Church architecture in Hertfordshire and elsewhere, art, books, and whatever crosses my path

Saturday 13 March 2021

Church Visitors' Books


Barkway church visitors' book

There's one feature to be found in churches that I don't think I've ever read any commentary on: the visitors' book. I feel that any look around a church is somehow incomplete without writing my name in one. I suppose this is an expression of our atavistic desire to leave our mark, an attempt to be remembered and recognised, to escape in however small a way the iniquity of oblivion. Earlier generations may have commissioned a stained glass window, or carved their name on a pillar. Well, most of us can't afford the former and none of us (I trust) would consider the latter, so what's left is signing the visitors' book.

However, signing the book does fulfil several practical functions. Firstly, doing so presumably gives harmless pleasure to the custodians of the church. It must be gratifying to know that the church you oversee and cherish is also visited and appreciated by others. I always think that a pleasure shared is a pleasure more than doubled (because two people rather than one now enjoy something, and the first person gets a glow from introducing the second to it, plus they can both get extra pleasure from talking about it with each other). A church visitors' book is documentary evidence of shared pleasures.

My most immediate, and rather selfish, motive for signing the book is that doing so will encourage the custodians to keep the church accessible. If they can see that visitors do indeed turn up and look around, it seems likely that they'll make more of an effort to do so. If they thought that no one was interested, why would they bother (and I appreciate that it is a bother) to make their church available to visitors? When signing the book, I generally add a little note saying 'Thank you for being open'. 

Another motive I have is that it's strangely comforting to revisit a church, especially many years later, and to be able to find your name on an earlier page. It's pleasant to be reminded of our younger, perhaps more innocent lives.

The most tangible reason for signing the book is that doing so may help the church to apply for grants. Charitable bodies considering making donations are naturally going to want to know that their money is going to be well-spent; if a church can prove, by means of a bulging visitors' book, that it attracts a healthy stream of feet on tiles and bums on pews, probably it will have an advantage over one with no such proof. 

The visitors' books are often interesting documents in themselves, worth having a flick through. All human life is there: childish scribbles, recollections of baptisms, marriages and funerals, names from (often) all around the world. Sometimes famous names can be found; I once came across John Betjeman's signature in a visitors' book (though sadly I forget where). People leave comments ranging from the banal to the erudite to the humanly touching; altogether they are an essential and valuable part of the building's history.

So when you've finished your indagation around the church, donate some money (not forgetting to fill in a gift-aid form) and be sure to sign the visitors' book.

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