- since 2011 -

Kingdoms of Heaven

Monday, 30 May 2011

London's historic churches are a delight to explore, but only a handful have their prayers answered...

When a building has an inscription outside that says 'The most perfectly proportioned interior in the world' it's setting itself up for a fall. Upon walking inside the Church of St Stephen Walbrook in the City of London, however, I'm in no mood to disagree.

The exterior hardly thrills - small and a touch grotty with no real approach, squeezed into a narrow space surrounded by (just now) workmen and scaffolding. But through the modest entrance it's like passing from one world to another - evidently Christopher Wren's intention when he designed and built this little place in the 1670s. (Sir Christopher Wren, architect and engineer, and Professor of Astronomy at Oxford in his spare time).

St Alfeges, Greenwich

St Alfeges, Greenwich

The interior is circular, filled with light, glorious light, and by chance there is sweet music playing here - as I walk in, a group of young musicians begins an orchestral rehearsal. A glance upwards to the domed and coffered ceiling, which is simply celestial, confirms that this was a prototype for St Paul's. But there's a touchstone to modernity, literally, with Henry Moore's 'slab' altar right in the middle. Overall effect: totally inspiring.

Modern buildings can be meretricious, all about what they look like on the outside. With churches it's often the other way round, what's inside that counts. I learned this during my second stint living and working in London when I also began to appreciate the capital's geography.

London had always seemed vast and unknowable, the tube taking you on journeys marked by duration rather than landmark, from one place to another, upon which you emerged magically from the maw. But now it began to make sense, become joined-up, probably because my work entailed more meetings in central London and more opportunities to walk rather than ride the Underground.


St John's, Waterloo

I criss-crossed the Thames via its bridges, hiked from Westminster and Waterloo along the Embankment, scenic South Bank and Bankside to London Bridge Station. I came, if not to love London, then at least think of it more fondly. Like everyone else I had my favourite places: the British Library, Borough Market, St Pancras Station, the RIBA Building on Portland Place, Cleaver Square in Vauxhall, the National Portrait Gallery, the chippy at the end of our street.

Then one February morning, far too early for a meeting in Soho Square and already fuelled-up with coffee, I caught sight of a church in the back streets behind Charing Cross Road with its doors open. It was St Giles-in-the-Fields and not particularly pretty, to be honest - more austere, with a gloomy mosaic by the Victorian artist GF Watts entitled Time, Death & Judgment, and a plaque commemorating Thomas Earnshaw, 'Creator of the Modern Marine Chronometer'. But it was also soothing in its solitude. If not quite hooked, I was certainly up for more.

A couple of days later, on the way back to the office after another hour or so circling the corporate drain, I stopped off at St Martins-in-the-Fields by Trafalgar Square. What a contrast. Designed by James Gibbs in 1726, it looked brand new. Massive investment had allowed its vaults to be redeveloped with a 'café in the crypt' arrangement. In the polished pews at the back were people kneeling in the position of prayer who appeared to be sleeping. An unequivocally unwashed whiff gave the game away, reflecting this place of worship's alternative name: the Homeless Church.

This notion of sanctuary and respite for people at the bottom of the pile reappeared again and again. Another church, St Pancras, had a Book of Intercessions full of prayers for lost friends and relatives suffering from mental illness.

So began a quixotic obsession indulged whenever I found the time. I recognised the distinction between parish and guild, and discovered those churches that had - as much by chance as design - become associated with one particular profession: the 'RAF Church' of St Clement Danes on the Strand, designed by Wren and rebuilt after the Blitz; the 'Actors' Church' of St Paul's Covent Garden with memorials to Vivien Leigh, Boris Karloff, Richard Beckinsale and Hattie Jacques; the 'Journalists' Church' of St Bride's off Fleet Street - where else - with its corner dedicated to Bill Deedes, Carol Barnes and Daniel Pearl (the American reporter killed in Pakistan).

St Dunstan

St Dunstan-in-the-East

I learned the language of ecclesiastical anatomy: nave, choir, apse, transept, aisle, clerestory, crossing. Each building had its own idiosyncrasies: the knight effigies on the floor of Temple Church made famous by Dan Brown; the gorgeous sunray ceiling of the octagonal St Dunstan-in-the-West; the bombed-out shell of St Dunstan-in-the-East, reminiscent of St Luke's in Liverpool with its gardens filled with office workers; the masonic symbolism of Wesley's Chapel, birthplace of Methodism (while across the road in the unconsecrated Bunhill Cemetery, passers-by still place coins on the headstone of William Blake and no one quite knows why).

St Dunstan

St Dunstan-in-the-East

The first thing that struck me about St John the Evangelist, near the big IMAX cinema on Waterloo Road, was the spectacular steeple that diminished in three stages. On closer inspection it was the intricate honeysuckle motif that entranced me, constantly repeated, up and down, inside and out, from the stone piers either side of the main entrance to the churchyard railings.

Back in the City there was a tablet inside St Mary Woolnoth dedicated to John Newton (1725-1807) that read: 'Once an infidel and libertine, a servant of slaves in Africa, was, by the rich mercy of our lord and saviour Jesus Christ, preserved, restored, pardoned and appointed to preach the faith he had long laboured to destroy... his mortal remains are deposited in the Vault beneath this Church'.

His name rang a bell. There's another memorial to Newton in Liverpool, on the corner of Edmund Street and Bixteth Street (behind Tithebarn Street) that marks the residence of the 'one time slave ship captain, later abolitionist, clergyman and hymn writer'. Amazing Grace was his signature tune.

I came to appreciate that each church has personality not just in terms of architecture - breathtaking when designed by Wren or his protégé Nicholas Hawksmoor - but also atmosphere. Bright and airy, solemn and sepulchral. Above all a dichotomy emerged between those churches blessed in the lottery of patronage and basking in their refurbishment, and those at the mercy of the mothball, desperately in search of a saviour in these tough economic times.

St George's Bloomsbury, not far from the British Museum, was a dazzling match for both St Stephen Walbrook and St Martins-in-the-Fields. Arguably the grandest of the six surviving Hawksmoor churches (the others being St Alfege Greenwich, St Anne's Limehouse, St-George's-in-the-East, St Mary's Woolnoth, and Christ Church Spitalfields), its refulgent surfaces were the result of a restoration made possible by the Paul Mellon Estate (an Anglophile American philanthropist) and Heritage Lottery Fund.

The Victorian interior had been stripped out, its stained glass replaced with clear windows through which sunlight poured, in keeping with Hawksmoor's 1731 design. The pyramidal steeple was returned to its original splendour, complete with the whimsical lion and unicorn that can be seen on the horizon in William Hogarth's famous 'Gin Lane' engraving of 1751.

St Mary-le-Strand

St Mary-le-Strand

In sharp contrast was the much-loved but least-rewarded St Mary-le-Strand, a Gibbs church like St Martins-in-the-Fields. Marooned in the middle of the Strand with traffic lanes either side, it needs repairs urgently to the tune of over £1million.

Further north, St Pancras cut another forlorn figure on the thunderously busy Euston Road. It requires £3.5m to restore, among other things, its historic caryatids. These exterior columns in the shape of female figures are celebrated for their original design fault: they're fatter than they should be because the sculptor Felix Rossi (who carved the Minerva statue on top of Liverpool's Town Hall) miscalculated the space they were to occupy and had to shave a few inches from their torsos. St Pancras Needs A Facelift is the title of a leaflet inside.

There are people who care, of course. Formed in 1994, the Friends of the City Churches (i.e. those within the Square Mile) have a brigade of volunteers known as 'Watchers'. Their mission is twofold: to help ensure that these churches are kept open and preserved intact for future generations, and to foster a wider appreciation of them. You can find out more here www.london-city-churches.org.uk.

Most memorable moment for me, though, might just have been outside St Nicholas Cole Abbey. This Wren church was 'closed for worship' when I passed by, with a notice outlining plans to convert it into a National Centre for Religious Education. In the doorway, on the ground, was a homeless man wrapped tightly in his sleeping bag and blankets - oblivious to Gordon Brown escorting the Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd into a cordoned-off St Paul's Cathedral just across the road.

'I criss-crossed the Thames via its bridges, hiked from Westminster and Waterloo along the Embankment, scenic South Bank and Bankside to London Bridge Station. I came, if not to love London, then at least think of it more fondly'


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The Liverpolitan
Published at Brighter Design
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