such a grand exterior, I was expecting to step into a vast space. So, my first reaction was one of confusion: underneath the tower doorways lead to a pair of surprisingly small spaces, built into the west end and the south aisle respectively. St Luke is such a huge building that - with the dwindling of congregations in the latter part of the 20th century - the church was threatened with demolition. Instead, they decided to expand. They joined with the congregation of the United Reform Church next door in 1987 (which was subsequently demolished itself), and then converted the western half of St Luke into a set of various rooms for exhibitions, concerts and meetings. Hence the western extension, which contains a staircase leading to rooms which have been inserted into a new upper level. I didn't venture upstairs, but had a look at a couple of the rooms on the ground floor. The Michael Ramsey meeting room occupies what would have been the second bay of the nave, and suffers somewhat from a lack of external windows - but the whitewashed exhibition space in the south aisle was is lovely. On the day I visited, it was occupied by an artist named Svetlana Baibekova, exhibiting her work as part of the Open Studio weekend. I'm normally a bit sceptical about the Open Studio business - I've seen enough bland watercolours to last a lifetime, I think - but I really like Svetlana's work. Lots of bold colours and strong forms. The best of her work was from a recent trip to New Mexico and Arizona, but I was most intrigued by a pair of paintings entitled 'Critique of Pure Reason' and 'Critique of Practical Reason'. I couldn't figure out the connection to Immanuel Kant, and she wasn't really able to explain it to me either; but we had a nice chat about philosophy, and about her work as a geophysicist. Do go and visit her website if you get the chance.

After talking for a while, I headed round to look at the church itself. Ordinarily, one would enter through the south-east porch, but I found my way through some dark corridors in what must have been the north aisle at some point.

The church itself now occupies only the eastern two bays of the nave, along with the transepts and the apsidal sanctuary. Even so, it's still a very big space - St Luke must have been vast when it was unified. Photographs from before the conversion give the impression that it was all rather excessively ornamented, but that's certainly not the case now. It is carpeted in pale blue, and the walls are all white. The ceiling in the nave is plain white plaster, with a slightly more elaborate timber roof over the transepts and apse painted in more pale blue. From inside, the big windows in the apse fill the entirety of the walls, so that the interior is filled with light. Mercifully, there's almost no stained glass here - some lacklustre work in the south transept, and remains of architectural details in the tracery of the apse windows. But on the whole the effect is noble and austere. I guess this is partially to do with the joint usage of the original Anglican congregation and their new URC colleagues. In general, I'm not a fan of strongly Protestant conversions, but this has improved things no end. Some bits of Anglo-Catholicism survive - the usual arrangement of six candlesticks sits at the east end, and there is still a piscina and set of sedilia in the plain white walls of the apse, and they have been carefully picked out in darker paint - but they harmonise with the more severe surroundings very well.

Aside from the space itself, there's not much to shout about. The western side of the church is filled with a large gallery, which afforded an interesting viewpoint for the church but is not especially interesting. I did quite like the war memorial in the north transept, constructed to look like a William Morris reredos (and also conveniently hiding the side of the organ). But really, the interest of St Luke is in the excellent use that has been made of the building. I think that the new church is a lovely space, and I strongly approve of the way that a very versatile set of community rooms has been built into the western half. The congregation seem also to be continually improving things, too - when I visited they were exhibiting plans to replace the plasterboard partition between the two segments of the church with an etched glass panel. From the designs, it looked spectacular, and would really help to deal with the lack of light that I mentioned earlier. Isn't it wonderful what a little imagination can do?

St Luke's is not generally kept open for visitors, but it's easy to slip in as I did when some other events are on.

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