Decemberly Day. Wednesday 7 December 2016
The Savoy Chapel, off the Strand
December. It was not so cold. Remembering the raw, sun-pink and orange sky days where frost and crisp seemed blissfully eternal. Feeling Decemberly, a word I see I have made up because Word under-lines it with a raw rough edged red. It is the end of 2016 and the world does feel raw and rough and red and angry and bubbling. And it is advent. The time when we wait. Wait for what so many will ask. Waiting for that hope to come. But for so many, that word brings nothing. As we wait and watch, so many of us are struggling with what 2016 means and what it will mean. And what it will have meant. And then there is the vulnerability of it all, as we also remember the dreadful year of 1916 as well.
So, as I walked along the Strand, I was feeling Decemberly. No money to buy presents and no carrier bags and an achy cheer. I like my vagrant days, as it gives me opportunities to go and visit places where shoppers do not dare to tread. But how I wish they would. And I began to devise a scheme that I could sell on Twitter to suggest that if we all stopped shopping for one week in December and gave all the money we saved by not shopping for our family and friends to the 21 million refugees in the world,rather than, as is being done in central London, shop. So, the following is a call to visit not the Savoy Taylor’s Guild shop on the Strand, but the chapel below the buildings flanking the right-hand side of the Strand as you go east.
I was heading in the direction of the church of St. Alban the Martyr which I had only just heard about in Diarmaid McCulloch’s heavy duty book – The History of Christianity, which I was struggling to finish. He had written about it in the context of the Oxford Movement which I have also written about in my entries on Ninian Comper and Pugin. So continuing with the theme, I wanted to see what the church looked like. I passed Stanley Gibbons, the legendary stamp shop which I remember from my childhood, where our enthusiasms for stamps went so far as buying one set to put in a new stamp album that my mother so graciously indulged by taking us there periodically for new albums. The thin pocket leaves to contain the stamps were often just as tactile and interesting as the stamps. These leaves bringing a delicate white against the vivid colours from countries from all over the world. And then I remembered another thing. Down past the Savoy hotel was the Savoy Chapel, which I had intended to visit many years ago, but never had. I think I had thought that I would have to enter the hotel in order to access the chapel. And I did not like having to go up to a glittering, bedecked in gold concierge area to ask a simple question. But this time I was brave enough to try to find it. And without any help.
There was a little street to the right of the hotel, which I passed by and then a rather dingy alleyway also to the right beyond the confines of the hotel. I sensed this might be the way to the chapel having looked for it on one of those London panel maps that are everywhere now on the street. As I got to the bottom of what was really a path, with an open area of a building to the right with lots of flat packed boxes in trolleys awaiting their next location and irons in a window, I saw a few people with chefs’ clothing on, smoking on the street. This was the street directly below the Savoy. Chefs resting of course. I looked to the left and saw a small stone towered building. Yes, it was the chapel. The chapel not attached to the hotel as I thought it was. It stood alone, crouching perilously amid buildings of much greater height and weight. This was a tiny, Norman looking chapel, which I soon gathered would have once been part of a medieval ‘hotel’ that sheltered travellers and the ailing; whose only hope for cure was a spiritual one. I say medieval in the English sense of medieval as it is commonly used to describe an England up to the early part of the sixteenth century at least. I read that this was the foundation hospital of Henry late King of England of Savoy, which he re-founded in 1515. As there was an existing medieval hospital on this site. And so the chapel would have been part of a larger complex of buildings. The hospital was established to provide for 100 ‘pour and nedie’ men.
Look to the side of the chapel as you face north and you will see blocked off-road, where there was another access back to the Strand. But as you will see from the picture, it is gated. This area once supported the steps that gave rise to this little street called ‘Savoy Steps’. You will see how they looked in the engraving I have also attached to this post. So with a little leap of imagination, I imagined the steps as one of the thresholds to the complex that must have been the Savoy hospital. On the side of the church from this street is a stone block recording George IV who worked to restore the chapel. This is one of the many majestic royal private chapels that have long associations with the Royal Family. Indeed this is the private chapel of Her Majesty The Queen. And does she take tea at the Savoy Chapel after her private devotions? I enter in. Not through the old towered portal, but through a modern entrance, with plush red carpet and a custodian in a little cubby hole sitting by a computer. Expecting him to ask if I had a Royal Appointment, I was delighted that he just beckoned me in, as he spoke to a woman who smiled at me. The chapel was empty, except for its decorations and the sound of organ music heralding my arrival. Even though I am not a Royal. I could have spent many an hour viewing the Royal stained glass (see the picture of one), but found two tiny figurines of women placed high on gently carved corbels, kneeling facing east and thus towards the altar either side of it more diverting. As I have seen with other visits to churches, there are often memorials to women of whom we know so little, if not nothing. On the left, is Alicia, who the notice says was the daughter of Simon Steward (1579-1629), who was a poet and interested in fairies! I looked both him and his daughter up in the Dictionary of National Biography. There is an entry on him, which mentions a monument he built to his own father in Ely Cathedral and his son Robert, but no mention of Alicia. Note too from her death in 1573 that her father outlived her. And yet, she has a little epitaph and statue in this chapel. While on the other side is Nicola Moray, who was the wife of Sir Robert Douglas and according to the DNB, they married at St. Mary Woolnoth. But she died in child-birth. Two women. Two plaques. Two figures praying in stone and so little to go on as to the reasons for their commemorations here. The little plaques beside the statues refer to a fire in 1864 that destroyed their ‘epitaphs’. So if they were once part of a family group in stone, then their existence as a collective whole where men are made known would make sense. For the statues are small, discreet and show women veiled and neat, contained as they are within the material that made them. But their very isolated position here makes one want to know more.
Another diverting feature is the room outside the chapel. Here is a little museum dedicated in a visual way to the Chapel’s history and some of the historical figures associated with it. You will also see from the illustration a long and elegant drawing by the Pre-Raphaelite artist, the only surviving drawing by him for an artistic project that did not survive. There are engravings by the excellent engraver Wenceslaus Hollar of London in the 17th century, engravings of the chapel as it was, an engraving of Henry VII and other interesting memorabilia.
The visiting hours are from 9-4 every day except Friday and Saturday. But there are services to attend too that I assume do not need ‘By Royal Appointment’. So, for example, today, which is Thursday 8 December at 6.30 is the carol service for the Guild of the XIX Lubricators (!), while on Tuesday 13 December at 5.30 is the carol service for the Central London Bench of Magistrates. But you can also go to Matins at 11 am on Sundays. Their website is RoyalChapelSavoy.org. Do pass by when you are next shopping in the Strand.
As I leave, I walk further to the left to go further east back north. I walk around the corner where there is a fuller and larger view of the chapel. A man startles me as he pulls out not only his hand for a penny or two, but what felt like a very long, even threatening arm. I saw that he was dressed in eastern robes. How very in-keeping to be begging in the east on this Decemberly day in 2016.