The Beasts of the East

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The Beasts of the East were closed.

I had no camera on me, and so to visit churches for a blog that relies on the visual seemed pointless. But I had the sun with me and I had feet and I had a bag and the pocket mini A to Z. Finding myself on the same page I used to visit some east end churches before, I saw black ticks made against black crosses to denote visits that had happened. On this previous occasion, I had been traipsing eastwards aligned with, as I moved, the east end orientations that I was following on east end churches around Commercial Road and the East India Dock Road in E14. Now today, I was being guided by pp. 36-7 and then a part-repeat of pp. 34-6 as I effectively walked backwards. A few more churches to ‘black tick off’ before I could (in my ever intense OCD way) rip the pages out to throw away with the mission of church visited accomplished. So this time, out of joint, out of the east and this time heading west towards what was to become four locked, bolted and empty churches. Some of them had grand iron gates – with rusty padlocks, some had gates to a huge garden set before the church. So somehow the lack of a camera did not matter.. Instead, I looked at stone-work, light jumping around on brick-work and then the signs of life, of decoration, craftsmanship on the exterior, even a person.

I was in a sort of geographical no-man’s land, with watery fingers, tucked in around the curve of the River Thames straddled populous areas and where other sorts of nestling land and water collisions cradled themselves against post-industrial neglect – the Basin of Limehouse, the creeks of Bow, the wharves and buoys, docks and piers around the pit of the Thames, and near to where routes north and south, and west and east are fast and furious, and ugly and polluted. And here where once mills would have churned, and pushed and spewed out water when London was surging out the full vigorous force of the Industrial Revolution. And all of this was happening at a place by the main artery of water for London, which did not yet know major roads, ways and highways. And the roads barely bearing up, with the weight of car and coach and all throbbing, wretched, announcing their existence alongside them with badly conceived social housing both high and low, the odd Victorian, but now utterly neglected municipal building, such as a public baths, one-stop shops, ‘Bible and Book’ churches, Baptist chapels and information centres and the procession of cars bringing in pollution and fumes and smog as they speed up, slow down, pouring forth angst, energy, music beats and heart-beat. And then we view the ‘church’ beasts from the east standing there, so sullen in their steadfast majesty that they seemed fittingly uninhabited and silent today.

Maybe when the churches were built, the architects were thinking of the water that lay so close, where the slightest tilt of stone could slip down to surf and stew in the water-pit of a London that then had no Thames barrier. And so through these gates I peered. Through these gates I peered to gaze at a building that had the stately, but unguarded poise of a castle, which could monitor those in and those out.

And these beasts of the east clinging on in the outermost regions of the City’s shores stand high and mighty, bulky, dominant, shapely and statuesque. All around them on the watery ways, the boats chug, while the cars groan. The river curves accordingly and willingly while north are areas of congestion still digesting their post-war creation and grim development as part of the east end’s housing growth in the areas of Poplar, Tower Hamlets, Stepney.
The first two beasts (All Saints, Poplar and St. Anne’s Limehouse) are built in an exaggeratedly large and imposing classical style, complete with columns topped by ionic capitals, bulbous semi-domes sitting within blind arches and portals, apsidal porches and ends, topped up apertures and rising structures and steeples cutting the eye with their corners, projections, turns and smooth faces. Catch the gentle glinting spring light on the buildings and you might believe you are gazing at ivory. The bulk of them though is such that ivory would be far too costly, as would have been marble. Though they stand, as if slowly passing ships on slowly moving water where the windows look like portholes. They looked like church containers, but sadly today containing nothing. Or what is contained is kept hidden. These are ferociously bold, audacious classical designs, but the stone and the buildings stand forlorn beside the troubled waters and roads of an area of the city that is dropping its way and weight down to the river and the road tunnels and highways, and near to where the DLR, on its narrow track-way has trains on it, that look ready to tumble; mapped onto an area that became a necessary outer fringe for London’s expansion. All Saints was built in 1821-3 in order to give the newly forming Poplar parish a place to worship. St. Anne was built even earlier in 1712-24, when the stones invaded the green of lush fields. The first vicar had been the rector of St. Dunstan (see below). It is the design of Hawksmoor and in the shape of a Greek cross.

I also tried to visit a large Catholic church called St. Mary and St. Joseph, which was also resolutely closed. A statue of the Virgin Mary standing safe within a wide porch is also gated. How endlessly useful and fascinating is Google Maps, for on my return, while checking the churches I had visited against their layout with streets – I found this http://www.cdcgvietnamlondon.org/ and wondered if it had been open.

By contrast, I then visited a church I knew years ago. I wanted to see how I remembered it. This is the church of St. Dunstan and all Saints in Stepney. On the way, I walked past a small patch of ‘fenced’ grass, with some very ancient graves and grave-stones dotted around. I read that this had originally been a burial ground for the Puritans in an area where from the 17th century many dissenting religions practised.

St. Dunstan’s looks like a Kentish flint Gothic church. It is situated in a church-yard that once was country, where apple and cherry and pear trees may have flourished. And by contrast to the previous churches, it still has the genteel feel of a parish country church. And yet, the mood of the church is heavy, bearing the weight of its very ancient past with boulders of stone, rather than graceful curls, loops, and flourishes made to conceal the stone, which is what you find in classical architecture. This is the style of no messing with me, fundamental, we are what we seem sort of architecture. The rest is done inside. As for hope of an opening, the notice board gave me hope, even though the door was also firmly closed. It said that on Saturdays the church was open from 10-4pm. But it was nearly 1 pm, and I was still surrounded by silence, except for the odd bird-song. This was the fourth and final church of the day to be closed.

Four churches wielding a mysterious strength, none of which were exerting a state of preparedness for four weddings; but which were not precarious enough to set sail in the filters of my eye amidst the wateriness of east London, now, nourished by the April light. These are massive stone stages upon which a play could be cast, but I am the only ready actor. And even no vicars at the door to direct, a visible church office, or even the guffaws of birds and screeches of a bat in the belfry. Virtual tourism is one thing, but do open your doors and let visual tourism in – even if we all bring our cameras. For these are four churches that demonstrate the extraordinary diversity and vitality of church building in just one small area of London. They are the stone valets of God refusing entry while the would be visitor waits. Silence was soon replaced with human sound. As I walked out of the tube nearest my home, a bellow of a sound cracked the air. God and a Christ who loved me was being spoken about through a microphone, by a man standing half in the road, and who, once I had got to the bus stop started to sing.

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