Where We Live: Union Chapel – London, UK

Here is somewhere you can get married, hold a baptism or funeral, and hear some of the clearest acoustic or amplified music you’re likely to catch anywhere. The imposing Union Chapel is a Grade II listed building located in Compton Terrace, Islington, North London on the east side of Upper Street. The present building dates back to 1877 and today is a working nonconformist church, a drop-in centre for the homeless or those in crisis, as well as a hallowed music venue. The chapel was designed in part to amplify the human voice and this makes it especially fit for purpose to hear live music.

The chapel eschews the familiar nave and aisle design convention­ally found in churches. Rather, the layout provides a space where everyone can see and hear what is going on. Once inside you are struck by a sense of drama and ingenuity. The space comprises a massive irregular octagon set within a rectangle, with galleries on five sides, and crowned with an elaborately decorated wooden ceiling soaring upwards into a dome. It is a fully seated venue with traditional wooden pews carefully arranged on a raked ground floor giving a perfect eyeline to pulpit and stage for up to 850 people. The chapel is said to be modeled on the Romanesque church of St. Fosca at Torcello near Venice. Its tower adds a dominant touch to the Islington landscape in a way reminiscent of those great Italian churches.

Fittingly, the rose window above the great organ features angels playing musical instruments: You are unlikely to find a building anywhere where a voice can sound quite so angelic. The acoustics are quite astonishing and help create an ambiance and intimacy between audience and performers quite unlike any other London venue. There is also a vibrancy about the place which balances the more formal aspects of the building. Although it’s a working church, you can still get a drink at Union Chapel — and not just communion wine. There’s a large bar upstairs and although it’s a rather stark, austere space and surprisingly down at heel, the bar staff are nice and prices are reasonable compared to many venues. We suggest you avoid the grim alley outside unless you are desperate for a smoke (though such ramshackle aspects of Union Chapel do add to its charm).

Union Chapel was voted the “Best London Music Venue” in the Love London Awards 2009.  If you want to see Patti Smith, that one is already sold out but upcoming acts include British legends like Jethro Tull and Peter Green, the original Fleetwood Mac guitarist. You can equally catch many breakthrough acts and especially folk/acoustic singer-songwriters who work particularly well in the space. The building itself adds gravitas to a performance and the lighting is particularly good and keyed to work in with the stained glass. There’s the added bonus of being able to sit and absorb the splendor of the interior as you wait for an artist to take to the stage — if you can drag yourself away from bar or alley!

When you get to the auditorium, you sit where you want. This can lead to a mad scramble to get close to the band, but equally, you can wander off and return to find another seat where the view generally will be just as good. Union Chapel audiences are usually very respectful of the performers, so if you want somewhere to escape all those infuriating people who feel compelled to reveal their life stories during the set, you’ll like it here. The chapel’s staff are the sort you’d want at your own gig and care about things like disability. There’s not a huge amount more to be said about Union Chapel. The best advice is to check it out first hand for an experience that’s quite different to the compressed distortion that passes for sound in many a venue. Just prepare for something altogether uplifting.

The Vestry
Compton Avenue, Canonbury
London N1 2XD
United Kingdom
020 7226 3750

For a list of upcoming events, click here.


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