Take Me To Church

Day 98 of the marathon and I'm watching my first opera. Not my first opera ever, you understand. Just the first opera of the year. I've seen rather a lot of opera, as it happens. I went through a bit of an opera phase a few years back. I spent a good chunk of my mid-twenties running back and forth between the ROH and the Coliseum to watch them. Strange now, that when you click those links - you don't find a post about me watching an opera. When it came down to it, my official marathon visits to the twin opera houses of this city, were to see ballets. Nowadays, ballet will always win out when it comes to a direct choice.

But I still like opera. Some opera. Okay, three operas.

Tosca (she refers to herself stabbing the #metoo award-winning prick in her life as ‘Tosca’s kiss,’ which surely has to be the greatest come-back line in history), Magic Flute (I'm basic, okay), and L'elisir d'amore (What can I say? I love, love).

I first saw Elixir of Love a million years ago, in an OperaUpClose production at the King’s Head and loved every minute of it. I loved it so much that I actually stole the heart-vision glasses that they handed out to audience members (I’m really hoping we’ve passed the statute of limitations for nicking audience-props here).

So when I heard the company where doing another Donizetti opera, Maria Stuarda, and in a marathon-qualified venue that I’ll admit, I’d never heard of before, well… I was there.

Except, where is there?

“We are on the corner of Clissold Park, opposite St Mary’s New Church,” says their website.

Well, that sounds simple enough.

I strike out. It’s a nice evening. The sun’s still up and the rain has retreated for the time being. I have a nice stroll. Walk along the New River Path. It’s rather lovely. There are ducks. I like ducks. Everyone likes ducks. Ducks are great. The way they waddle about on land and preen in the water. Ducking marvellous.


Even with my leisurely nature walk, I still arrive at Clissold Park far too early. So I take a short turn along the paths before the crowds of joggers chase me away again, back on to the narrowest excuse for a pavement that could be conjured up as a concession to pedestrians. A jogger comes my way and I have to clutch at the railing to avoid being sent flying into the road.

Right. The corner of the park. That had to be coming up soon. I’ve been walking for bloody ages.

The Old Church is an Elizabethan church. The last surviving one in London, apparently. That shouldn’t be so hard to spot.

In the distance, a towering steeple looms over the tree-line. Too towering for the Elizabots.

I check the website again.

“We are on the corner of Clissold Park, opposite St Mary’s New Church.”

I laugh. I can’t help myself. Those have to be the most perfectly useless directions that have ever been committed to pixels.

Let’s ignore the logic of signposting to one church by pointing out its proximity to another. That’s a nonsense, but not worth lingering on.

The more important point is that St Mary’s New Church can only conceivably be thought of as a new church when placed directly opposite a building dating from the 1560s. The new church is a friggin’ Gilbert Scott and is over 150 years old.


Here I am looking for some greenhouse with an oversized cross stuck on top, and instead I’m getting early Victorian Gothic revival served at me.

Feeling a little bemused, I turn my attentions to the old church, sat back from the road and lurking behind a veil of trees and ivy-covered graves.


A country church. It reminds me of the one in the village where I grew up. Long and low, with proper mullioned windows that glow with warmth. The door is closed, so in order to about feeling like a mosquito bashing against a lamp, I have a little walk around the churchyard, admiring the heavy stone tombs.

By the time I've done a full rotation, the doors have opened up. I hurry back towards the path. People are going in and seats are unreserved.

Through the arched doorway, I catch a glimpse of the interior. But I try not to look. I'm holding back. Saving it.

There’s a little desk set up just inside. I give my name. “Just the one?” asks the lady sitting behind it. “You’re in band C, which is in the back row over there. Pick any of the seats with a yellow sticker.”

Sounds simple enough.

There are a couple of programmes propped up on the desk.

“Can I get one of these?”

“They’re £4,” she says. “They have the full libretto in them,” as if to justify the cost, but I am fully on board already. “Card or cash?”

That’s not a question you get asked often when buying a programme, let alone in a church. I thought there were rules against that.

I pay by card.


Right, now I can look at the church. A really long, savouring look.

It’s lighter than I imagined. Despite the narrow lowness, it feels bright and airy. The walls are painted white. This truly is a church of post-dissolution England. That’s not to say it’s bare. Quite the reverse. Every surface is packed with intricately carved memorials, dedicated to parishioners who passed hundreds of years ago.

Here’s one for Sire John Hartopp and his first wife, Sarah, who died in 1793 and 1766 respectively. Their names united in marble for eternity. There’s no indication of what his second wife thought about that.

There’s a bar in the corner. Selling wine, appropriately. And crisps, which feels altogether less appropriate.

Through the centre of the aisle is a raised stage, with that mirror-like finish that I’m beginning to associate with theatres that have pretensions of antiquity. The stage in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse had similar reflective properties.

I wander around, taking photos. With all the pillars and recesses and the stage, it’s impossible to find an angle that captures this place in all its glory.


People are really starting to pour in now. I should probably stake a claim on a seat.

Where had the box office lady pointed? The back row?

There are four rows of seats towards the left of the aisle.

I look at the back one. 

No sign of any yellow stickers. 

Was I in the wrong place? 

I double back, trying to work out if there is another back row anywhere. 

The orchestra is sitting behind the stage. Wooden pew boxes are on the right. The front of the stage is empty save for a small antechamber which seems to be housing the tech desk.

Only the seating on the left of the stage remains. 

But no yellow stickers. 

I decide to ask. I mean, sometimes you just have to, don't you? 

There's a volunteer standing near the bar. I know she was a volunteer because it said volunteer on the sticker she was wearing. 

"Sorry, where are the yellow stickered seats?" 

She points at the back row. 

And there they are. I see them. The yellow stickers. Tiny Little things, barely more than a dot, applied to the bar running across the back of each seat. 

I laugh. "Oh god, I'm sorry. I'm not wearing my glasses, I totally missed them.''

Immediately she is all concern. "You should still be okay. You're still sitting quite close."

"Oh, no. It's fine. They're in my bag. I just couldn't see the stickers."  

I should really wear my glasses more often. I'm terrible about it. It's not vanity. They just don't fit me properly anymore. I need to get some new ones.

Okay, it is a little bit vanity. And not wanting to get those red marks on my nose. Which, I guess, can also be categorised as an element of vanity. Fine. I'm vain. I admit it. I don't know why we are even still talking about this. Moving on.

I pick a damn seat. End of the row. Last of the tiny yellow stickers.

There's no view of the orchestra from this side, but there's a little balcony on the back wall, and if I know anything about site-specific stagings, that's going to come into play at some point during the performance, and I don't want to miss it.

There's no rake. I didn't expect there to be one, not in a church, but as the three rows in front of me fill up, I'm surprised by just have much my view is filled up with the backs of people's heads. The seats have all be positioned one directly one in front of each other, with no effort to stagger them so that you can catch a glimpse of the stage between the shoulders of the rich folk ahead.

Well, people-paying-upwards-of-thirty-quid-a-ticket rich, which may not be a universally agreed definition of wealth, but it's one I live by.

It's fine though. When the cast comes out, I manage to see their heads bobbing about above the bobbing audience heads before me.

I let myself be swallowed up by the music, falling victim to those powerhouse opera voices.

As Philippa Boyle's Elizabeth lets out a blasting note that bounces around the white-washed walls, I spot a lady in the audience remove her hearing aid. There's no need of that tonight.

The last of the day's light pours in through the mullioned windows, and I watch as it gradually fades through shades of grey as we head towards dusk.


When I was little, my favourite time on Christmas Eve was when the village church opened up as the local vicar went on his rounds, village to village, hamlet to hamlet, leading services. Our garden had only a dry stone wall to separate it from the churchyard, and the sound of carols would sail on the wind up towards our house.

I wonder if the park is still open, and the locals are being treated to the echoes of this performance as they jog past.

As the darkness creeps in through the paned glass, lighting is gradually introduced to the set. Candles are brought out, sending flickering shadows across the faces of the singers as they plot the downfall of a queen.

A waft of smoke reaches me as Elizabeth extinguishes a set of candles, just after signing the warrant to extinguish the life of her cousin.

And as Flora McIntosh's Mary stands in her red gown, she turns her face upwards, not to god, but to Elizabeth, standing, watching, from the balcony.

Mary disappears after that. If her execution is staged, I don't see it.

The music rages on. I look down. The person sitting in front of me has spilt their wine. Red liquid seeping into the floorboards like blood on the scaffold.