Changes at the Holy Trinity Church on the Common

It’s not every day you see building works on a church, especially one as prominent as the Holy Trinity, which sits in Clapham Common. But works are indeed afoot, with a view to modernising the facilities and dealing with some of the issues caused by the current design.

It’s quite a complicated building from a planning perspective: it’s located on Metropolitan Open Land, which is treated a bit like Green Belt for land within London and means they can’t freely build all over it. The Church argues that this development won’t damage the openness of the land, and this is probably a reasonable argument given the extensions are pretty small. It’s also Grade II* listed, which brings its own set of planning complexity – although active churches also have some rather handy exemptions from the planning process, that mean they don’t need to get listed building consent for the proposed works.

The most prominent part of the project from the exterior will see the portico at the front entrance enclosed. This is partly to create a bit more usable space, but mostly to deal with long running issues caused by encampments in the portico, which reportedly started out relatively harmlessly but quickly escalated to sustained antisocial behaviour with threatening behaviour towards the Church staff and visitors. The planning application includes a lengthy and detailed report of the large number of incidents over the last year or so –

“A group of professional beggars took occupation of the portico nearly every night for a period lasting over a year… during which time staff had to, every morning, deal with aggressive behaviour, fouling, littering and graffiti. This appears to have only stopped because of the gates now being locked…. One incident involved a drug dealer chasing and verbally threatening a staff member when they were in the car leaving the church after work, and another involved a council employee threatened with a knife.”

The portico entrance to Holy Trinity Clapham

The planning application also notes that “during the Covid pandemic, we had times when many people on the Common used the church (including the portico), as their urinal, and worse. On one day there were more than 20 people all using the church as a urinal at the same time”. They supplied the photo below, to illustrate the scale of the peeing issue at the more secluded eastern side of the church!

Numerous men peeing on the side of the church

The plans for the portico have proved the most controversial part of the project, as initially the plans would have seen the portico demolished, rebuilt, and extended forwards, which changes the overall proportion and appearance of the church quite significantly. The plans, initially submitted in February, were revised in May and July to keep the portico much the same size as it is, but still to close off the entrances with glass. There’s clearly still some risk that glazing this all in will make it look more like a conservatory and remove the depth of the building that the portico gives. The plans say this will be done with a low-reflective glass, and such materials do exist (being occasionally used for high end showrooms) – but unless the glazing is done to an exceptionally high standard (and high cost) it’s inevitable that the shape and look of the building may end up a bit worse off.

The rest fo the works are essentially a package of small extensions and alterations to make the church a more flexible building and open it up to wider set of uses. The major ‘new build’ element here is an extension to the north vestry; as well as extending the former south chapel with the walls of the new extension are shown in a reddish brown on the proposed floorplan below. These are essentially the two parts of the church that stick out at the sides, which will now stick out a bit further! The works will adapt these to be more useful to a modern church and provide slightly better facilities; the extensions are already a bit more modern than the rest of the church and the extensions are to be in a pretty similar style to what is already there.

The plans will see a small section of the current under-floor space excavated and developed as a usable basement. The church currently has an unusual basement, essentially a series of narrow arched vaults and passageways, with a couple of larger crawl spaces at the south east corner of the building (shown below), and it’s these that are to be dug out and made accessible for the first time as two meeting rooms.

Changes are also planned for the interior – in particular moving the pulpit, and removing the pews. This has proved controversial, and it’s a frequent debate in the church world: on the one hand, pews are part of the core fabric of a church, and removing them fundamentally changes the original interior. On the other hand, they do very much limit the use of the building to activities involving linear rows of seating, which arguably limits what a church can do at times other than a classic Church service. Following concerns, including from the Clapham Society, the plans were changed to keep the pews within the northern upper gallery.

There are also plans for an upgrade to the landscaping around the church, in particular to the eastern side which is currently just a rather muddy area of grass, as shown below.

By and large these plans seem a sensible way of updating the building to work as a modern and flexible church space, without damaging its heritage and general landmark status. The plans have not yet received planning approval from Lambeth Council (this is application number 21/00447/FUL in the Lambeth planning database for those with an interest in seeing the full details), though the various changes made to the portico plans in particular suggest that some of the concerns raised in the planning process are being discussed and addressed behind the scenes, which is usually a sign that the plans are on the way to being agreed.

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