St. Alban the Martyr
I had never heard of St. Alban the Martyr until Diarmaid McCulloch referred to it in his History of Christianity. I discovered it and may not forget it. And I was feeling chuffed that I had discovered it. Well I sort of discovered it. As I arrived, the light was sinking and so I saw no more than glints and shadows and I heard no more than silence and the birds from outside as I sat in the church to just be. So, while I saw no monument or church furniture, or glass or person, or even or iconography, I saw the beauty of a church at the day’s end.
And what I saw belies the fact that like so many churches in London, the building was built around real poverty and squalor in Victorian times.
And it was with some relief that I found the church door open, as the approach to the church made me nervous. I had to walk through a passageway and an alleyway, turn a corner not seeing the end of it, until I found the exterior entrance to another courtyard that took me to the church door. And in the courtyard were some burial fragments, tantalisingly interesting in the light that had so quickly turned from something honeyed to something black and sepulchral. A man was walking towards me as I navigated my way through the labyrinth to get here. Not at ease at the best of times in walking on my own, I swiftly passed him as he passed me – not obviously noticing me, only obviously caring for his next purpose.
After the noise of the Gray’s Inn Road, the utter silence was a surprise. All the more so because the church was only lit with two lights at the back, i.e. at the west end. I sat down in a pew near these lights and looked down all the way to the high altar (this is a long church) which unusually was cloaked in darkness. I could just make out some colours that belonged to a large painting, I presumed some sort of wall painting of the Last Judgement. Or, I imagined a glorious and o’er towering Christ as is his wont when he takes centre stage in the high and central part of the church. I could just see a man with his back to me, head bent, fixed intently on a candle, on the little table where candles can be lit, for an offering of course. I could make out Gothic inspired arches and remembered that McCulloch had noted this church as being part of the Oxford movement. So I presumed that it was Gothic Revival. No music, no voices, just the knowledge of the frenzy outside. I was in a place of deep deep silence. If only I was not restless. I noticed a small panel to the left of me hanging on the wall towards the north and went to inspect. I started to read it by the light of my phone. It was a tract (very much in the spirit of Tractarianism) urging people not to accept the over-night transformation of one religion for another in the Reformation period. It was written along the lines of ‘Don’t believe a word of what you hear about the Reformation’…. I was curious, amused, surprised to see such strident words. My phone then ran out of charge. I could not inspect what I read as images of Christ on the way to Calvary in haunting pallid colours on the wall leading up to the altar. I could just pick out what I assumed was Christ’s anguished face, a detail from one scene where we see him carrying the cross. Despite seeing the church at what I had imagined its most beautiful time, I knew I had to return. Before I left, I lit a candle for my son, who, on this day was having an important interview at university.
St. Alban’s is also a church that I wanted to visit as it has Victorian origins. Originally built by William Butterfield and consecrated in 1863. But would its large and domineering presence against what would have been then a lower skyline of buildings have been of any comfort to those living in penury below it? The church’s structure suffered like so much and like so many during WW2 and was destroyed by bombs. Gilbert Scott designed what is seen today.
I left the church by the other door. I walked down a different street and found one of my favourite cafe – Konditor and Cook and returned to the increasingly young dominated energy of London with tea and a mince pie. It may even have been Brooke Street where once cows were milked, where disease, dirt and danger had once lurked. So perhaps the area is no stranger to the fearful as I had felt at the start of my visit.
I thought I had discovered St. Alban the Martyr all for myself. No. It was not my own discovery and was not as un visited or as unknown as I had thought it was. Yesterday, BBC Radio 3 broadcast a live carol concert from the church. I listened to it on the radio, quite by chance at home. But I will always associate this church with silence and the hidden and unknown.
I add no pictures. This is a church that deserves to be seen, but at dusk, at candle-light, or at the latest hour of the day. But I add no pictures, for as you will know if you have read to this point, I lost my charge.