Childhood reminiscences of St Peter's in the 1950s
The Cathedral Brighton would have had
I doubt there’s anyone reading this website who’s more atheistic than me, but I’d still consider it a great shame if St Peter’s Church were to come down. It’s been an icon in the town – now city – for almost two centuries, and I can’t imagine the place without it.
Despite being atheistically minded almost from first having God described to me – what WAS this fantastic figure supposed to be all about? – my early life was surprisingly closely entwined with St Peter’s. As a very small child I remember it being described to me by a teacher as the cathedral Brighton would have had, had it been a cathedral city.
From the age of seven, for over three years, I was a member of the 32nd Brighton (St Peter’s) Wolf Cub pack. (Our most distinguishing feature was that we, uniquely, wore navy blue jerseys, whilst the standard was dark green jerseys.) On the first Sunday of each month we would march in formation to St Peter’s from our scout HQ, a dusty old hall in a street whose name I forget off Albion Hill – now long demolished and replaced by the Albion Hill flats estate during the early sixties – for Church Parade, which was actually the morning communion service.
Actually, I enjoyed the Cubs greatly, whilst resenting the heavy religious patina that then still overlaid the movement and finding Church Parade particularly irksome. After the final demolition of our HQ we moved to St Peter’s Church Hall itself, although this lacked the peculiar atmosphere generated by the ancient tennis rackets, hockey sticks, sofas and two dusty old harmoniums that littered the old hall.
St Peter’s Sunday School
When I was nine my father (himself an dyed-in-the-wool atheist) recognised the opportunity for getting me out of the house on Sunday afternoons for a couple of hours that enrolling me in St Peter’s Sunday School would provide. For a year I stuck this out manfully, despite being the oldest pupil there by some margin and not exactly endearing myself by doe-eyed devotion to the elderly spinster ladies who ran the classes. (I did however enjoy the annual Sunday School outing to Bognor Regis, on a hired Southdown bus, with the highlight being a turn on the motor boats on the lake in Hotham Park.)
Perhaps recognising that I was a bit senior for Sunday School, the then vicar of St Peter’s, the Rev Turnbull, invited me to become a Server. Eager to escape the elderly spinster ladies, and seeing the advantage of getting my compulsory weekly dose of religion over before lunchtime, I ended up wearing the full rig of cassock, smock and ruffled collar and carrying a candle on a pole behind the vicar as he processed up the aisle at communion. I recall sitting to one side of him opposite the choir as the prayers and hymns proceeded, being more firmly than ever convinced of my atheist leanings and that I was committing a sin of hypocrisy just being where I was.
Unsurprisingly, this only lasted a few months and I finally excused myself by simply failing to turn up soon after my tenth birthday. This really severed my slightly dishonourable links with St Peter’s, other than a chance meeting with Mr Turnbull some three years later at a wedding in Hassocks, to where he had moved to become rector of two small churches. (He bore me no ill will for my desertion: indeed, he was a real gentleman and a Christian in the truly charitable sense, having provided comfort to my mother at a time of family breakdown shortly before he left St Peter’s, even though she was not a member of his congregation.)
A topographical feature
Living in the lower Ditchling Road area, St Peter’s remained a topographical focus of my daily life until I left Brighton for university in 1968. I recall seeing with dismay on a later visit the effects of the 1987 hurricane on the fine trees that surrounded it, leaving it standing seemingly naked. Someone has pointed out that its “cheap” construction from Portland stone has rendered St Peter’s vulnerable to weathering and erosion, and that this is an argument for its demolition. Well, almost all the civic and ecclesiastical buildings here in Bath are made from similar material, and the idea of allowing any of them to be thus removed would result in insurrection on the streets. The use of this soft material in such buildings makes them eminently repairable and restorable.
One such in Bath, St Mark’s at Widcombe, long deconsecrated as a city church due to non-viable congregation, is now a vital and much-loved community centre. Perhaps St Peter’s has no future as a place of worship, but this atheist would be delighted to see it survive as a similar facility.