For travellers visiting the Sceptred Isles with an interest in architecture or a fascination with history, the natural sightseeing gravity pulls you towards the grand old structures of piety, charity, and holiness built by the Christian faith. The giant spire of Salisbury Cathedral. The beautifully intricate constructions of Westminster Abbey. The towering edifice of York Minster.
Yet the UK has been home to many other faiths for large swathes of its history, and these too have left striking marks on the skylines of the towns they touch. The following four building are holy places of the Muslim, Jewish, and Buddhist traditions that are well worth a visit if you should be spending any time in the British Isles, and you have an appreciation for an artistically amidst architecture.
Shah Jahan Mosque
Better known as Woking Mosque, this is the first purpose-built house of worship for Muslims in the United Kingdom. It was completed in 1889 and was founded by one Dr Gottlieb Leitner, an academic from Hungary who was formerly the first Registrar of the University of the Punjab in Lahore. The first home for major Islamic events in the UK, the Mosque was designed in an Indo-Saracenic revival style by one William Isaac Chambers, out of stone from Bath and Bargate.
The form and aesthetics of its construction were described by the Pevsner Architectural Guides as “extraordinarily dignified” and when your eyes look over the sweeping dome and crafted minarets, it is easy to see why. If you have come to Woking to also cast an eye over the strange tripod structure that was a tribute to H. G. Well’s Martian invasion narrative, this should also definitely be a stop on your sightseeing tour.
Situated in Hackney in London’s East End, this is a far more recent addition to the Muslim architectural contributions to London, only opening as a Mosque in the 1980s. Prior to that, the structure in question traces its origins back to 1913 as the Apollo Picture house, and then in 1933 it was the Ambassador Cinema. Playing a range of productions switching from martial arts films to softcore sex films as the Astra Cinema, before finally going out of business in 1983.
The bright blue tiled style was originally founded by the UK Turkish Islamic Association, and mimics the Greco-Roman-Mediterranean passion for blue tilework, as it was always blue that was the hardest pigment to find, and so thus was the most precious and great symbol of wealth and opulence. If you want to see what well designed holy buildings look like in a more everyday context, Aziziye Mosque is an ideal place to visit.
Bevis Marks Synagogue
Not only the oldest synagogue in the city of London, but Bevis Marks is also the oldest synagogue in the UK still in continuous use. More than that, it is a hidden gem of architectural beauty and aesthetic elegance, and definitely deserving of a visit. From the exterior it is quite unassuming and hard to spot, but once you get inside the wonder and splendour is clear to see.
Founded in 1701, this became a central hub for solving all manner of important issues in modern Jewish history, from appeals for special treatment for Jews in Jamaica and Barbados, and the escape of one seven-year-old Jewish to Gibraltar to escape a forcible conversion. For anyone who wants to see a carefully cultivated spiritual home of history and beauty, Bevis Marks is a fascinating place to visit.
One of the UK’s very few purpose-built Buddhist places of worship, Wat Buddhapadipa is nestled in the neighbourhood of London that is perhaps better known for Tennis, Wombles, and community-owned football teams. It has an illustrious history, as it was founded in 1966 by the King and Queen of Thailand as a means of allowing Theravada Buddhism a home in London.
The architectural style is very much a blend of east and west, with the traditional shape of an English home, but at the same time decorations and detailing very much more at home in Bangkok or the surrounding areas. The temple hall features murals depicting the life of the Buddha in surreal and extravagantly bright colours. For anyone with an appreciation of the fringe fusions of art around the world, Wat Buddhapadia would be an ideal place to visit.
The United Kingdom is home to so many different religious traditions thanks to a well-grounded modern tradition of tolerance and acceptance. Because of that, there are so many beautiful and unusual buildings to find all over the country. Look a little harder, and you too will be amazed at what you can see.