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ISN’T THIS WHERE
CHARLES HADDON SPURGEON
PART THREE – A VISIT TO THE TABERNACLE
Not too long ago, I decided that it was time for me to revisit South London and to actually look at it and not simply race through on a bus.
I went first to Dulwich, where my father was born and then to Albany Road in Camberwell where his family moved to shortly before he started to go to school. I walked the whole length of Albany Road and looked carefully at the few remaining Victorian houses and wondered if one might be where he lived. The road was longer than I thought, but eventually I came into the New Kent Road, which in turn proved long. At last the road brought me to the northern roundabout of the Elephant and Castle. I looked at the mess that it had become.
I failed to appreciate either the Coronet cinema or the memorial to Michael Faraday found on the roundabout. Sadly, I not only completely missed the symbolism of the memorial, but also failed to appreciate it as being the best that Britain could offer one of the greatest scientists ever to live. He was, and is and will continued to be highly regarded. It is interesting to note that a picture of Michael Faraday was found amongst Albert Einstein’s personal possessions after his death.
Two Unattractive Boxes at the Northern Roundabout of the Elephant & Castle
Top Left: the Memorial to Michael Faraday, by day; and Top Right: by night
(I believe the lights no longer work!)
Bottom: the Coronet Cinema (to think, the Trocadero once stood on the other side of the street!)
I walked through the numerous subways under the northern roundabout. These passageways allowed the pedestrian forgo the horror of trying to cross the many and dangerous roads that form a junction here. Despite valiant attempts to decorate the subway walls with murals and tiles, these passageways remain unattractive and somewhat daunting, which is perhaps unaided by their dirty, poorly lit and foul-smelling state. I certain would not be willing to venture through one at night. One really has to ask oneself, who is it that designs this sort of thing? Obviously someone who does not have to use it and who lives far, far away!
The murals are meant to recall the famous who once lived in the area (Charles Dickens, Robert Browning, Michael Faraday and Charlie Chaplin) and the ethnic diversity of today, as well as Elephants and Rhinos. (I can understand the Elephants …… but the Rhinos …..??? Obviously I have missed the point …… again!)
As I looked around the northern roundabout, I did not fail to appreciate the ugliness of the Charlie Chaplin and the new Elephant & Castle Public Houses. One would have thought that a more attractive design could have been chosen together with the use of more interesting materials to commemorate the birthplace of a national treasure such as Charlie Chaplin.
According to the Board on the right in the collage above, visitors are being welcomed to the world famous Elephant & Castle. It is tragic to think that such a world famous establishment as this should have been rebuilt as such a monstrosity. I remember the Public House of 1898 and it was glorious compared to this pathetic establishment. It was a public house of interest.
However, my complaints of the area were not over. Worse was yet to come. If the subways and the design of the public houses were not sufficiently offensive to the eye, these were soon to pail and be surpassed by further examples of urban plight in the area. A walk through the open air market and the Shopping Mall soon fulfilled my worst expectations. Although I had prepared myself for the horror of the Shopping Mall, without doubt, nothing, absolutely nothing prepared me for what I found: for I was to find a structure that reached up and became the pinnacle of ugliness.
Nothing that I had yet seen at the once attractive and interesting Elephant & Castle prepared me for the state of deterioration that the Shopping Mall to revolutionise shopping in Britain had suffered. The sooner this poorly designed and poorly constructed eyesore can be replaced, the better for the residents of the area. Mind you, many of the 3,000 or so residents who once lived at the Heygate Estate had been moved and it is now closed, boarded up and ready for demolition.
The Heygate Estate became known as one of the worst examples of urban decay. It was meant to represent a modern living environment consisting of tall concrete blocks towering over smaller blocks and surrounded by gardens. The buildings were to be linked by concrete bridges and so allow avoidance of the dwellers from walking on pavements besides roads.
The estate was completed in 1974 and, according to what I can gather, was once a popular place to live. According to what I read, the flats were light and spacious, but according to me, despite the flats being so described, so much concrete does not make for a pleasant looking environment and its size does not lend itself to a sense of community. The estate later gained a reputation for a high crime rate, poverty and dilapidation. By 2000, the estate was in serious need of repair.
It seems that there is yet another plan to regenerate the Elephant & Castle area, which is said to cost £1.5 billion. The plan includes the total demolition of the Heygate Estate with its replacement with some 2,500 new homes. The demolition costs will be in the area of £8.5 million together with an additional £35 million to rehouse the residents. Demolition began in April 2011. It seems that the finals blocks will not be demolished before 2015 since each one contains asbestos, which takes time to remove safely.
While in the midst of discovering the Shopping Mall I remember suddenly having had enough of present day Elephant & Castle and being seized with the need to escape this urban plight and find peace …… if not quiet …… outside!
I went out onto the patio or forecourt or whatever the area is called for some air. Despite the noise of the endless traffic, I was immediately cheered by what now faced me across the road for there was the Metropolitan Tabernacle, the building I had liked so much as a child.
Without further ado, I raced down the steps and out of the mall and, taking my life in my hands, I crossed the road, Newington Butts, and ran over to the Tabernacle.
At that time, I knew nothing about the Tabernacle except that I always liked its appearance. I did not know it had opened on 18th March, 1861 with Charles Haddon Spurgeon as Pastor or that the building was destroyed twice, first by fire in 1898 and then by incendiary bomb in 1941. I had no idea that the portico had survived on both occasions. I remember looking at the portico many times as a child and always admiring the columns, yet I had never been inside the building.
As I looked at the Tabernacle that day, I appreciated for the first time that the portico had been built in a classical Greek style so admired by Victorians. There were six impressive Corinth columns before the entrance area, which was raised up from the roadway behind a small wall. Access was achieved from either side of the wall by passing through the metal gate and climbing the stone steps.
As I looked and admired the portico, I noticed a blue board with white lettering on the front wall of the Tabernacle. While reading, I was stunned for I was greatly surprised at what I read. In fact, as they used to say, you could have knocked me down with a feather!
My surprise came from the fact that it was not until I went to live in North America in 1980 that I learned of the existence of Charles Haddon Spurgeon and now, here, today, after the passage of many intervening years, I now learned that this had been his church, the building where he gave many of his sermons. As I said, I was stunned. Imagine, being here! I could not believe my good fortune.
Now that I had discovered that this was THE METROPOLITAN TABERNACLE and that it was here where Charles Haddon Spurgeon had preached, I decided that I was not leaving without going inside.
After a while I managed to compose myself and set about seeing how I was going to get inside the Tabernacle. However gaining entry was to prove easier said than done. I noticed that one of the main gates at the road level was open. I entered and climbed the steps up to the entrance area. There were three large front doors that proved to be locked and obviously bolted. Knocking on them did not bring anyone hurrying to see who was there. Disappointed, but not daunted, I walked down the side steps and decided to try ‘round the back.
Although I did manage to gain entry I had arrived at the Tabernacle at about 10.00 a.m. on a Monday morning and I suspect that most of the staff had yet to arrive. ‘Round the back I found a door that when I knocked on it brought a woman to open it. I say open! She offered the smallest crack of an opening. She was evidently part of the clerical staff and immediately told me that no one was available to talk to me. I suppose she expected me to scamper off, but I did not. She was obviously not impressed with me despite my smiling at her and giving her a friendly greeting and a friendly chat. Obviously charm was not going to have the desired effect on this lady and get me inside the building. And so, with regret, I decided that in order to gain entrance, I needed to resort to a little deceit.
I have found over the years that when one wants something and wants it badly enough, a little deceit often proves the grease to open the door. It is not that I enjoy being slightly deceitful, because I do not. But oftentimes I find people in authority to be somewhat harsh and a tad cruel in their behaviour to a reasonable request. I appreciate that in today’s age of violence, one has to be careful who one allows into one’s home and place of work, but I have always believed that anyone can see that I am honest and mean them no harm and so can never understand reticence at allowing me access to something I want to see.
Although I continued to display my best smile and to use words intended to charm the lady, I knew I had to chose better words. I decided that I had to tell her something of a lie. After assessing the situation with some speed, I knew that complete truth was not going to gain me access and that some exaggeration would be necessary to win this woman over and have her grant me entrance.
I decided to tell her that I had come from America – which was true – and that I had come especially to visit the Tabernacle – which was almost true. It was almost true as I have planned to visit the area and I am sure that I would have wanted to visit the building. I then launched into a history of my father and how he loved the Elephant and how he had brought my mother and me here often, and how I had always admired the building. None of these confessions brought any change to the lady’s expression.
I realised that I needed to bring out my big guns! I knew that I had to come up with something that would prove to be my Open Sesame and weaken the lady’s resolve and cause her to open the door and allow me inside. I told her of the Pastor of the Baptist Church whose services were presented on television each Sunday and how he admired the sermons of Dr. Spurgeon. I detected the faintest flicker in her eye and knew that this was the path to entry.
I have learned that if one mentions one’s mother, oftentimes even the hardest of hearts will melt. I have mentioned my mother on many occasions and have always received the warmest of responses. I feel no guilt in mentioning my mother, as she was a good woman of great humour and charm who had a faith that although simple was profound. I told her how my mother enjoyed attending the television services since she was not able to travel far in her later years. I mentioned how she used to hang onto every word of the Sunday sermon and meditated on their essence and how many had been inspired by those of Dr. Spurgeon. Believe it or not, this was all true!
The lady weakened and I gained from her the slightest of smiles. She said that she could show me the main building, but we would have to be quick since she had a meeting in twenty minutes. I thanked her and stepped inside the Tabernacle.
I was taken along several corridors and into the Main Chapel. My guide was not talkative and did not give me any information about the building. I attempted to engage her in conversation, but she only gave the briefest of answers and so after a while I decided that she obviously preferred silence and so I granted her her preference.
The lady allowed me to sit in a pew and look at the altar for a minute or two and tolerated my lingering at the Baptism Pool.
The Chapel was light and airy with little decoration. The altar was raised and reached by a small number of steps and consisted of a series of wooden panels with a covering of some unknown gray material. Above the decoration is the text:
All the ends of the earth
and before it is a simple lectern with a few wooden chairs behind.
There are pews on either side of a central transcript. There are huge windows on either side of the side walls which allow light into the Chapel. The upper section has pews on three sides, which rise towards the back.
After a few minutes, the lady tells me that I must go, but she offers to allow me to linger a while at the Book Shop, which is now open as the salesperson had now arrived and opened it to the general public.
Once the lady had introduced me to the salesman, she bade me a very quick good-bye and disappeared before I could thank her properly. I fear that she had already forgotten me by the time she arrived at her meeting. Be that as it may, she had opened the door and allowed me in and now I had visited the Tabernacle and felt the better for it.
When I left the building, I was filled with great joy and spent the rest of the morning examining and re-examining the exterior of the building. Imagine, I had been inside the Tabernacle where Dr. Spurgeon had once been. My only sadness was that I was unable to tell my mother about the visit. Still ………………
The story is dedicated to the Reverend David H. Hailey of Hayes Barton Baptist Church, Raleigh, North Carolina, with grateful thanks for introducing me to the sermons of Charles Haddon Spurgeon; to my father for his love of The Elephant and for bringing me to the area to see, without knowing, the Tabernacle during my childhood; and to my mother, who enjoyed sermons inspired by the writing of Dr. Spurgeon. I thank you all and, last but by no means least, I thank the lady at Spurgeon’s Church for without whom I would not have gained entry on my visit.