Rainbow reappears over West Hampstead

Thanks to the help of the fire brigade St James Sherriff Road once again had it’s LGBT rainbow and trans flags fluttering in the West Hampstead breeze this afternoon.  Although it was a brigade from Wembley not West Hampstead that lend a ladder.

The flags had been stolen a couple of weeks ago by two young men seen on CCTV footage.  However, Father Andrew wasn’t going to be bullied and was determined to get them back up.  As he posted on Facebook ‘No surrender’.

Flags flying again

Flags flying again

Tulip was there to show her support, as were a number of local councillors. But only Tulip fulfilled her childhood fantasy of being fireman – something for Azalea’s bedtime story.

Fireman Tulip

Fireman Tulip

Glenda Jackson opens West Hampstead’s new post office

It may have technically opened a couple of weeks ago, but today was the official opening of the post office in St James’s church on Sherriff Road. A large crowd turned out, some primarily there for the soft play area, some for the grand opening. Hampstead & Kilburn MP Glenda Jackson cut the ribbon with some good old-fashioned scissors, having failed with the novelty scissors she was given first.

2014-08-01 11.15.00

Post office moves to local church

The bell rang at 1pm and the first customers for the new post office trundled into St James’s Church on Sherriff Road today. The West End Lane post office was supposed to close at midday, but in fact closed yesterday putting even more pressure on the Sherriff Centre team to be up and running bang on time.

Father Andrew Cain and Sherriff Centre project manager Jane Edwards (photo via @churchnw6)

Father Andrew Cain and Sherriff Centre project manager Jane Edwards (photo via @churchnw6)

Never one to shy away from publicity, Father Andrew Cain had invited BBC London to the opening and anchor Alice Bhandukravi was there to speak to Fr Andrew (and ask me about the quality of the cake). The news report is here.

Most of the early arrivals to the post office/café/shop/playarea/church seemed impressed. For many, it was their first sight of the transformed space. It is believed to be the first full-time post office located in a functioning church and certainly the first in London.

Everything is in “soft launch” stage at the moment, with the official opening taking place on August 1st. For the time being though, the café makes a very cool escape from the humidity outside (and there’s underfloor heating for the winter!).

Protect your PIN - someone may be looking over your shoulder

Protect your PIN – someone may be looking over your shoulder


New post office takes shape in St James’ Church

It’s not been an easy process to jump through all the loopholes to move West Hampstead’s main post office into St James’ Church on Sherriff Road, but now it’s full steam ahead inside the cavernous building. West Hampstead Life went in to see how it’s shaping up.

The Sherriff Centre, as it will be known, will house not just the post office, but also a shop selling cards and stationery, a café, and a soft play area. And a church.

The post office itself takes up a relatively small part of the nave of the church, which is currently covered in rigging, tools and a makeshift kitchen for the builders. It will be a three-counter post office at the back of the church nearest the doors. Right now, the builders are installing a ramp for wheelchair access and the doors themselves will become glass sliding doors.

The doors will become glass sliding doors with a ramp leading up to them

The doors will become glass sliding doors with a ramp leading up to them

The post office frame is already in place at the back of the church

The post office frame is already in place at the back of the church

The south aisle is currently being laid for underfloor heating, but will be the café.

Underfloor heating being laid for the café in the south aisle

Underfloor heating being laid for the café in the south aisle

The north aisle, in a relatively new part of the scheme, will be an extensive soft play area called Hullabaloo. Parents will pay for their kids to have timed sessions inside and the plans sound impressive, with helter skelter slides and an upper floor lookout. One thing the interior of the church doesn’t lack is height!

St James Church Sherriff Centre impression

The middle of the nave will be where the shop is. Jane Edwards, Programme Manager of the Sherriff Centre, explains that they hope the whole space can be as flexible as possible with the potential for pop-up markets and one-off events.

Looking from the north aisle (where the play area will be) back to the shop and post office area

Looking from the north aisle (where the play area will be) back to the shop and post office area

The pews for the congregation now go only a short distance back from the altar, and will be used only on Sundays. There is, however, the Lady Chapel, which will be soundproofed and available for private prayer when the building is open.

The boxes roughly mark the last row of pews for church services

The boxes roughly mark the last row of pews for church services

The most striking thing about the building this lunchtime was how cold it was. It will be an (expensive) challenge to heat it so that it’s comfortable to sit and have a coffee while the kids hurl themselves around in the play area. All four parts of the operation – post office, shop, café and play area – need to be profitable as the profits will be ploughed back into the charity that’s been set up to benefit from the idea. The charity will work on issues such as debt advice and family counselling, primarily via outreach rather than being based in the building.

The Sherriff Centre hopes to open in the summer. It was originally meant to have opened by now, but legal wranglings held it up at the end of 2013. Jane Edwards is understandably reluctant to put a fixed date on it but there is some pressure to get the post office operational as soon as possible so the owner of the existing post office on West End Lane can close.

St James Church Sherriff Centre work

How much for this letter to the Corinthians?

The possible move of West Hampstead’s post office into St James Church is at an advanced stage of negotiation. It would be one of the first church post offices in a major British city. Yet it seems very few people are aware that it might happen.

Google Street View June 2012

The franchise owner of the existing West End Lane post office – Mr Ajay Kukadia – has apparently decided that it’s time to call it a day after almost 25 years. He has other plans for the premises. However, he has said that he will not close the post office until an alternative location has been secured. Mr Kukadia approached local estate agents Dutch & Dutch to help find a new location and they tweeted this in mid-November. Almost immediately, Father Andrew Cain, vicar of St James and St Mary, replied.

We’ve been instructed to help the@whampstead Post Office relocate to a new shop. Ideas on a postcard..or better-‘tweetme’ #newpostoffice
— West Hampstead Agent (@Dutch_and_Dutch) November 13, 2012

@dutch_and_dutch @whampstead – how about thinking a bit wider. Church?
— Fr Andrew Cain (@churchnw6) November 13, 2012

@dutch_and_dutch @whampstead – does it have to be a shop?
— Fr Andrew Cain (@churchnw6) November 13, 2012

@churchnw6 I don’t believe so. I like your thinking!
— West Hampstead Agent (@Dutch_and_Dutch) November 13, 2012

@dutch_and_dutch ok. Lets talk.
— Fr Andrew Cain (@churchnw6) November 13, 2012

Talk they did and the process has now moved on. There are, as you can imagine, lots of legal loopholes to jump through. The church – on the corner of West End Lane and Sherriff Road – has been accepted as a suitable venue, but that’s just the starting point. Now the Post Office and the church both have to prepare detailed plans and a business case. The church also has to approve the necessary alterations. When i first heard about this, I assumed that the plan was to house the counters in the church hall on Sherriff Road. But apparently, the idea is to have it actually in the church itself.

This is not groundbreaking – but it is unusual, especially in London. In 2003, the parish centre in Hemingford Grey in Cambridgeshire took over the local post office. The first post office actually in a church opened in 2004 in the exquisitely named village of Sheepy Magna in Leicestershire – a parish with around 1,000 inhabitants. It was only open six hours a week. Sleepy rural backwaters, where demand is low and the pace of life slow, seem well suited to such co-located services and the local church often plays a more significant role in the community than it does in a busy multicultural setting such as north-west London.

Unsurprisingly, given the often arcane and prosciptive nature of some religious doctrines, there may be  challenges to overcome so that some members of non-Christian faiths can enter the church. For example, here are two counter-arguments from the Jewish Chronicle in 2008 about whether Jews can enter a church or not. According to the 2011 census data, more than 2,000 people in West Hampstead identify as Jewish, although the census does not of course tell us how many would side with the stricter interpretations of the Talmud.

Some Muslims also believe they must not enter a church because of the display of idols, although once again it’s possible to find arguments on both sides given that there would be no religious context to the post office other than its location.

There may be workarounds for the most orthodox of non-Christian believers, and pragmatism often wins out eventually given how much of sacred text is open to interpretation.

Back to the practicalities of our own post office being in the church. Father Andrew points out that there are no guarantees this will come to pass.

“If the business case is not strong, if the alterations cost too much, if the approvals are not given – all could stop this happening. If that were the case then I would be sad – it’s a great opportunity and there is currently no other venue suitable for the Post Office to move to – and that will probably mean no post office in West Hampstead. That would be a real loss to the community and especially for those too old or disabled to get up to Finchley Road or down to Kilburn.”

Father Andrew is also keen to point out that the motivation for this is not financial. “We have a strong financial base of our own, we run a good annual surplus and have a steady if small congregation. We are not going to make money out of this and indeed will have to invest a very large amount of our own money.”

The motivation instead is to preserve a vital community service and to improve other community services. If approval is finally granted, the church will set up a charitable trust to run the Post Office, along with a café and a small retail space. Any profit made after running costs and loan repayments will go to funding community support workers. “We hope to have a Citizens Advice Bureau-supported debt advice worker on site, to employ a family support worker and possibly a youth worker. We hope to run pensioners’ lunches in the café, provide parent and toddler groups and also youth facilities in the evenings when the post office is closed.”

The post office space would also be an obvious location for one of the proposed pop-up police counters that are expected to appear as the police station closes. It may also cause a small but noteworthy shift in West Hampstead’s centre of gravity and could be a boost for those businesses south of the tube station.

If all the necessary approvals from the church, the post office and the public consultation are gained then we might be looking at August or September for the grand opening. This is the 125th anniversary of St James’ church – could it give a new lease of life to the building at a time when only 36% of the local population identify as Christian – substantially lower than the 48% across London as a whole.

As for what happens to the existing post office… did someone say Foxton’s?

Of course, if nothing else comes of this, the whole story proves the importance of Twitter in West Hampstead! Oh, and Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians would cost him £1.66 in postage today or 87 pence if he wrote on both sides of airmail paper.