Through the bustling crowds of Spitalfields market, and positioned adjacent to some of East London’s darkest, most intriguing history, a monolithic building strikes an imposing shadow as it breaks through the sky and acts as a touchpoint of the past, in a city which is becoming ever more modern. Christ Church Spitalfields is instantly recognisable for its powerful position, and beautiful design, and today, we’ve sat down with the rector of the Church, and self confessed denim enthusiast, Darren Wolf, who chats to us about the history of this remarkable building, and what it means to the local community.
We’re sat in a small room to the back of the building, to shelter the audio equipment from a drum lesson in the main hall of the church. Already, our interest is piqued. Our host has a very calming heir, and seems perfectly at home in his surroundings, and we are quickly aware that his passion for the community knows no bounds. For a hearty discussion on the people and history of Spitalfields, it seems we’ve come to the right place.
So, to start us off Darren, can you tell us a little bit about the Church building itself, and how you became part of it?
Well, the Church was designed by Nicholas Hawksmoor, and was built in 1729. There was a whole Protestant community of weavers, the Huguenots, who had come over from France because they were being persecuted by the Catholic state. The Huguenots arrived in East London at a time when the government and the church of England weren’t very happy about having non-conformists groups around who were organising separately, and so this building was designed to invite them into the Church of England. When you come into the building, one of the things that people always notice is the enormous plaster coat of arms, and though that might look a bit odd to us, it was designed to reassure those people that the state was on their side, and encouraging them in their Protestant faith, unlike the state they’d come from.
As a result of that, a lot of the 18th Century houses in the area were actually built for the community of Huguenots weavers, and if you look at the houses around, you’ll see that a lot of them have these big gallery windows on the top floor, specifically designed to enable these silk weavers to work more effectively.
That’s really interesting, and obviously this area has quite a rich history of textile production, but I hadn’t ever put the two together. But that community of Huguenots probably played a big part in that reputation being built?
That’s exactly right, and not an accident at all! It all starts in the 18th Century with the Huguenots, weaving silks and cotton fabrics, and it spreads out from there. And obviously when the Jewish community moved into the area, they played a big part in keeping that going.
But there’s always been a sort of moving in, and a moving out in this part of London; people arriving, and building communities to some extent, who will then move on to other parts of London or the UK. There is a constant shift, and it continues to attract people who are wanting to engage, not necessarily just with textiles, but with all of the cultural creative industries, which thrive in the area. That is a big part of what helps communities to grow. We’ve been here at Christ Church for eight years now, and have certainly seen a lot of changes in that time even.
And that’s what makes Shoreditch such an exciting place to be!
Shoreditch is a community woven from all different cultures, and backgrounds, and economical positions, but why do you feel that it is so important to reach all corners of the community with the work that you do with the Church?
Yeah you’re right, there are people who are super rich in the area, who are living right on top of people who are in social housing, who aren’t doing very well, or sub-letting a property which isn’t in very good condition. I think there aren’t really many places where those different communities have any points of contact at all with each other. They tend to go to different schools, use different health services, shop in different places, and I think one of the most amazing things about this building is that we do get contact with that breadth of people from all sorts of different social backgrounds.I just think that it’s important that we hear each other’s experiences, and that we hear our common humanity, if you like, and that we aren’t demonising each other. There are all sorts of ways that we could help each other, and there are all sorts of benefits which are available through the state, through formal schemes, but actually, the best thing is when communities are really supporting one another, and there is a personal link, and just seeing that happen within our Life groups, that is something which gives me a lot of joy.
That’s brilliant. Are there any particular outreach programs that you are excited about at the moment? Anything that Christ Church has going on, with helping, and contributing to the community in mind?
Well, obviously the last couple of years have been particularly challenging, there have been people within our local community who have really struggled in that time with lockdown, with schools not being open, particularly families with small children. If you’ve got to isolate on your own, or with a housemate, that’s hard enough, but if you’ve got to isolate with four small children, or six, or ten small children, that is a whole different ball game. The food bank was our main initiative, where we actually helped people with the provisions that they needed. These were families who would have had their mid day meals provided by the school, for free, so when school provision wasn’t there, it left people a bit stuck.
So being able to respond to that was great, and that was like a crisis response, and we were able to help hundreds of families by doing that. But now we’re in the place where we’re thinking about, how do we carry on supporting those families, and getting alongside them in a way which is a little bit more collaborative, and we’re thinking about whether something like a community supermarket might be viable, something where we can come alongside our neighbours and help the people who most need it.
After a long day in the pulpit, are there any records that you reach for to help you relax? Anything you can escape with?
I mean, I listen to a lot of worship music, but also a bit of Elbow, Bonobo, and Royal Blood. Those are sort of my go-to’s at the moment. But I’m also very nostalgic for bands like Joy Division and that kind of stuff.
That’s great! Do you ever blast out New Order, or Joy Division here when the congregation has gone home?
Haha, no but we do with Royal Blood. I’ve played them at full volume while we’re putting the chairs away!
That must be quite impressive in a building like this!
Through our work, we meet a lot of interesting people such as yourself, but also day to day in the shop, and the thing that ties them all together is denim. Denim has its own story for everybody, and everyone has their own personal relationship with this fabric, because it takes on elements of our character, and we are all individual. We just wandered if you had any of your own denim stories that you’d like to share with us, or anything that you look for in particular when you’re buying denim?
Well, I’ve got a vintage Lee denim jacket with a fur collar, which I just can’t let go of, and every time I think ‘I’ve got to throw this out’, I don’t, and then I’m wearing it again. It’s been a staple for me for decades now, and it’s one of the originals!
Keep a hold of that one, if you keep coming back to it then it sounds like it was made for you!
How do you like to spend your down time in the area? Is there a particular place other than the church which makes you feel good?
Well, my down time is the gym! Haha. I go to the gym in Shoreditch, but the other main thing is that me and my wife love just getting a coffee, and going to sit in Arnold Circus, and we just watch the world go by. People doing their yoga, walking their dogs, and you see all the wildlife, and the rats, and everything coming together in harmony.
And then from time to time we’ll go to Albion on Boundary Street, and sit outside if the weather is nice. We’re sort of people watchers.
The start of the year can be a hard time for many. We’ve all heard of the January blues, and it follows a period of celebration, which isn’t always a happy time for everyone. Can you offer any advice to those who might want to reach out and help our community, in that difficult period at the start of the year?
Obviously we’ve been through two years of pandemic, and that has really impacted people more than they’ve realised. Before Covid, we had a mental health pandemic, and now after Covid a lot of people are not thinking their best thoughts, or feeling their best feelings. They’re stressed, and they’re anxious, and they’re not sure what is coming next, and I think that giving yourself and other people permission to not be at your best is really important. Being kind to people helps a lot, because no-one is on their best game at the moment.
It’s ok to be anxious, it’s ok to be sad, because it’s a worrying time, and there is a lot of sadness around. But get involved with stuff where you hear from other people. It’s really easy to look inside, and think ‘I need to think about me’, but actually there’s something really helpful, and therapeutic, and positive about, you know, volunteering for the food bank or something like that, and getting involved to meet with people and hearing stories from people who are struggling too, but are doing ok, or who are struggling against much worse odds than ourselves, and it all just gives you a different perspective.
And those are all things that don’t cost us anything to contribute, but make a big difference.
Exactly, just a couple of hours in the evening or morning, once a month, and it is a really positive thing to do.
So, good for others, and good for ourselves! Finally, what does the future look like to you, for the Shoreditch community? For the next ten years say?
Oh my goodness. Shoreditch over the next ten years? It’s a really hard one to call right now, I think. It’s potentially a real time of opportunity. With everything that has happened politically and economically, and all the ways that Britain is linking up with the rest of the world, means that East London and Shoreditch is in a different place than we ever could have imagined, say five years ago. And I think there are challenges there, but it could also be a real time of opportunity. I see this part of London becoming more diverse, in a different way. All the gaps and spaces that have been left will be filled by new communities, I believe. And I’d really love to see the creative communities flourishing again, not just in the way they were previously, but again, rediscovering that edge, and that kind of freshness, that I think, over the last few years, for very obvious reasons, we lost a bit.
Thank you so much for your time Darren, and we’ll hope to catch up with you again soon!