From the street, St Martin's appears for the most part to be a typical 15th century parish church. But look through the railings from Coney Street and you get something very different - distinctively 1950s but with hints of a much longer history. Neither view prepares you for what you will see inside.
The nine metre high 15th century St Martin window immediately facing you as you go in rises from floor to ceiling. Made in around 1447 and showing scenes from the life of St Martin of Tours, it originally lit the body of the church from the river (west) side. It had been removed for safety in 1940 and so survived the bombing in 1942. It was the inspiration of the architect George Pace, who undertook the post-war restoration, to place it just where it makes the greatest impact.
Indeed, it is George Pace's inspired use of surviving 15th century elements with the very new that makes the church so compelling and admired. As you look down the nave, to your right as you enter, your eyes are drawn past the oak pew seating to the altar covered in a red cloth, behind it to the reredos depicting the Last Supper (Frank Roper 1968) and to the east window above (Harry Stammers c1963) both aggressively of their period. The iron work of the altar rail is distinctively a George Pace design, and the same motif can be found throughout the church. At the other end of the church the unique mechanical pipe organ has been designed with a glass screen so that we can admire the 1717 cover to a font with an even older and more distinguished story, since it is the font where St Margaret Clitherow was baptised in about 1553.
George Pace didn't simply add new to old. His bold use of gilding throughout gives a degree of unity. It can be seen on the font cover, on the memorials, and on the roof bosses, and is not original. The effect the whole makes on the visitor is powerful and intended to arrest. It has been described as the best post-war church restoration in the country; whether or not you agree you will certainly want to spend some time reflecting on what you see and the message of peace and reconciliation which George Pace sought to convey. This is what George Pace himself wrote about his plans in 1957.
'The furniture and fittings will be designed by the architect so that the whole interior down to the smallest detail and colour will play its proper part in the creation of a completely integrated work of art, which is above all an offering to God and an act of worship in itself.'
There is more about the background to this in the section on the history of the church.
A good place to start is in the southwest corner at the tower, as the pinnacle decorations probably represent fairly accurately the style of the rebuilding in the 15th century (the decoration on what was the south aisle had been lost by the time of the 1853 restoration and seems to have been modelled to match the tower). The architect George Pace said that the removal of the clerestory in the course of his restoration would enable it to stand as one of the finest medieval towers in the country. Unsurprisingly, the south wall of the church seems now oddly out of proportion because it originally formed the south aisle of a much larger and taller church, but it offers a good idea of how the medieval church will have looked.
The porch is by Atkinson (1854). The medieval church did not have one, as evidenced by the weathering visible around the inner doorway. One had been erected in classical style in the 1740s, and the parishioners in 1854 initially rejected their architect's pleas to replace it with something more in keeping with the restored facade, arguing that it was an unnecessary expense with so much more repair still waiting to be done. But a special parish meeting was called to let Atkinson plead the case, and he got his way. It is difficult to say now that he was wrong.
Moving round to the east (street) side, the modern archway symbolises the position of the east window of the old church, but with a much reduced total height so that the overall effect is quite deliberately to emphasise the gap left by the bombing. The clock was replaced in almost its original position and looks today much as it did from 1856, with the drum topped by the figure of a naval officer from an even earlier clock of 1778.
When you look through the impressive and distinctively George Pace railings, however, the view is transformed. There are the remains of the north arcade standing as fire ravaged stumps, and the north wall giving hints of a continuous development and rebuilding from around the 1080s, the provisional date placed on parts of the westernmost parts of that wall. But the architecture is aggressively, and distinctively, 1950s (although rebuilding was not completed until 1968, plans were almost unchanged from 1957). The separation from the street, and the starkness of the courtyard, take people by surprise, but the symbolism of that is important and deliberate leaving the eye to focus upon the central cross. The church was not rebuilt, and what is there was intended to remind future generations of the loss and wastage of war. We must never forget, and can never forget at St Martin's, the rededication to peace and reconciliation.