“Whose house is of glasse must not throw stones at another.”
The whole concept of the ‘City of London’ in its present incarnation has always baffled me. The transition from hive of humanity to preserve of concrete and glass monoliths has always seemed in some respects like a shame-fuelled purge; as if the only way to atone for the sins and for the squalor of ages is to evacuate humans themselves.
The physical environment of the City, as with many across the world, is something that the human mind can struggle to fully grasp in and of itself. Every square inch either serves a strictly regulated purpose or is capitalised upon by huge buildings, making the most of every square inch of invaluable space. The magnitude of the architecture is only paralleled by Canary Wharf, and like its’ sister district, the City has always seemed to be both physically and cognitively impenetrable: the ancient stronghold redefined within the megalithic maze that bears its name.
At the same time, unexpectedly, it has seemed to retain and celebrate symbols of Englishness. It is a peculiar fact that due to its prominent placement in its logo and coat-of-arms, the City of London is one of the precious few places in England in which the Cross of St George is quite so ostentatiously displayed, everywhere from Underground stations, as here at Bank…
… to simple bollards:
It is as if the City cannot escape the pervasive symbolism of the nation from which it has been almost entirely isolated.
What is most fascinating to me is the continued presence of Churches: it fascinates me that among the towering bastions of capitalism, ancient places of worship nestle. They stand proud and tall as witnesses to long waves of movement of people through the area; they lend their names to the places in which they stand; they remain as evidence of the gentle humanity, piety, fortitude and steadfast belief of Londoners who are now long gone.
Two such churches stand in the shadow of 30 St Mary Axe, or ‘The Gherkin’ as it is more commonly known. Their closeness to this megalith is immediately apparent, as evidenced in this picture of St Helen’s Bishopsgate (as captured by curium):
This humble church, battered by the Great Fire of 1666, the Blitz of the Second World War and the IRA bombs of the early 1990s, was also the parish church of a certain chancer named William Shakespeare on his arrival in London.
Fellow survivor, St Andrew Undershaft, was given its name by the maypole that was erected near the Church each year. The pole was torn down at one time by Puritans, who decried it as a ‘Pagan idol’. One wonders what they would make of the gargantuan secular structures that now flank the building…
(Interestingly, this dichotomy is one that the City of London see fit to feature on their own website.)
Some other churches in the City were not so fortunate in their escape from the bombardment of history. St Olave Hart Street, described as ‘our own Church’ by Samuel Pepys and ‘My best beloved Churchyard’ by Charles Dickens, escaped the Great Fire of London, but was decimated by German bombers in the Blitz. Like the aforementioned Churches, it is wonderfully out-of-place. Tiny and isolated, it is a glorious anachronism, and it is no surprise to discover that John Betjeman labelled it ‘a country church in the world of Seething Lane’.
The Reverend Augustus Powell Miller, who helped oversee the rebuilding of the Church after the war, expressed his own feelings eloquently:
“Often we remind ourselves that we are the heirs of nine centuries of Christian worship on this hallowed site. For all those long years…the praises of God and the prayers of His people have been ascending to the Throne of grace from this place. The very mental and spiritual atmosphere which you breathe as you step out of Hart Street into this Sanctuary has been gradually created by the worshippers of the past.”
Christian worshipper or not, when one visits these Churches, it is easy to understand why they are so highly valued by those who care for and about them. One of the most-visited churches (and best kept secret) in the City of London is one that was unluckier than all of the churches featured so far: St. Dunstan-in-the-East.
Devastated by German bombs during the Blitz, this Christopher Wren church was not repaired after the war, and instead is one of the most innovative and effective uses of public space in the City of London. A public park, complete with water feature, it is probably my favourite place in the City. It is very easy to become carried away by the peace and tranquility, or with fanciful imaginings of the Church as a place of worship, filled with song and stories. It is also effortlessly beautiful.
The distance from the first building to the last is just over half a mile. Together, and with others, they form a quite phenomenal cultural legacy, stretching from Anglo-Saxon times to the modern day. Their value, above and beyond the significant, but relatively trifling price of the land on which they sit, is inestimable: they are irreplaceable beacons of the culture of the country since it began to be called ‘England’, they hold within them more stories than it is reasonable to approximate, they are the inheritance of a people who saw fit to build structures to save souls rather than for selfish gain… and in the modern world, a refuge from the pressures of modern life.
“It would be a sinful piece of barbarism to do other than preserve the churches as precious heirlooms. Many of them are specimens of noble architecture, the like of which we have no prospect of ever being able to produce again”.
William Morris and Sir George Gilbert Scott