Peter Ross has a well-deserved reputation as a writer and journalist who eschews the sensational, salacious, and scandalous, adjectives often ascribed to modern journalism in particular. Instead, he opts for investigations into the geography and history of these islands by travelling to places and meeting people rarely reported on. His new book, Steeple Chasing: Around Britain By Church, is the latest example of this. Ross investigates buildings and monuments with associations to the past (at least in terms of their original use) as the starting point to examine not just how Britain has changed but also what has endured, with these houses of the holy leaving an indelible mark on the landscape and the people as well.
Throughout there is an unshakeable sense of respect and reverence for the buildings and those who continue to interact with them. The key is Ross’s ability to listen without prejudice, resulting in writing which informs, educates, entertains, but also reflects, causing readers to do likewise. He makes for great company as he roams the land pointing out places of interest and relating the stories which belong to them. Along the way we learn about the origins of the Sheela-na-gig (which, until now, I only related to the PJ Harvey song of the same name), the truth about bats in the belfry, how art and religion (or a least religious spaces) can enhance each other, and how the elements, and nature itself, continue to shape places of worship both past and present.
There’s a gentle and respectful line of enquiry married to an inquisitive mind and a genuine interest in others that underpins all of Ross’s writing. In Steeple Chasing there is also a melancholy which runs throughout – one which is not only understandable, it is appropriate. As Ross reflects on the history of these buildings he in turn asks us to ponder their future, and you are left with the feeling throughout that there are stories yet untold. Let’s hope Peter Ross is the one to tell them, as there is no doubt he is a writer to treasure and cherish.