Charterhouse Alms-house, near the Barbican (1)
A spring afternoon. Early blossom, but still cold enough for thick bobble hats, bobble in a different colour to the bulb of the hat, scarves tightly wrapped and hands clutching paper cup hot lattes and chocolates. I follow a line of people down a narrow street. We are inadvertently walking in a straight line as the person way ahead. And that symmetry is performed in the other direction. From the air, we would be black and stick-like like Lowry lines.
As I try to think of ever imaginative ways of making a move back to London possible, I visit the sanctuary for 42 brothers or brethren at the alms-house at Charterhouse Square. I was secretly hoping for an empty room or flat there, as the organisation sometimes puts some of their flats for rent up on Right Move. I fantasised that the rent would not be much. Half-way round the tour I had booked to go on, I asked if there was an equivalent in the alms-house for sisters, but there is something illustriously male about its history which continues to make it a very male oriented establishment. In anticipation of my visit, I thought I would be sharing the tour with foreign tourists. I was surprised thus to see that everybody else in the group (about eight of us) were men apart from one other woman in dark coat and unlike me holding a very small hand bag. The men – to characterise most generally quiet, gentle, and of a reticent, slightly mawkish disposition. Were they contemplating the idea of striking out at a certain time or stage of their life? These men who would not catch my eye and who did not smile. And one was in clothes that would dismantle with less than a shove or touch, rather like old, damp wood, that when touched crumbles in one’s hand. These were men who were in search of some sort of other life, or a ‘brothering’ life in Charterhouse as a possible option. And perhaps the tour at £10.00 a go would be the deal clincher to help make up an undecided mind.
But then Charterhouse Square is a slightly strange mix of moods, spaces, buildings and people. It is gated, although the gates are usually open. It is cobbled, although they are not ‘listed’ cobbles. Cars are parked on them. Crunching down on them like pebbles on the sand. The square is part residential, part inner sanctum thoroughfare for them working at Barts’ Hospital, and is even the location for one of my favourite restaurants. The buildings are mixed too. There is a commanding block of stunning 1930s flats with a curved structure, which, in the blinking sun metamorphoses into the silvery bumper of a 1950s car, parked outside an equally blinking, shiny ice cream parlour. This is Florin Court, and would fit very nicely into the Brighton skyline, with its wide windows to cash in on light. There is then Jericho Chambers and four storey Georgian houses for rent. There is too the ever present scaffolding hiding bricks and turrets belonging to more ancient buildings and then a glimpse of the alms house with its small garden. In true monastic form. In the middle of the square is a large grassed area. All of this less than three minutes away from Barbican tube. And Latin is even the lingua franca of this architectural jewel. On the side of an old pub is the inscription intrate communitatem. This is a haven community, offering food and wine. And this is really the purpose of the alms-house too. It is a place for men who have no property to be secular ‘brothers’ in a community with others. They have their own self-contained flats, but there is one obligation and that is to eat communally on a regular basis in the grand old dining room. I was impressed and even mused on having a sex change in order that I might apply to be a brother. Dear gentleman reader, if you are reading this, you will find the application form online. And you will be in keeping with those ‘who could supply ‘good testimonye and certificate of their good behaviour and soundness in religion’, those who had been servants to the King. And what an illustrious list of governors: Her Majesty the Queen, His Royal Highness, the Duke of Edinburgh, and His Royal Highness, the Prince of Wales. Not just the one, but the three of them. I read in the notes that the Brothers have their own burial ground in the village of Little Hallingbury in Essex. That must be very comforting. And if you are ill, you do not even have to go next door to Barts’, but you go upstairs to the infirmary. This too has lots of light and lots of windows.
There are no religious obligations either. And that is because the alms-houses’ history of being religious and having royal charters and royal benefices goes a long way back to the time of the dissolution of the monasteries. Originally, like all the special buildings, it was a religious foundation, belonging to St. Bartholomew the Great Priory. But the land was then absorbed by an increased need for extra space as the plague required plague pits. Thereafter it became a monastery for Carthusian monks (1371) and who originally came over from Chartreuse near Grenoble. But after the dissolution, many of the buildings were changed or pulled down and that included the church and cloisters. However, it has remained as a building with special status and distinction and with this, a charitable status. That is, if you are a man, and a man without any encumbrances. Thomas More lived here for a while when he was a law student. One of the most fascinating things that I learnt on the tour was that Thomas Cromwell (alias Mark Rylance), came to visit the monks to tell them about Henry VIII’s Act of Supremacy. The monks refused to recognise this and some were executed at Tyburn as a result.
In our company on this particular visit, there was a man who made it known that he was especially curious about what it would mean to be an accepted brother here. He had trousers tied with string, far too short for him. He was unshaved, deferential, a little decrepit and a little unsure as to whether the world of Charterhouse would suit him. After all, despite what I say above, he did catch my eye and more than once. Was he floundering in his decision making I wondered? Afterwards, I read that in its original charitable foundation after the dissolution, the charter declared that those decrepit or old captaynes, disabled or fallen on hard times are most welcome. I sensed that my man in question was finding it difficult to remain in the present world where meals and things sartorial were a bit of a struggle. But could he really forsake? He asked questions about where to put books. I heard him sing too, dropping into song, in the pauses between seeing one part of the building and the other. I commented on the fact that he would want to play music if he did move in here. And he said, with some surprise, ‘How do you know I like music’. I replied with the obvious, ‘Because I heard you singing this afternoon’. He was happily surprised with my answer, or, happy that I had noticed that unawares he had opened his mouth. But when Figaro and Rigoletto are calling, will he be happy when the supper bell gongs for supper in Charterhouse Square?
And what of me? I could become a supporter or an associate of the Foundation. But when, dear house, can I become a sister?
JANUARY CHURCHES, CLOSED AND OPEN (2)
Church going at dusk is not proving to be very successful, as many of them are closed at this time, what is becoming the customary hour for my church visiting on these cold January days. Even so, I sort of do not really mind, as the City of London does feel a bit like wandering around Rome. Without the smell of coffee at every corner you understand. Which is surprising as I heard on the news this week that coffee culture is fast replacing that of the bar or pub. Such that while the City is such a good place to see churches in number, I suspect that cafes now outnumber them. But why don’t we smell coffee in London like we do in Rome? Is it because doors are closed here? The City reminds me of Rome in other ways too. Like Rome there are white buildings cropped with, pillars, posts and buttresses finely carved, decorative, clipped columns framing a doorway, and rounded and triangular pediments mounted over doorways and windows, porches and structures. The City feels like Rome because the buildings are elegant, bulbous, majestic and gracefully linear. The pavements neatly tuck themselves around the sides of the buildings, giving credence to the position and grandeur of the buildings they are set against. The buildings are given a sense of themselves as sometimes they lead into inner places and outer courtyards (Angel’s courtyard, Old Bull yard, Lions’ yard etc.) or an opening that in Rome might constitute a square. But here lies a big difference. The City does few squares, and lots of radial roads, going east to west, north to south. Yet there are also many quiet areas – if you are bold and do not mind where you are headed, go forth and walk through City garden, yard, court, courtyard, oh and church-yard. Smokers in some of these enclosed places are a giveaway that these are relatively quiet and peaceful places to stride towards and stop.
The cold air is only just beyond my reach, despite two cotton layers, two woollens, one thick jacket and an even thicker coat on top. The harvest moon pink and orange sky turns to grey and then black, streaked in places in grey as buildings illumine or shadow. I As I walk up streets, I pick out what appear to be mainly men: in twos, some with coats and computer cases and shoes lit up by a light above. Others in padded jackets and jeans, holding takeaway cups of coffee, walking, talking, steadfastly pacing ahead, noticing nothing but themselves and the words from their co-pair. I glimpse figures here, there, under street lamps, at street corners, at road-sides waiting patiently while a taxi grumbles right or left. Car lights are foggy in the dusk and dust of the City streets. Walk away from the arteries crossed by itinerant activities and the sounds of the City suddenly disappear at gloaming-time-dusk. I can find myself alone outside a church door, like a waif, wondering why it has closed already. I can walk along a smaller street and see a silent figure ahead, disappearing into a gloomy alleyway, only to come out into bright lights again. But foot-stops are not always heard, there is little sound from a pub tucked away in a passageway and the modern buildings rising up above from me and the churches are insulated sanctums from the outer world. Windows reveal rows and rows of tables with people and computers, heads and bodies in profile, seemingly unaware of people walking by below. They are in and I am out. Their seat by their screen shows me what I am not. And while I do not occupy a light, steel, air-conditioned building, I try churches with solid doors without lights, without it seems life. There is something unreachable between myself as City wanderer and the City workers heated, blanketed and categorisable in these tall and silent buildings. And that sense of not quite reaching applies to some of the churches too. I approach one door to a church named after the Anglo-Saxon saint of travellers, St. Botolph. The area directly outside is essentially a building site, a man in his orange construction site jacket walks up the steps from where the church crypt café is. It has become the workers’ site café. Above the door of the church are two windows either side. The dark makes things contrasting more accentuated. I see a figure seated, crouched, a head bent. I think the figure is reading, or doing some sewing or even the church accounts. The figure is outlined by the yellow light smudging the window. But no, windows give off light and let in illusions.
If in doubt as to which churches to visit in the City, you can just wander. The buildings themselves are helpful signs, simply a church steeple or spire. Glimpsed everywhere. This is my refrain for them– ‘We will survive’. Did the architects think about vistas when building these City enclaves where City church nestles like a new-born gosling in its mother’s house? Going towards one steeple, seen from the bottom of a street, I came to what seemed like the side entrance of a church. The black sign had the church of St. Edmund King and Martyr written on it. Where once the doors were open, they are now fitted with buzzers and security lights and CCTV cameras to see who knocks at the door. I find churches that do not feel welcome. Even in their newly acquired state, they have a glass door so that I can see in. The pews have gone, so has the altar, the chandeliers and some of the wall tablets are still there. But where once sat congregations are now desks, computers, people with head and ear phones, antennae rich, but seemingly impartial to where they sit. Only the church-goer looking in has a sense of their not looking out. This church is now closed for business. Similarly, the church of St. Clements East cheap has a newly built glass door. I had walked up the street of St. Clement East cheap to follow a spire. A woman looks up from her computer at the office space to the right of what was the nave. I look at the space she sits in, but I am not brave enough to press the buzzer even though a notice says that visitors are most welcome. I remember the recent RSC’s production of Antigone, to which crowds flocked as Antigone was being played by Juliet Binoche. The play’s set was a large office where King Creon had legs on at a desk, a shirt and a tie pulled away from the neck, his sleeves rolled up and who was displaying many stereotypical gestures and body language of a stressed out office manager. Well St. Clements is now the centre for the Amos Trust, a charity devoted to raising awareness of injustice, building hope and creating change. Such was Creon’s concern for justice that he forgot to remember his own family feelings. This church was completed, their card says by 1687 by Sir Christopher Wren. So, it does not really matter that the church is no longer open. His name remains, as does his vision. What a wonderful architect’s office it would have made him – then, if it had been permitted.
And if a church is closed, there are other diversions. Many figures are remembered on City plaques. On one modern building that is clad with silvery threads of an indeterminate building material is a plaque to Sir Thomas More ‘who lived in a building near this site’. I liked this variation on a theme, the plaque of ambiguity rather than the plaque of ‘This person lived on this site’. ‘Near this site’ is so generously vague. Poor old Martyr More. There are bits and pieces of his life and his remains here, there and everywhere. When he was beheaded, his daughter, a girl from Canterbury town begged to have his head and her wishes were granted. The head is now in the church of St. Dunstan’s in Canterbury. But according to this account, it was originally in the cathedral there:
After he was beheaded, his trunke was interred in Chelsey chuch, neer the middle of the South wall, where was some slight Monument erected. His head was upon London bridge. There goes this story in the family, viz. that one day as one of his daughters was passing under the Bridge, looking on her father’s head, sayd she, That head haz layn many a time in my Lapp, would to God it would fall into my Lap as I passe under. She had her wish and it did fall into her Lappe, and is now preserved in a vault in the Cathedral Church at Canterbury.
From John Aubrey, Brief Lives (1693)
There are also stone slabs, the equivalent to plaques commemorating people too. On a wall belonging to a building of unknown identity, I saw an inscription on a slab for Dositey Obradovich (1742-1811), who had been a minister of education for Serbia and who had lived in this building in 1784. Wikipedia refers to him, amongst other attributes, a travelling scholar. Plaque.
Plaques are rather like words in dictionaries. They lead you, unexpectedly to something else and then something else. I am at Gresham Street, not far from the church of St. Lawrence Jewry, the Lord Mayor’s church, but also a place where Sir Thomas More preached.
In the true spirit of the Church’s mission to be hospitable, as in St. Matthew’s calling to be kind and loving, warm and open, this church is open. I recall the medieval concept of the Seven Works of Mercy, so applicable in medieval times, so relevant now. The Seven Works of Mercy were a codified set of practices to encourage kind acts from Christians and became prevalent in Church mission and text from the early middle ages. At the church of St. Lawrence Jewry, not only did I find a friendly welcoming sign (I take a myopic delight in studying the fonts (and here I mean the written letter fonts, not baptismal ones) of church notices and monuments) written in brown with a note concerning Wren again; but a sign on paper that invited me to use the church toilets. But instead of using up office space in the nave, the office of the church was to the side and which I went through. A man looked up, slightly surprised, but I presumed was not too bothered by people wandering through to use his loo. Not such a common occurrence. But the church also has a table laid out with a coffee machine, plastic drinking cups, tea spoons and a friendly notice asking for a little donation for this generous hospitality. I caught the eye of a young woman, heavily hatted, draped cloth artfully arranged and hanging down from the edge of her anorak and over her trousers. She made quick, good use of the coffee table facilities and then left. Notices in the church vestibule and the church office give you a fine welcome. The church (as my picture shows) though was empty.
I was reminded of a literal illustration of the Seven Works of Mercy in this picture – Seven Works of Mercy (painted in 1504) in the church of St. Lawrence in Alkmaar, the Netherlands. Reading from left to right, as if it is a cartoon strip, the scenes illustrate those seven acts: feeding the hungry, giving water, clothing, burying the dead, sheltering the visiting the sick and giving ransom to the captured. These were, as the pictures suggest civic affairs. You will see that the scenes are taking place outside houses or public places and in public squares. These acts were done by everybody, by all, for everybody, for all, in the spirit of giving. The good and worldly everyday affairs of men were brought into the fold of the Church at a time when Christians were being encouraged to have a more direct and intimate relationship with God. And this picture shows that good works then were also civic works and were not necessarily those that Church practice needed to ordain.
I wanted to ask the man sitting at his desk in the ante-room to the toilets whether his church was carrying out the Seven Works. But that would have meant asking him how many dead he had buried in the last week. How apt though that the church of St. Lawrence seems to practise what it must have preached. After all, St. Lawrence, a Roman from Spain became Bishop of Rome in 257 CE and was charged to look after the care for the poor. And how apt for a church that is in part named after an area in London where the Jews were in the middle ages and a time when Christians were persecuting Jewish urban minorities. The church we look at today is a re-built one, done of course by Wren (see the picture of the stone inscription inside the vestibule of the church). And it was re-built again in the 1950s after bomb damage. This church shows itself as one that in its earlier medieval iteration may once have opened its doors to strangers, Jews, the hungry and the poor. Now it was opening its doors to all. I leave the church and honey coloured facings of the Guildhall. Go see and don’t miss the pond outside. It will be open. Just don’t fall in.
 Aubrey’s spelling is used here.
The three Cs (3)
Walking into a church that serves coffee is to embrace a host of different ways in which to be an itinerant church goer. Christ can still establish a link as his name begins with the letter C, the theme of this post. There is more than one C. Those that come to mind are café, coffee, culture. Words that are not far from our lips or eyes or nose as we face yet another day working. Cities and towns are full of cafes and coffee these days: places to carry out business, places to huddle and hub. And all around we see culture of an openness and transparency that has never been seen before. But then for me, there is another C and that is Church. So are the 3Cs café, coffee, culture, cop-out? The latter came to mind at the start of another walking day visiting City churches in January 2017. Along with the thousands of cafes and places to drink coffee that we have become accustomed to of late, the church setting for a café can also be counted. As this post reveals the first church I came across that has sold out to café culture made me resist. Yet it is undeniable that churches make rather fine locations for coffee drinking with their white plastered and vaulted ceilings, elegant arches, bright stained glass, good acoustics for good hubs and chat and ultimately a successful meeting. Being churches, there is usually space to sit in the nave. You can feel at one, either with the space or the hub, or with yourself!
But to begin. From Leadenhall Street, I turned the corner into Creechurch Lane, where on the right was the church of St. Katharine the Cree, named after the martyr St. Katherine (d. 315?) who refused a man for God. St. And which was once part of a convent. Katherine is also the same saint whose name begins with – yes a C. But for the purposes of this visit, the K is used and the K will do. This man was the Roman Emperor Maxentius who seemed to know better and declared that she should be his wife put her to the test by challenging her to a debate with fifty philosophers. Outwitting them, the Emperor put the poor fellows to death. He then tried to torture her on the wheel (as in the Catherine Wheel of fireworks fame). But as he does, God prevailed with a comforting thunderbolt and she was saved, albeit for a short time. For she was then beheaded – hence her martyrdom status. And here at the church she is commemorated in a stained glass window (see the image). And here, rather than her head or a wheel, she is holding the martyr’s palm – a nice looking green frond. The wheel window above the altar is also a commemoration of this much-loved female saint.
I stood at the side of the lane to take pictures of the church. I felt like the knight in Keat’s La Belle Dame sans Merci – alone and palely loitering:
O WHAT can ail thee, knight-at-arms,
Alone and palely loitering?
The sedge has wither’d from the lake,
And no birds sing.
|St. Katharine Cree Church, billboard|
A couple of people noticed me there, lingering for no apparent reason. So I might have come across as a loiterer and no one would have imagined I would be looking at a church façade that has been there for always and by which people chase and hurry by daily, monthly, yearly. Poor neglected church, I think it was feeling the same paleness of being. Its stone seemed peeky, unloved, most certainly unlooked at. To the left of one of the two church entrances, was a huge facing of stone, the perfect size for a billboard advertising a film or a Chanel lipstick. I looked up – tower, Gothic window, a cut little blind arch, a shuttered arch topped by a mini dome and lantern. A tiny tower in comparison to the modern towers built around. But exquisite, like a precious casket lost at sea. And what loving masonry care lavished on varied apertures to break up a vertical monotony. If you see the picture I attach, you will see that the tower looks slightly askew. All the while, this church is clinging on against the rocks of a bigger power force.
Look at the picture of the entrance – with a combination of the classical and Gothic style combined. Indicative of a church re-built in the sixteenth century where the styles look back and forwards. In this case though, we look at a re-built seventeenth century after the earlier church was pulled down. Partly Renaissance, but in essence still Gothic (or late Gothic – Perpendicular) and medieval, like all churches really, even those Italian churches that we think are pure Renaissance when they are not. This juxtaposition is evidence of one of the most striking architectural features of St. Katharine. Go inside and see classically inspired columns with acanthus leaf capitals rising into round-headed arches. Unusually perhaps, they are painted blue and fraternise with the side aisles which have blue ribbed vaulting on them. Surely though a symbolic colour as vaults were built ever more elaborate and higher to get closer to the Maker. And the blue boldly manifested that heavenly feel on the ribs.
And just as I find I get a kick out of walking around the City of London as it is the closest I can get to Rome, the church is as close as it gets to the Florentine Renaissance Brunelleschi idiom. Gaze at the space and geometry created by the colonnade of arches, but then gaze at the little tondos of colours on the rose window above the altar and how that brightness becomes a milder palette in the stained glass on the appropriately named clerestory above the arches. So Janus-like, this church looks to classical Rome, but it looks as well to medieval Europe, which splashed stains of colour on many of its church windows – a practical light-rendering concern, but also a metaphorical one. Both light and colour were arresting components for the eye to saturate.
Having forgotten my lonely knight status, I was taken aback when I saw an effigy of one to the right of the altar. And no, it isn’t me. He is a rather dirty one, left like an old cart-horse to his own devices. But he is the very true knight in stone. He lies facing the altar, on crisply carved stone to act as a sort of bed-sheet or shroud. He wears one of those fashionable bulbous skirts incised and impressed by the tools of the stone carver and above a breast plate. But he is positioned so far up, I cannot see his expression. Not only is he alone, but he does not have even an animal, a little dog or lion at his feet.
I first visited this church years ago and of all the many churches to visit in the City, this one stayed with me. The space is easy and measured and gives off a sure and rational calm that can be so restful. Go by the interior and muse whether it was Inigo Jones who designed the church… nobody really knows.
I turn back towards the main entrance of the church and see a van parked right outside. Suffer ye little white vans I thought to myself, as life on a London street goes on. I see tablets of devotion in the form of plaques, dedications to family members and parishioners. Not only dedications to their piety, but also to each other and lost family members, touchingly ‘fonted’ in ancient lettering to engrave their memories on the hard stone plaque and walls. And now so cold in the memory. Families of many centuries past.
As I leave the church, I see in a tiny booklet about the church that I have had for a number of years (and which cost Twopence) that C for Christ has a longer sound in this church. For the Cree may be a variant of Chreest – as the way in which his name used to be said.
I walk west towards St. Peter Cornhill. Now, stuck between just two buildings, one ‘The Wurst Club’ neglected and ‘to let’; the other a row of offices. I shouldn’t wonder if the church has a demolition order placed on it. But looking at the picture, you will see how every inch of London space is taken, as the church position between these two buildings shows. St. Michael’s Cornhill was a cheering proposition. The door was open. Another Wren church (1672), a Hawksmoor tower (1722) and a restoration (1866) by that indefatigable George Gilbert Scott who has given us his version of things ancient and less ancient, medieval and Gothic, life then as it wasn’t really. I jibe, but thank him as you go. Scott and others did great things for all things medieval in their nineteenth-century zealousness.
And so to St. Mary Aldermary, for the 3cs and lots of coffee brewing at the counter. The altar has been spared that function. But at the back is the bar and at the back of the nave are the tables and the chairs and the people at their phones, their mouths, their cups, their computers. And there is too a designated area for meditation (not quite quiet meditation) and for sandwich eating. I reflected on the spectacle. And I reflected that there is no room for quiet faith here. Ye, the church is being used and people were talking, busying, meditating. And if this jars, it is likely that so too were medieval churches full of the variety of men and women: scholars, monks, children, wives, mothers, grand-mothers, young and old, beggars etc. Aldermary is bringing the church back to life, even if it is through our daily need to fill our veins with that brown and hearty liquid. I look up to one of the glorious stuccoed vaults. I imagine it opening to let in swooping angels and crows to dive and duck and take the crumbs. Well the latter at least. See the signs to the coffee in the pictures. And when you follow the road to Aldermary, you will not miss it. After all, what a sensational place to have a coffee. While you are there, look up and see the plastered vaulted ceiling, built by the unknown craftsperson. Years of dedication, years of pain and labour stuck to a ceiling. And there is one other thing I noticed about this church. It is approached by both street, little courtyard with tree growing and then a side street. Or simply, the doors to the church are open. This is a church that wants you to come in.
I am now a firm believer in café coffee culture. I ended up having a sandwich and well if I am honest, not a coffee, but a smoothie at the church of St. George the Martyr, High Holborn. I did not have to queue, I did not have to eavesdrop and I relaxed in a leather sofa, with excellent reading light. I am converted.
- Note too that St. Katharine Cree offer Café prayer on a Tuesday. Note too that St. Mary Aldermary has a new monastic community called Moot there. Their leaflet introduces the Host Café, a place for peaceful, relaxing meetings amidst the noisy streets of London. That is the funny thing for me though. One of the joys of walking around the City is that the streets are so quiet. But St. Mary’s was not on the day I visited – and it did give the church a vibrancy that is missing in so many.
St. Vedast Alias Foster and some of St. Botolph Aldersgate (4)
Time has to be present when visiting churches. That is because I try to squeeze them in round appointments and teaching obligations, or, trains missed or trains and buses to catch. As you know by now, they are too often closed and I have to remember to return, or, they are obscured, squeezed and pushed in by a much higher modern urban fabric that makes them hard to find.
The towers of the City churches are though helpful landmarks. Look up and there you will see one. A City church tower is not proclaiming its beauty in any other way than to force one to rise with it at each of its storeys and abutments, windows and apertures, carefully orchestrated, at each gaze up, a slowly punctuating protrusion, like the slow second movement of a Mozart piano concerto. Otherwise, no tower, no height, no looking up to where, then, it mattered. Tower’s point is tower’s function. But spare a little time, if you have it to inspect and linger on the many and varied features the church towers possess
I am in the City of London again. I am crossways, all ways, looking back and forth, there and over there, wondering, thoughtful, distracted, cutting across old medieval streets and intersections at crossroads and mini crossroads, with a church at every cross. After all, I am tramping the streets in one of the oldest parts of London.
It is still ashen grey cold. And it is Ash Wednesday, so the churches are open today. People are scurrying, rushing, clutching coffees. Coats whisked up in the wind, hats tethered to head, only just. Today, I see four churches: one of which is now just a garden, one is being restored and is scaffold laden, one is open and one is welcomingly open, although I cannot tarry long.
I had taken a new route into London on line ‘south-eastern’ from the outer bounds of London where I am now living – on top of a hill. Well, in a house on top of a hill. I sit on the train headed for Cannon Street, where a few streets north are my chosen churches of today. I look out of the window and smile as I see a Southern train going in the opposite direction. They rarely run these days, but I see one going to Sussex where I was recently living. I was glad to be sitting down, for with the acquisition of a thick and heavy pair of burgundy Doc Martins I was becoming a regular faller-over, much to the consternation of passerby. Not drunk, just stumbling as I rushed to catch a train or a bus or a view. The falling over was a good way to make friends though. Even if they were bemused, people have stopped in the street to ask me if I was all right and on the last occasion I met a woman who lived nearby and who had a friendly brown Labrador with her called Sterling. Falling over in the streets of London is a good way to make friends.
But to the train and a new route. As the train approached Cannon Street and as it swiftly glided across the river, I saw the most spectacular view of St. Paul’s that I have ever seen. Train journeys are good ways in which to see new vistas.
And so to the first church. Well a little garden for Pret sandwich eating and smoking. I could not really take the picture of the church noticeboard, with the habitual iron railings in the way. But the sign deserves mention. The church was once St. Peter the Cheap. Of course I knew that the name is so, as it resides near Cheapside – so the church is not really designated to St. Peter who was cheap. But I liked it as an epithet in any case. And here he is in marble bust form with his key beside the railings, gesturing to his head, his face rather besmirched with blackened age – a St. Peter’s Ash Wednesday greeting. I should remember St. Peter when I next lose my house keys. He clutches his tight. In fact is there an image of him without them – that is when he is not holding a knife at the Last Supper? And here, too tar and black on St. Peter residing by a great, big, bulbous tree, rising high above the church’s garden. An ancient boulder in a land of glass and iron rise and roll upwards and upwards. The black pinnacles of the railings pushing like thorns into the crested strappy bark which is folding in and coming off from the tree. The moisture sucked out of it, as it withstands building and pollution energy all around.
And so to the second church – the rather unusually named St. Vedast alias Foster. I don’t think he has anything to do with slimming, but the pink sign announcing slimming classes was keen to make its mark against the blue of the church sign. Indeed, my useful London reference book tells us that Vedast was a bishop from Arras who restored the sight of blind men. The ‘join us now’ without a hint of mockery by the slimmers could duplicate for the Church welcome. I could not help but think that their words were taken from the inspirational source of the liturgy – with the words ‘we’re full of surprises’ in their sub-heading. What is less unusual, familiarity I suppose, is the confection of tower: base, rising to blind arch above doorway, small roundel for window, topped by a wider opening separated by a small column, above which the glory of the twin towered bell turret, gracefully inclining upwards. Here are balletic protrusions of corners, conjuring up four squares, four circles, four continents, four bodies, the rough stone edged by brick announcing and heralding. And here, another Wren influence, probably designed by Robert Hooke – a main man in Wren’s repertory.
But the interior, however ever lovely feels very different as it was re-furnished after the damage down in the War. Indeed, it felt like a collegiate dining hall, containing as it did little fabric lamp lights and shiny brown glossy benches and pews. These were actually obscuring a rather majestic white rendered colonnade behind – on the south side, testifying perhaps to an extension of church space at one point in the eighteenth century? And at the apex of the arches, cherub heads carved safely into a roundel looking out at us. A striking contrast to the small icon of the Madonna and Child to the right of the high altar, angular, striated and styled. At the altar the hue of purple drenching a velvet drape hanging down, glory mixing with the red hue of the red seated pews.
And so many other features: a monument to a mother lost to death so young, a candy striped font with intricate carving, closed by a graceful brown wooden top. The carving at the moment as if seen from the tree’s own carving of itself – the tree I mentioned earlier at St. Peter the Cheap.
The most delightful feature too – a little garden at the back, framed by a red bricked building and a little cloister to sit in. An Epstein like bust head on a little ledge – a mini sculpture garden. Collegiate like exterior building, fragments of a Roman wall on the wall framed (see my picture). Another putto by the alarm system, his hand is either shielding himself from the noise with a cloth over his ear – or wiping himself from a retaliating arrow.
And then to St. Anne and Agnes in Gresham Street – a Dutch gabled south end but with scaffolding to the west. Named after Christ’s mother – another Wren design, but ruined in the War. A church to return to, when the work has been done. A church like so many destroyed in the Great Fire, a church that helped to re-design the form of the City church when all was ash and embers. What more could be done?
And then at last, to St. Botolph without Aldersgate, now a ‘Christian heritage centre’. St. Botolph is not the only church designated Botolph in London, nor indeed in England. Botolph is not a well-known saint, yet there are many churches named after him. He became the patron saint of travelers in Anglo-Saxon times. I was greeted by a man at a desk who wanted some of my pennies and a man who surprisingly offered me a quick tour of the church, but who I imagined might have fitted better into a design studio than here at St. Botolph. But his tour was most illuminating and we spent a lot of time looking at a stunning eighteenth-century painting, – made to look like stained glass of the Agony in the Garden, with no other disciples, but one angel kneeling beside Christ and another with the cup of sorrow. I note that Ben Weinreb, Christopher Hibbert, Julia Keay and John Keay refer to it as a stained glass painting in their book the London Encyclopaedia and I assumed it was until I was told otherwise. The same artist did I believe do the stained glass, but here he made a painting to achieve the ‘effects’ of glass. An unusual iconography and not a painting that I immediately recognized, although I was pleased that my deductive processes worked, as I worked it out. This painting deserves a visit as does the rather seductive feel of the rest of the church. As I left, I got talking to two other men as I heard them say something like ‘Have we been here before?’ I was amused, as this is what I habitually think as I re-trace my walks around the City. It is not that they all look the same. Not at all, but amnesia plays a big part when trying to memorise visual material. We had a very nice chat and I commented on how rare it is to see other visitors in these churches.
Church-going like slimming has its surprises. And it has great art too, it just has to be found. Go look, go see.
Richard (Dick) Whittington, John Milton and the varnish man (5)
If I was a cobble fastened in cement onto a small narrow street leading down to the Thames, a church tower bracing the sky would make me crumble before the church did. But then I may have just survived the Great Fire of London. But all the churches around me didn’t. But they were re-built and I have to remember that I am a mere cobble. Yet I remain hard and strong and undefeated in the face of foot after foot after foot that has tramped on down to a small garden beside a busy road beside the River Thames. For I am a cobble alongside other cobbles in the pretty street where Turner’s Hall once was (look out for the carved cartouche like entrance way. But which does not have a reference in my London Encyclopaedia) and stands (still) the church of St. Michael Paternoster Royal. The street where I cobble is called College Hill. Maybe I have a place here – after all as archangel figure, St. Michael was a tramper on. He tramped upon the dragon standing firm and militant against any non-Christian infidel. And the Paternoster (as in the Our Father – or the Lord’s prayer) is by contrast a contemplative act. That is, if you can do it. The royal has its roots in wine – for merchants in a street nearby imported wine from a place called La Reole near Bordeaux. So the Royal has nothing to do with English Royalty and even less it seems to do with Eucharistic wine.
But I am not a cobble. I am a person in shoes who has felt the edge of the cobble as I follow the street down. In the church today I saw two men in deep contemplation (a rarity for most of these City churches). And in the service to one of its name designations, I saw a board on which were placed many small bits of white paper (as prayer petitions – for which see the picture). But I did not see a Michael or a dragon. And I saw no flagons of wine. I followed a woman into the church, carrying a cloth bag with ‘Society of Humanists’ written on it as well as clutching a small guide-book. She glanced at it quickly before entering. She turned around and walked out. I sat down noticing the two men in prayerful reverence, which spiked my envy. I looked down, I looked at them and I looked all around. I then noticed a curvaceously, serpentine line like statue of the Madonna and Child underneath the lectern, the like of which I have not really seen before in a church. I longed to go and look closer. But I did not want to disturb the two men. I paused a little and looked even further upwards and saw a large crack line in the plaster – situated strikingly above a contemporary image of Christ Judging and Triumphant. The praying man to my left then roused himself from his meditative state and got out an I-pod which he proceeded to read. It seemed ok to scratch with my pen in my notebook and proceed to get up. I walked to the statue and saw a vessel of de-squeaking oil on a little ledge beside it. Just as the statue has its place, so does the oil I thought to myself. Positioned below Mary and a suckling and nestling baby Jesus, was what looked like a dragon creature surmounted by two putti (baby angels). So the Virgin was being cast into the role of St. Michael here. In the feeding and cuddling of her child, she vanquishes the demon beneath her. What a strange juxtaposition of active Virgin in the form of a caryatid underneath the lectern, as if she is sanctifying the Word while doing something else. She wears billowing robes, a reference perhaps to another status of the church – as it is allegedly the seafarers’ church (see the blue banner which denotes that). A sound of laughter at the side of the church, the traffic going on and on, I could not compete with other’s meditations and so I got up to go. It was in his forthright going forth and turning again that Dick Whittington, who became Mayor of London rebuilt the church in 1409. He is also buried in the church.
I then walked along Queen Victoria Street and followed a trail of dispersed and blowing magnolia petals to the garlic church. Otherwise known as the church of St. James Garlickhythe, situated on Garlick Hill. But the reference is real. The church stood once near a jetty where garlic arrived in the City during the medieval period. Another Wren edifice, another post Great Fire church, but which was closed. However, the space around it – with its little courtyard, the benches, the little paths leading to it invite clusters of people: one talking on the phone, three people seated on a bench, another walking by, another looking at me while smoking a cigarette. And then there was I, dropping my book, my pen, my glasses, looking at the map to find the next church. A closed church means the promise of the next. A closed church means that I do not concentrate on it before me, but think about the next.
And the next was St. Giles, without Cripplegate, a church sunk in a sort of basin, both of water in the form of modern moat like foundations and fountains and the architecture of the Barbican. It is approached by walkways and the help of signs from the Museum of London walkway. A church dedicated to St. Giles and the patron saint of indigents. He is also known as the patron saint of cripples. But given its location now, it is hardly a place for the poor and needy. Above the door is a carving of him in a niche with his hind. Legend has it that a king was out hunting and shot an arrow into a hind. Giles found the animal and halted the arrow’s damage with his powers of healing. I go inside. A woman in a pew is changing her shoes. I see a man in the nave doing what I thought was sweeping. But then I see that that he is actually varnishing the floor. With a very long stick with a roller at the top. He has a cup of coffee beside him – perhaps the lady changing her shoes had come in specially. And then I see John Milton – alias a bronze statue of him with a soft toy attached to his arm. I could not make the connection. Not only is the fine poet commemorated here in bronze, there is a plaque to his name and indeed this is his burial site. According to the church leaflet, William Shakespeare worshipped at the church. But did Milton? It does not say. The woman who changed her shoes was now in the organ loft talking to one another. But I could not see if she had her shoes on. And nobody noticed me.
And then there is the monument to a Thomas Stagg – giving his birth and death and what his role in life had been, completed with the insouciantly but no doubt considered statement ‘That is all’. Brevity is the soul of wit; brevity is the soul of Stagg.
Three churches and one poor lonely solitary tower. You will see from the picture that I also saw a tower without its church. But this is not a tower left undamaged by the Fire. This tower situated right in the middle of a throbbing modern heart, right in the middle of a road has a splendid isolationist beauty. A small notice in the portal of the tower proclaims that it is the only surviving part of the church of St. Allen, Wood Street, built in 1682-85 after another Great Fire casualty. But the church was demolished in 1955 and the tower I read is now private property. I wondered if it was a pent-house for a rich City hermit. And were there pot plants at the top?