…and the extraordinary man who uncovered it.
The bombed out church, St Luke’s, stands at the top of Bold Street in Liverpool. The official name is St Luke’s in the City and was nicknamed the Doctor’s Church because of neighbouring Rodney Street which houses all the consultants and doctors in the area. St Luke is the patron saint of surgeons, physicians, and artists - fitting even more now that Ambrose Reynolds, original member of Urban Strawberry Lunch, is artist in residence at the church building and runs regular events in the venue including art installations and film screenings.
“We see ourselves as kind of guardians of this church; protecting it, stopping it from falling down, we try and make it a little bit better every day. We do out best with the garden. Even the rain water we’ve collected in the crypt that goes into here - every problem is turned into a solution. That’s very much the way we work.”
St Luke’s was bombed on 5th May during the 1941 May Blitz in Liverpool in an attempt to shut the port city down; shutting down the ports effectively shuts down the country. Ambrose tells me that churches were targeted to demoralise the residents. Twelve other churches were bombed; six were demolished, six were rebuilt and St Luke’s was abandoned and left as it was - a roofless cavern with grass in place of tiles and trees growing where supporting pillars would be.
The beams, burned to a cinder, can still be spotted in parts of the structure blackened and torn apart. It was the burning beams that caused the roof to cave in, not the impact of a bomb itself, which is why so much of the rest of the church remains standing.
In the original bell tower, right above our heads, a beam juts out from one wall and has hung precariously there for seventy-two years. Ambrose, with an insouciant attitude to health and safety laughs and eventually suggests we stand somewhere else just in case.
St Luke’s was famous for its bells, especially how they were framed - the first metal bell frame in the world. The bells were named Peace and Good Neighbour and they first rang out on 23rd April 1831 (shortly thereafter the neighbours lodged a complaint for disturbance of the peace).
Today, the bells are replaced by recovered alloy wheels (which you can hear chime at the end of the recording at the beginning of the article).
There are parts lying around in the bell tower that are largely unrecognisable, relics propped up against a crumbling wall.
AR: “These are original beams and bits that we’ve found. I think this is a part of a chair. That’s part, I think, of the original clock mechanism. The clock stopped at three thirty in the morning, which is when it was bombed. The bells came tumbling down and cracked and they were taken away to Manchester and stored until the 50s/60s and then they were sold as scrap. Makes you sick, doesn’t it.”
As we walk back into the centre of the building Ambrose points out the art displayed in the long grass and as we come along a pathway to a pond decorated with flowers and painted tyres he explains how it was made in the 1970s by a job creation project, a project that he himself was involved in; his first encounter with the building he became so fascinated with.
AR: “This was put in the 1970s…they did the pathwork as well and we think it was the consecration stone that was originally here. We didn’t know there was a pond there for ages and realised it rained a lot and left a soggy mess there, we got young offenders in and they cleaned it out and it was full of human waste, junky needles, dead rats and clothes. It’s our reservoir as well because there’s no water - when the church was bombed the water main was bombed at the same time, it burned for seven days and nights. So we have no water right now and we haven’t had water for seventy-two years.”
Scattered around the building are very minute elements which have defied the odds to survive - in the very corners of the windows two angels painted on the glass remain despite the bomb, the fire, and the onslaught of stones children have thrown at them.
AR: “These windows in the middle, some of these were still intact when I was a boy in the 60s and 70s and one of my earliest memories is these lads who were throwing rocks through them - my mum would box their ears. And that’s kind of when I got a bit obsessed with the building.”
So the windows were intact even after the bomb?
AR: “There were actual figures intact in the middle. I know the elderly gentleman who was the one who put in the last set of windows in the cathedral in the 80s; he was ‘Mr Stained Glass’ and he came in and it took him about an hour to get from the door to here and he said ‘decommission these windows’ and he wrapped them up in brown paper and string and took them off to Manchester where all things Scouse end up. So those windows are still somewhere. On some Russian millionaire’s yacht by now but they still exist. But he missed those two angels.”
Exploring the structure is fascinating, as it Ambrose’s dedication and struggle to keep the light of life burning there but today I’m here with the sole intention of exploring underneath the church, in the newly uncovered crypt, and to meet the man who unearthed it…