City Spires: London’s churches

Rather like St Mary le Strand, the City’s churches passed through a period of being unloved during the mid-20th century. Now, they are widely recognised as being among its finest treasures, and a hugely important part of its history, they enjoy a much higher profile. This is thanks, again, in no small part, to the former poet laureate Sir John Betjeman who tirelessly championed their cause. “All silvery on frosty Sunday nights. Were City steeples white against the stars,” he wrote in Summoned by Bells, his autobiography, continuing to dwell upon what he then perceived as the hopelessness of the situation: “…Some lazy Rector living in Bexhill. Who most unwillingly on Sunday came. To take the statutory services.”

St-Mary-le-Bow
St-Mary-le-Bow

The hand of Wren, it seems, is apparent on every street corner – sometimes being outwardly ostentatious, such as St Bride’s Fleet Street, famous for its ‘wedding cake’ steeple (more correctly four octagon-shaped arcades), Wren’s tallest. The church took seven years to build; then a further 17 to rebuild after it was all but destroyed by a wartime bomb.

Other Wren churches, if not outwardly ostentatious, are certainly so inside. City workers scuttle daily past St Stephen Wallbrook unaware, even, of its existence. It’s an easy church to miss, next-to-nothing being visible from the outside – yet is widely considered Wren’s ultimate masterpiece. Tradition says that, confronted with restricted space, he built it from the inside out. The result is St Paul’s Cathedral in miniature, complete with dome. The marble altar, however, is a later addition by Henry Moore, and reputedly weighs eight tons.

Cheapside is home to one of the City’s most famous churches – St Mary-le-Bow, or Bow Bells. (Tradition dictates that all Cockneys are born in an area within the sound of its bells.) It took Wren a mere three years to rebuild it after the fire, although it, too, suffered wartime damage – and fame: the BBC broadcast recordings of its bells to occupied Europe.

Another easy-to-miss church is St Bartholomew-the-Great in Smithfield. Hidden behind a row of buildings, it is one of London’s oldest, and is approached via a Tudor gatehouse. On its half-timbered front is a statue of Rahere, founder of the Norman priory and hospital that stood on this site. His tomb is inside. William Hogarth was christened here, while more recently the church was used for scenes in the film Four Weddings and a Funeral.

The far smaller St Bartholomew-the-Less, nearby, also pre-dates the Great Fire – being founded in 1184. Unusually, it is octagonal in shape. Whitehall architect Inigo Jones was christened there.

Dating from 1450, the church of St Olave, Hart Street is another that escaped the Great Fire. It is a delightfully fussy, intricate little church with stone vaulting and whitewashed interior walls. Dickens called it St Ghastly Grim – a reference to the stone skulls and crossbones above the churchyard entrance. Samuel Pepys and his wife are buried here as is, reputedly, Mother Goose. A plaque opposite the church records the Navy Office where Pepys worked.

St Mary Abchurch is acclaimed for having the most complete, unaltered Wren interior. Set just off Cannon Street, it too has a dome and is furnished with pews and woodwork of a deep intensity. The star piece is the 17th-century Grinling Gibbons reredos (altarpiece carving). A victim of a wartime air-raid, tradition says it was smashed into more than two thousand pieces. Each was carefully collected, to be meticulously reassembled. In terms of originality, the 18th-century St Botolph Without in Bishopsgate is unusual. Markedly oblong in form, it has fine galleries running along each side. John Keats was christened here in 1795.

St Bartholomew the Great; the remains of Christ Church Greyfriars
St Bartholomew the Great, the second oldest church in London; the remains of Christ Church Greyfriars, known as Christ Church

However, as we know, many fine places of worship have failed to stand the test of time. Delightfully named churches such as St Benet Sherehog and St Michael-le-Querne fell victim to the fire. Others such as St Benet Fink and St Bartholomew-by-the-Exchange fell more recently. Most survive in spirit and memory only. A few, however, remain in more tangible form.

Christ Church, Newgate Street, a large Wren church, was a victim of wartime bombs. His tower and steeple remain, surrounded by gardens. No less than three queens were buried here, including the wife of Edward II.

St Augustine-with-St Faith, in Watling Street – yet another Wren church – suffered a similar fate. The tower, however, survived and was restored, where it stands under the watchful eye of St Paul’s Cathedral. Meanwhile, the brick tower of St Martin Orgar in the City’s Martin Lane is all that is left after the body of the church was destroyed by the Great Fire. The tower has been partially restored and a clock projects over the pavement, still marking time. Where the main building stood, there’s now peaceful gardens.

All told, the accumulated age of London’s churches amounts to many, many millennia. Mighty cathedrals, churches humble, churches magnificent, some sumptuous, others fussy, functional or ruined, yet equally they stand, oblivious to time and season.

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