I've heard time and time again, especially from more experienced pipe smokers, that every collection should have at least one Churchwarden-style pipe. Churchwardens are built for comfort and relaxation. The extra-long stem of a Churchwarden provides a leisurely smoking posture from which to enjoy the bowl's contents, while also ensuring that any smoke or heat from the bowl will stay far from the eyes. It is for that second reason that Churchwardens are typically thought of as reading pipes, so much so that in Germany, a Churchwarden is known as a "Lesepfeife," which translates to "reading pipe." Churchwardens are also not defined by a particular shape, which means there are a multitude of configurations and options for pipe smokers.
To many, a Churchwarden's protracted stem and languid build may appear impractical, but these pipes aren't meant to be pragmatic. In fact, I would argue their maximalist presentation and incompatibility with day-to-day life are what make Churchwardens so unique. It's a style of pipe that demands purposeful smoking, away from the distractions of everyday life, where one can truly appreciate the act of smoking itself. In that way, it's a particularly old-world shape evocative of an era long past, a simpler time without the baggage and troubles of modernity.
One of the most unique aspects of Churchwarden pipes is how integrally bound they are to pipe history and how they've managed to retain an enduring popularity over the course of centuries. But just where did Churchwardens come from, and how are they still so popular today?
Though the design's exact history is difficult to determine, Churchwardens have existed in Europe since at least the early 16th century. During Elizabethan times, Churchwardens were popular with England's upper-classes and were even then associated with leisure. The extra length of stem required little movement when smoking in an armchair, and it was thought to produce a cooler smoke, as the smoke had to travel a great distance from the bowl to the mouthpiece. As early pipes were crafted from clay instead of briar, the working class tended to smoke shorter pipes, as they had less of a chance of breaking while laboring. Clay Churchwarden pipes were also popular in alehouses and taverns, where they were provided for paying customers to enjoy when drinking, eating, and socializing.
Just like its history, the exact manner in which the Churchwarden received its name is difficult to determine, though there are a fair number of potentially apocryphal tales. One tale traces the name's origins to the watchmen, or "churchwardens," who would guard churches at night. These wardens required a clear line of vision to fully survey the church's grounds, so they smoked long-stemmed pipes to stay vigilant without distraction. Other tales posit that the extra long stem allowed people to smoke while in Church, with the bowl either being positioned outside an open window or set on the back of a pew, depending on which version of the story one's to believe.
While Churchwardens have been an integral part of pipe history, like any shape or style of pipe, they've gone through periods of waxing and waning in popularity. But in the early 2000s, a trilogy of films was released that reintroduced Churchwarden pipes to the modern popular consciousness. Peter Jackson's adaptation of The Lord of the Rings found Churchwarden pipes in the hands of literature and film's most iconic and beloved characters, and a whole new generation of pipe enthusiasts, particularly Churchwarden enthusiasts, was born.
Pipes and smoking were an integral part of the lived-in texture of The Lord of the Rings films, and nearly every prominent character within the Fellowship smoked a Churchwarden of some kind or another. Whether it was Gandalf quietly puffing away while contemplating an on-coming threat, or Merry and Pippin enjoying a stashed barrel of 'pipe-weed," The Lord of the Rings lovingly showcased the appeal of smoking a Churchwarden, and you'd be hard-pressed to find pipe smokers who weren't at least nominally seduced by the film's intoxicating portrayal of pipes.
In the modern era, quite a few popular pipe brands produce high-quality Churchwarden configurations, and for those who wish to experiment with a new shape, I've highlighted some particularly choice options.
In response to the success and popularity of The Lord of the Rings, Vauen produced the Auenland series, a line of Churchwardens celebrating the works of J.R.R. Tolkien. Each pipe in the series pairs a distinctive briar bowl to a beechwood stem lined and tipped with acrylic. Auenland pipes appear as if they've been pulled straight out of the Shire and are appropriately whimsical in fit and form. The bowls are distinctive, the finishes are rich yet pastoral, and the stems are a healthy balance between old-world construction and modern engineering.
A trusted Italian brand, Savinelli produces a number of different Churchwarden configurations, many of which are more straightforward than one would find in the Auenland line. Savinelli's Churchwardens tend to be protracted renditions of shape-chart standards, so those who already have a preference in shape are likely to find something that fits their particular liking. Savinelli's "921" Dublin, "104" Billiard, and "313" Prince are all offered with Churchwarden stems and in a variety of smooth and sandblasted finishes.
Since 1945, Peterson has manufactured a range of unique Churchwarden designs. With the Irish marque's catalog, their Churchwarden configurations are among their smallest, most lightweight pipes, forgoing the muscular aesthetic that marks a number of Peterson's designs. Their Churchwarden shapes, however, are lacking nothing in terms of style or presentation, as each piece is handsomely finished and frequently accented with a gleaming metallic band, fostering a bold yet sophisticated appearance.
The Churchwarden is among the oldest types of pipe, and over the course of its centuries-long popularity, it's been a favorite comfort pipe. It's a design specifically built for leisure and relaxation, so it's no wonder innumerable generations of pipe smokers have found themselves paired with a good book, a favorite armchair, and a long Churchwarden stem. Do you have a favorite Churchwarden pipe? Do you find it more comfortable than your other pipes? What is it that makes the style of stem so appealing to you?