Author Mark Child on his new book

PUBLISHED: 18:30 01 February 2010 | UPDATED: 14:52 20 February 2013

Burford Parish Church, photographed by Mark Child.

Burford Parish Church, photographed by Mark Child.

When mark Child comes to write about your town, you know that you're going to read a thorough and entertaining account. Now, on publication of his new book, we talk to the man behind the notebook - and the camera

If you are a regular reader of Archant Life magazines in the central southern region of the country, you may have come across the work of Mark Child. Readers of Cotswold Life are most likely to know his writing and his photography. Historical researcher, architectural historian, and writer, he has also published more than a dozen non-fiction books, and his latest - Discovering Churches and Churchyards - came out in July. He is currently working on a book about the towns and villages of the Windrush valley. Cotswold Life readers can buy copies of Discovering Churches and Churchyards at a special price, post-free from the publishers, so we thought the time had come to enquire more about Mark Child - our chap who roams the Cotswolds.

When did you begin writing for Archant Life magazines?

Ten years ago, I wrote a piece for Cotswold Life on the Charleston Chasers Hot Vintage Orchestra. This was followed by an article on John Stephen, the perfumer of Bourton-on-the-Water, then another about Folly Farm at Tetbury. I covered the hoteliers Michael and Pamela Horton, who were putting into place what has become the Cotswold Inns & Hotels Group, then did a seven-page feature on Stratford-upon-Avon. That kicked off the long series of articles about towns, villages and people that I guess have become a kind of stock in trade.

What do you enjoy best about the work?

The people I meet and talk to. I love glorious eccentrics; the huge number of talented artists and craftspeople around the Cotswolds; the contemporary entrepreneurs that are all helping to keep the area alive; and the ordinary people who show me their properties, give me cups of tea, and settle down for a cosy moan. I get information from all of them, but mostly I learn about people. I enjoy it when I have to do something unusual to get a picture. One memorable experience was when a solicitor in a medieval building pulled aside a single wooden wall panel in his office, exposing a hole just big enough for me to crawl through. As I ascended slowly and painfully upwards, his encouraging words rang like bullets on an armoured shield: "If you fall, I'll catch your camera".

Have you always been interested in church architecture?

When I was a little boy, my mother insisted on taking me to evensong on Sundays, at one of two churches. Evensong holds no interest whatsoever for small boys, so my attention was drawn to the fabric, fixtures and fittings around me. One of the churches was built of brick in 1912; the other was a medieval building, so they were very different. At the age of eleven, I went to a grammar school where the art master was particularly fond of churches; he encouraged me to visit as many as I could within bicycling distance of my home, research each one, and take photographs and notes. The interest developed from there.

What's your new book about?

In the 1930s and 1940s, B.T. Batsford published the best volumes in a wonderful series of books under The British Heritage series. One of these was Cox & Ford's The Parish Churches of England. This was the first book I had on the subject, and I wanted to write the equivalent of a Cox & Ford for today's readers. Almost all of the books that have been published about churches in recent years have either been pictorial, or have been descriptive of specific buildings. I thought it was time for a book that actually explained the whole evolution of church building and described in some detail what can be seen in our churches. I would describe it as a textbook of church architecture, fixtures and fittings, written for anyone who has an interest in the subject.

Have you always been a writer?

At the age of eight, I wrote a short story that was printed in Enid Blyton's Sunny Stories; payment was the princely sum of one shilling and sixpence. By the time I had written three or four, I was coining in half-a-crown at a time. It seemed like easy money, so I decided then that I wanted to make my living by writing. My first serious pieces were the results of interviewing well-known writers of the day, researchers and academics. I published a series about churches in the magazine Wiltshire Courier in the mid-1960s; then in Somerset Life; and, later, in Wiltshire Life. By that time, I had written numerous little guidebooks to individual churches that are usually on sale just inside the church doors.

Which famous people have you interviewed?

So many over the years, mainly in a literary context. John Betjeman comes immediately to mind because he was the first. I went to school at Wantage, Oxfordshire, where he gave me my final school prize. Years later, he contributed to a literary magazine that I edited, and I interviewed him then. When I went to chat with the writer Tom Sharpe, we spent most of the time looking for badger droppings on the estate that surrounded his garden, for him to put around his roses. Leslie Thomas, a very funny writer and a lovely man, was a joy to meet. I have twice interviewed Jilly Cooper, one of the warmest people I've ever met, with one of the most attractive personalities. Alan Titchmarsh gave me an exhausting tour of his gardens in Hampshire, and we met on several occasions at Chelsea. He contributed a forward to two booklets that I wrote: one was a guide to careers in ornamental horticulture, and the other was an advisor's guide to the same subject. I interviewed the infectiously humoured Arthur Marshall at his home near Exeter, and, just before the dreadful accident from which he never sufficiently recovered, Leslie Crowther, at his home near Bath. Both those interviews are remembered with great affection.

Who do you really enjoy talking to?

People who do things that I try to do, but who do it so much better; it keeps me in my place, but is at the same time inspirational. Photography is a case in point. I once wrote a whole series of articles on contemporary photographers, interviewing and photographing well-known specialists in different types of work, from sports photography to glamour. The writer and architectural photographer Lucinda Lambton has always been a great favourite; we spent days looking at some of the most beautiful photographs of buildings I have ever seen. Similarly, I was blown away by the amazing pictures created by Heather Angel, the incomparable wildlife photographer - and it was my daunting task to interview and photograph her during her term of office as President of the Royal Photographic Society.

So you don't only write about churches and places?

Definitely not. You are talking to the man who put naturism into Cotswold Life. It's more than a year since the first naturist piece was published, but people still buttonhole me about that! Long-standing readers will know that I'll always grab the chance to write about original jazz and hot vintage music, and classic detective fiction. In the past, I've written about steam engines, canals, and long-distance walks for Archant magazines, done several series of syndicated newspaper articles on gardening and gardens, and books on topography, history, the countryside, and even some about boats.

You must have been getting around the Cotswolds for a long time now?

Several decades.

What do you like about the area?

Its attitude to food. I'm really glad that the area is at the forefront of things like farmers' markets, food and drink events, farm shops, and the campaigns to buy organic and local food. I love its pub restaurants, or at least those that serve plenty of vegetables, rather than the establishments that are more about a display of the chef's ego. The fact that I can still get lost in mile after mile of narrow country roads that I haven't discovered before, on which I swear the signposts have either been removed or are still trying to confuse the enemy! I like the build fabric, from farmyard walls to mansions, and the infinite variations on the Cotswold vernacular. I just love the Cotswolds.


Readers of Cotswold Life can buy copies of Discovering Churches and Churchyards by Mark Child at the special price of 10.99 each, post-free. (The normal retail price is 12.99). All you have to do is call Shire Publications on 01844 344301 with your credit or debit card details, or send a cheque to cover the cost of the required number of copies, enclosing your own address details, to Shire Publications Limited, Cromwell House, Church Street, Princes Risborough, Buckinghamshire HP27 9AA. In either case, please mention the Cotswold Life Reader Offer.

Here are the details of the book: 262 pages; about 300 colour illustrations. ISBN 978 0 7478 0659 2. Chapters include: Building materials; The Anglo-Saxon period: up to 1066; Norman: 1066-1160; Transitional: 1150-1200; Early English: 1200-1300; Decorated: 1300-1377; Perpendicular: 1350-1547; Renaissance and Classical: 1547-1830; Victorian: 1830-1900; Church furnishings and features; Churchyards: Bibliography; Gazetteer; Indexes.

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