Oranges and lemons,
Say the bells of St. Clement’s.
You owe me five farthings,
Say the bells of St. Martin’s.
When will you pay me?
Say the bells of Old Bailey.
When I grow rich,
Say the bells of Shoreditch.
When will that be?
Say the bells of Stepney.
I do not know,
Says the great bell of Bow.
London is full of churches. And Bells. Most people know St Paul’s Cathedral and Westminster Abbey and the churches mentioned above. But these merely scratch the surface.
You’d imagine, given that people had to find something to do on a Sunday until Country File was first screened, there would be Churches going back to the Romans. There would, but for one little event.
The Great Fire of London -1666.
As a tourist you will undoubtedly be pushed to visit the Monument, a tower you can climb which celebrates the end of the fire. But by this point the damage was done. And with the destruction of the houses so were the churches lost. Even the enormous, sprawling St Paul’s of its day went in that conflagration.
I wrote a short story as part of Nano last year imagining events after this cataclysm. Here’s a link if you’re interested.
But today there are numerous beautiful churches still packed into the City. And for this we have to give a lot of thanks, – those of us who cherish London’s eclectic built environment anyway – for the genius of two men (amongst others): St Christopher Wren and Nicholas Hawksmoor.
Wren it was who ran the show, post 1666, on this rebuild. He did the bulk of the work on St Paul’s and, especially, that pot bellied dome though Hawksmoor finished it off.
The Abbey (which is not an Abbey but a Royal Peculiar, controlled by the Monarch and thus the usual venue for Royal weddings and funerals) was mostly built in the 13th Century on the orders of Henry III, and, as it was outside the range of the fire, it survived;
but its splendid towers were a later addition, based on Hawksmoor designs.
Subsequent damage has been done down the years, by crass developers, and, most notably some mid 20th century Teutonic bombing
but many of the gems these men helped create still stand, tucked away in passages and down the bye-ways of the City of London.
You’ll spot a spire or a tower and wonder where it is. You’ll walk towards it and find you’ve been taken away in a different direction.
As you hunt out yet another oddly named Church – St Olave’s in the Wardrobe, St Nicholas the Distressed or St Colin the Bewildered (I may have made that up), bear in mind what Wren and Hawksmoor had to do.
Not only did they have to rebuild a major city but all around them the ferment of revolution hung like a shroud. England had its civil war in the 1640s and its King, assured of his Divine right to rule was beheaded in 1648, only a handful of years before.
Later with the work just underway they faced the replacement of one new King, James II with another, the double act of William and Mary following the Glorious Revolution in the 168os. They were genius architects but just as canny political animals, maintaining their funding and patronage as power shifted here and there they were supreme.
For all Hawksmoor’s skills and I do love the baroque feel to his churches my favourite is a Wren Gem
It is just off Fleet Street and has long been associated with the press and journalists. But the tiered wedding cake magnificence of its spire leaves me breathless.
And if you’re there and have a moment wander along Fleet Street towards the Strand and hunt out St Dunstan’s In the West.
The bell, struck by giants every 15 minutes, is a thing of beauty.
This then summarises the glories of London’s built environment; whatever one’s religious bent or with no bent at all, one can admire the fervour and dedication that went into these extraordinary constructions that happily still stand.
One final word on another influence on City life of St Paul’s Cathedral.
I was a real estate lawyer in a former life; I spent 30 some years helping clients build in and around the City, some great buildings and many that should be towed out to sea and used as target practice for the Navy. But very often I needed to try and fight St Paul’s. The reason? The protected views from various places in and around the City. These views are corridors and have statutory force. London is not unique in this – San Francisco and Portland in the US, Vancouver in Canada have similar restrictions.
What it means is that when seeking permission to build a tower these views ensure a limited clustering and create gaps. Which has the advantage that you can usually see the newer buildings. For once the planners are on the side of the angels.
This is part of the 2016 A to Z Blogging challenge. Please click here to find your way to other participants.