St Baldred's Episcopal Church stands on the west side of the centre of North Berwick, close to the railway station and overlooking the A198, Dirleton Avenue, as it reaches the traffic lights which signify the central area of the town. Viewed externally, it is a slightly odd building, with a raised apse at the eastern end (actually, twin raised apses, making it still odder) and the overall effect is very much as if the Sphinx had been relocated from Egypt to North Berwick, albeit with the west-facing head lost somewhere in transit.
If the exterior of the church looks a little ungainly, nothing of this is carried through into the interior, which is outstandingly beautiful. You enter through the porch on the south side, facing the main road, which comes complete with a nicely carved arch. This leads into the south aisle, beyond which is the nave. Perhaps it was the quality of the light coming in from the skylights when we visited, combined with the contrast between the dark stone and woodwork and white painted walls and ceiling, but the nave of St Baldred's must be one of the most serene places we have enjoyed in a very long time. This is a church which feels innately welcoming and friendly: a church which you feel better for simply having visited.
St Baldred's is part of the Scottish Episcopal Church, a member of the world-wide Anglican Communion which traces its history back to St Columba and the early days of Christianity in Scotland. Like its sister-church south of the border, the Church of England, the Scottish Episcopal Church is governed by Bishops. This is one of the things that distinguishes it from the much larger Church of Scotland, a Presbyterian Church governed by representatives of the congregation.
This may not initially sound like a major difference, but it was King Charles I's efforts to impose government by Bishops on the Presbyterian Church of Scotland which led to a riot in St Giles' Cathedral in Edinburgh on Sunday 23 July 1637. This in turn led directly to the Bishops' Wars; the Wars of the Covenant; the English Civil War; the execution of Charles I; and Cromwell's occupation of Scotland: 23 years of wide-ranging conflict that did not really end until the restoration of Charles II in 1660. Those days are, thankfully, long gone, but it helps to know that differences of opinion about church governance were once, quite literally, a matter of life and death.
The odd external appearance of St Baldred's is largely due to the fact that it grew in a series of stages through the latter half of the 1800s. This was a time when North Berwick was expanding rapidly as a resort and the church found itself struggling to cope with the growing congregation of Episcopalians wishing to attend services here.
The original church comprised the three bays (or arches) at the eastern end of the nave and was built by the architect John Henderson in 1861. At the east end of the nave was a semi-circular apse considerably smaller in scale than the one you see today. Two years later, in 1863, the church was extended to the west and a north aisle was added. The architects Seymour and Kinross extended the apse to form a chancel in 1884, and in 1890 they added the south aisle to the church. At its eastern end this had its own apse, and both this and the original apse at the end of the nave were raised so the roof lines were higher than those of the rest of the building. The south porch through which you enter the church was added by Robert Lorimer in 1917.
Episcopal churches are seldom shy in setting out to impress though beautiful detail, and St Baldred's is no exception. Directly opposite the entrance is a truly magnificent altar piece, originally installed when the north aisle became All Souls Chapel in 1921. Meanwhile, the south aisle has its own distinct character, and is divided from its apse by a beautiful wooden angel screen installed in 1912. The south apse itself serves as a separate chapel. Other outstanding details include the carvings on the outside of the south porch door, and on the stalls in the chancel. Also of great interest are the decorative tiles in the floor in front of the altar, which appear to have been reused from an earlier church, and the carved wood war memorials.
Adding to the beauty of a visit to the church is the stained glass in the windows of both apses, the south aisle and the west end of the church. Much of it was by Ballantine & Son and many of the windows carry inscriptions showing they were installed in memory of individual parishioners.