Ask any tourist to name churches in London and the most likely answer you get is St Paul’s Cathedral, Westminster Abbey and maybe Westminster Cathedral. And if you’re very lucky “that church by Trafalgar Square and the National Portrait Gallery” – St Martin-in-the-Fields.
But if you are like me and enjoy to walk around the City of London, you will notice a church at almost every corner. This is still from the time when the city was heavily populated; today only about 8,000 people actually live here compared to the over 300,000 who commute to and work here. What better way to explore the history of the City of London; enjoy a bit of peace and tranquility; visit buildings that survived the Great Fire and those who didn’t and were rebuilt afterwards; and see churches where Sir Christopher Wren experimented with domes for his masterpiece St Paul’s Cathedral (yes, even he had to practice).
I have only scratched the surface so far, not all churches are open every day or to the public at all, but you can find a complete list with more information via the Friends of the City Churches. If you take a look at the image captions you get more information on some treasures and history of the individual churches.
I started my walk outside the City of London, at St Martin-in-the-Fields and then moved eastwards, mainly along the Strand, Fleet Street etc until I reached the Tower of London. I didn’t have a list or anything, just whenever I saw a spire I went there, but unfortunately was limited in time.
St Martin-in-the-Fields is right at Trafalgar Square and not exactly a City Church but it was where my idea was born so I can’t leave it, and some of the following churches, out. The church gets photographed a lot but I was surprised how few people actually go inside (at least when I was there). It is famous for its work with homeless people and the crypt houses a nice café.
Next was St Mary-le-Strand. You can’t really miss it as it sits on a traffic island almost opposite Somerset House. Construction of the current church began in 1714 under the architect James Gibbs. It is now the official church of the Women’s Royal Naval Service and was unfortunately closed, but the Baroque exterior makes it different from other churches.
St Clement Danes, the Central Church of the Royal Air Force, is a little gem and holds some architectural treasures. The church gets its name from some Danish settlers who had married English women, settled here and took over a small church dedicated to St Clement. Since then it has been rebuilt by Sir Christopher Wren with James Gibb adding the tower. Inside, you can find a pulpit designed by Grinling Gibbons (stored for safe keeping in St Paul’s Cathedral during the Blitz), a restored Stuart Coat of Arms mentioning Wren and many other treasures.
I always wanted to have a look round Temple, probably because the name is a bit intriguing. Unfortunately Temple Church was not open to the public.
On Fleet Street you can find St Dunstan-in-the-West, which I missed at first because I wandered around the small alleys near Temple. When I finally came across the Guild Church I was too late to stop but I found a nice picture of the interior on wikimedia commons. The church is of medieval origin but the current structure was built in the 1830s. It is dedicated to a former Bishop of London and Archbishop of Canterbury.
A bit further east, perched between other buildings, you can find St Bride’s Church. Designed by Sir Christopher Wren in 1672 it suffered a lot from fire during the London Blitz in 1940. Due to its location on Fleet Street it has a strong connection with newspapers and journalists. It is the second tallest of Wren’s churches, only St Paul’s has a higher pinnacle.
The next couple of churches I just passed with two not being open and another housing a café on the inside – St Benet, St Nicholas Cole & St James Garlickhythe.
St Mary Aldermary is one of the rare examples of a Wren church built in the Gothic style. From medieval origin it was rebuilt in the 16th century before being badly damaged in the Great Fire of 1666. It has a very beautiful fan vaulted ceiling and today is home to a café and has some market and food stalls outside on weekdays.
I mentioned in the beginning that even Sir Christopher Wren had to practice and experiment with domes before he was able to design and build St Paul’s Cathedral. St Stephen Walbrook is one of these experiments and what a glorious success it is. You can definitely see where this was going. And for all art lovers, the altar is by Henry Moore.
St Mary Abchurch is another medieval church that was destroyed in the Great Fire and is also one of the dome experiments by Sir Christopher Wren. However, this one features a big oil painting inside the dome that was done by a parishoner, William Snow in 1708. It depicts the worship of heaven with the Divine Name in Hebrew in the centre. The real treasures however, are the limewood carvings by Grinling Gibbons, the largest and only authenticated work of his besides St Paul’s Cathedral. The receipts are still among the parish records.
St Magnus the Martyr is a different story altogether. The churchyard was once part of the roadway approach to the Old London Bridge and people coming into London used to enter the city here. Because of its prominent location and beauty, although it is a bit tricky to get a really good view today, it has been mentioned in literature by the likes of Charles Dickens or T.S. Eliot. The church is named after Magnus the Martyr, Earl of Orkney and was one of the first buildings to be destroyed by the Great Fire of 1666 as it was only 300 yards away from the bakehouse in Pudding Lane where the fire started. Rebuilding work was carried out for several years under the direction of, yes you guessed correctly, Sir Christopher Wren.
The story of St Margaret Pattens has seen some ups and downs. First recorded in 1067 and probably built from wood it was rebuilt in stone but fell into disrepair and had to be demolished in 1530. The church was rebuilt but then destroyed by the Great Fire in 1666 only to be rebuilt by Sir Christopher Wren. Fortunately it escaped major damage during the Blitz. The unusual addition ‘Pattens’ to the name St Margaret comes from ‘Pattens’ being made and sold close to the church. These were a type of ‘undershoe’ that were strapped to the shoes and therefore raised the wearer from the muddy roads, preventing his shoes from getting dirty. A notice in the church still “requests women to leave their Pattens before entering”.
My final stop was All Hallows by the Tower, the oldest church in the City of London and, as the name implies, right next to the Tower of London. There is much to discover here: a Saxon arch from the original church founded in 675AD, a remarkable stretch of Roman floor beneath the arch and some other splendid artefacts that can be seen in the undercroft. After surviving the Great Fire in 1666 (although it too was only a few hundred yards away from the starting point) it was heavily bombed during World War II and only the tower and walls survived. A new foundation stone was laid by the Queen Mother in 1948. And even though much of it was destroyed you get the feeling that this place has seen a lot during its history when you are inside.
There are many more fine churches to discover and maybe next time I’m lucky and even get some sunshine.