When you really want to get a feel for the history of an area, whether you’re a resident or a tourist, many of us instinctively head for the churches. The ancient St Mary-at-Finchley , reportedly one of the oldest buildings in the borough with parts that are more than 900 years old, has taken this instinct one step further with its oral history project, a collection of parishioners’ recollections of the church and Finchley covering the last 90 years.
"The only criterion was living memory," laughs the Reverend Philip Davison, rector of St Mary’s.
The project came about as part of the campaign to restore the church’s organ, completed in 1878 by leading Victorian pipe organ builders Henry Willis & Sons and damaged by a bomb during World War Two.
"We were looking at ways to fundraise and wanted to get the whole community involved," Rev Davison explains. "We were doing something historic with the organ so we started out with people’s experience of that and then went much wider into the whole life of the parish."
The project involved 50 people conducting 64 interviews on such subjects as why people come to the church, children, the bells and personal memories. The 26 hours of recorded material were transcribed and edited and can now be bought as a 32-page booklet, Listening to Finchley , and heard on the newly installed listening post in the south aisle.
"The interviews captured people’s memories, things that really made an impression on them," the rector says. "We wanted to create a record of everything, the experience of St Mary’s life for all ages, it captures what St Mary’s means to people. It will be our memorial and a resource for years to come.
"We tried to make contact with as many people as possible - there were people who had connections to Finchley many years ago but who’d lost contact, former choristers, people who were married here and children who are in our church group now."
The recollections include those of Alan Rayment, a chorister in the 1930s, hearing the first air raid siren in Finchley during matins, and John Whittington, who remembers St Mary’s being bombed during the Second World War.
"I hopped on my bike and I came over to have a look and I found the east end of the church completely blown in, and the council offices, which were opposite the church where the library now stands, were just a shell."
Jill McCarthy talks about her father telling her the organ had been damaged in the bombing. She started collecting farthings for the repair fund and managed to save a whole pound.
"What really came through from all the interviews was the great sense of community all through the ages," the Reverend continues, "and people’s great love and affection for the church and for Finchley. It gives you a great feel for Finchley and its diversity."
The Listening to Finchley booklet is available from the church office. St Mary-at-Finchley Parish Church, Hendon Lane, Finchley. Details: 020 8248 3818, www.stmaryatfinchley.org.uk