This is the first of a collection of posts – I’ll call them Steeplechases – in which I aim to cover all the City of London’s churches, past and present, in a format that will align to series of short walks. Each post in the series will take in a small number of church sites and a few other points of interest along the way.
As a collection of buildings, the City churches have evolved considerably over the centuries. Estimates differ of the exact number of in existence at various points in time, but a good approximation to the overall number is that there are just under 50 churches active today, with standing remains of 10 others, compared with just over 100 recorded parishes at the time of the Great Fire in 1666. Most of the churches originally date from the C12 and C13, although at least a quarter of them were recorded before 1100.
The scale of the Great Fire was such that 86 churches were burnt out, providing a blank canvas for the genius of Wren, Hooke and Hawksmoor, who rebuilt about 50 of them. More than 30, then, disappeared from London’s skyline at that point and there is little or no evidence of their existence on the ground today, other than in many cases a Corporation of London blue plaque to mark the site.Perhaps the greatest surprise to a newcomer to the history of the City churches is the fact that a further 25 or so churches, including some 15 of Wren’s, were demolished between 1780 and 1940 in what is generally today seen as a period of gross vandalism by the public authorities. This left just under 50 Anglican churches standing at the beginning of World War II, of which more than one-third were gutted by bombing during the war. The changed attitudes to conservation since 1945 have meant that most war-damaged churches were rebuilt and in some cases ruins preserved.
The first challenge in setting about this project was how to group the churches in a way that will be helpful to readers who may be unfamiliar with the ground and able to cover only a short distance on each walk. After considering various options, I decided to base the walks on the 26 historic wards of the City as they were at the time of John Strype’s survey of London in 1720.
Where to start? In light of the popularity of the remarkable and moving installation ‘Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red’, with its poppies providing the Tower of London with an even stronger tourist magnet than usual, I am going to start with the adjacent Tower Ward.
In 1720 this ward contained just three parish churches, so it will be a relatively short walk, but the churches concerned are some of the City’s most historically interesting and there is plenty to see and explore in a walk that can easily be bolted on to a visit to the Tower.
The three churches of the Tower Ward (All Hallows Barking, St Dunstan-in-the-East and St Olave Hart Street) are a perfect illustration of the evolution and violent revolution of the City Church buildings. All three churches were of early medieval or earlier origin; two survived the Great Fire relatively unscathed; all three were devastated by the Blitz but only two were subsequently restored. The resulting buildings exemplify perfectly the palimpsest of architectural styles from Saxon to modern that so distinguishes the City Churches, and so form a great introduction to our ‘steeplechases’.Starting from your vantage point looking over the poppies at Tower Hill, look west and you should not fail to notice the striking copper-green spire of All Hallows-by-the-Tower, or All Hallows Barking to give its correct name, referring to its connection with the ancient Barking Abbey. This is the oldest church in the City, first mentioned in 1086 and the only London church with standing Anglo-Saxon fabric. It’s an astonishing building that looks almost entirely medieval from the outside but whose interior reveals a modern but sensitive restoration, (partly in concrete!) after very severe damage in the Second World War. Perhaps its greatest asset is the Grinling Gibbons font cover, kept behind locked glass doors but open to view, but of equally great interest is the crypt, which houses an eclectic range of artefacts from Roman and Saxon remains to the crow’s nest from the ship of Ernest Shackleton, the polar explorer. The brick tower of All Hallows dates from 1658-9, replacing what appears from the Agas map (1560-1605?) to have been a similar structure; and so was almost new when Samuel Pepys ascended it on 5 September 1666 to view the devastation of the Great Fire, which a little earlier had reached the porch of the church itself before being diverted:
“I up to the top of Barking steeple, and there saw the saddest sight of desolation that I ever saw; every where great fires, oyle-cellars, and brimstone, and other things burning. I became afeard to stay there long, and therefore down again as fast as I could, the fire being spread as far as I could see it…”
It was a surprise to me to learn that the elegant steeple dates only from the post-war restoration in 1958. Previously, and in Pepys’ day, the tower was crowned by a much smaller edifice as illustrated by a model in the crypt museum.Another major change in recent years is in the church’s external context relative to the adjacent street pattern. Now almost marooned on an island between the Thames, the Tower Moat and the heavy traffic of Lower Thames Street, All Hallows would in past times have felt much more part of the City, with the main thoroughfare of Great Tower Street then passing to the south of the church, rather than to its north as today as can be seen from Strype’s map below: Leaving All Hallows from the north porch, head westwards and cross over Lower Thames Street to take in the Hung, Drawn & Quartered pub. The pub’s name reflects the fact that until the mid-18th century, Tower Hill was London’s main location for public executions, particularly in respect of treason, for which the punishment of hanging, drawing and quartering was reserved. A sign on the wall outside bears a quotation from Pepys’ diary about the execution of Thomas Harrison, one of the men responsible for the execution of Charles I (ironically Harrison was executed at Charing Cross, not Tower Hill). Cross back over Lower Thames Street and head down Water Lane to the Thames. If the tide is out, there are steps down to a stretch of exposed foreshore here in front of Custom House – look out for the mark on the river wall denoting the parish boundary between All Hallows Barking and St Dunstan-in-the-East. This is a good spot for mudlarking and will always yield a few pieces of old clay pipes. Health & Safety warning – (1) make sure you check the tide times; (2) make sure you understand the rules about poking about on the foreshore; and follow sensible guidance about cleanliness in handling anything you pick up from the Thames. When you’ve had your fill of the foreshore, walk back to Lower Thames Street and head west, crossing just after you see the buttressed spire of the ruined St Dunstan-in-the-East on the other side of the road. St Dunstan’s has had the misfortune of being devastated by both the Great Fire and the Blitz and a major rebuilding in between. The original medieval church was an important foundation and was physically imposing with a leaded steeple thought to have been second in height only to Old St Paul’s. The rebuilding of St Dunstan’s after the Great Fire was able to re-use much of the medieval fabric, and Wren’s distinctive tower and spire were the main new elements. However, by the early C19 the medieval walls had become dangerously unstable and they were knocked down and replaced (though maintaining Wren’s spire) by a new building in 1817-21 by David Laing. Laing’s church was itself destroyed by bombing in 1941, though Wren’s tower and steeple again survived. Walk up the hill to the church and take in the beautiful gardens that have been allowed to develop in the church ruins. For the final leg of our steeplechase, continue up St Dunstan’s Hill to Great Tower Street, cross the road and head east back towards the spire of All Hallows. Turn left onto Mark Lane and then right onto Hart Street, stopping to note The Ship, a grade-II listed pub dating from 1802. A bit further on the right is St Olave, Hart Street, one of the City’s smallest churches but, like All Hallows, well worth a lengthy visit in its own right. First recorded in the late 12th century, it is packed full of interesting monuments, including those to Samuel Pepys and his wife Elizabeth: this was their parish church and they are both buried here. One monument in particular, that to Dr Peter Turner (d.1614) has a fascinating history: it was looted from the bombed ruins of the church in 1941 and rediscovered in 2010 when it came up for sale in an auction! It was subsequently restored to its rightful place in the church. Before leaving St Olave’s, make sure you take in the small secluded churchyard which leads out to Seething Lane where you will see the gateway of 1658 with its carved skulls and bones. This ghoulish sight led Charles Dickens to immortalise the church in The Uncommercial Traveller as ‘St Ghastly Grim’:
…It is a small small churchyard, with a ferocious, strong, spiked iron gate, like a jail. This gate is ornamented with skulls and cross-bones, larger than the life, wrought in stone; but it likewise came into the mind of Saint Ghastly Grim, that to stick iron spikes a-top of the stone skulls, as though they were impaled, would be a pleasant device. Therefore the skulls grin aloft horribly, thrust through and through with iron spears. Hence, there is attraction of repulsion for me in Saint Ghastly Grim, and, having often contemplated it in the daylight and the dark, I once felt drawn towards it in a thunderstorm at midnight. ‘Why not?’ I said, in self-excuse. ‘I have been to see the Colosseum by the light of the moon; is it worse to go to see Saint Ghastly Grim by the light of the lightning?’ I repaired to the Saint in a hackney cab, and found the skulls most effective, having the air of a public execution, and seeming, as the lightning flashed, to wink and grin with the pain of the spikes. Having no other person to whom to impart my satisfaction, I communicated it to the driver. So far from being responsive, he surveyed me — he was naturally a bottled-nosed, red-faced man — with a blanched countenance. And as he drove me back, he ever and again glanced in over his shoulder through the little front window of his carriage, as mistrusting that I was a fare originally from a grave in the churchyard of Saint Ghastly Grim, who might have flitted home again without paying.
To complete the circuit, continue south along Seething Lane to return to All Hallows Barking and Tower Hill underground station.
Did you enjoy this post? Please feel free to comment! If you did like it, you might like to read about the Dragon and the Grasshopper here.