London’s famous city churches are a remnant of an era when the City was still a crowded maze of all echelons of society. Today they stand tucked away down alleyways, or with just a gable wall or a tower facing streets which, though crammed from eight till seven, Monday to Friday, are vacant the rest of the time. For me, one of the most evocative characteristics about the churches are their names. Long forgotten saints, or curiosities from the middle-ages bush against the forefront of modern business. St Vedast Foster Lane. St Mary Aldermary. St Andrew-By-The-Wardrobe.
St Mary Le Bow is a church whose name is far more famous than its image. Millions of Londoners have heard of the church, yet most couldn’t find it on a map, or wouldn’t recognize its graceful spire that dominates any view of Cheapside, from St Paul’s to the Bank of England. It is blessed with a great vestibule which helps shield the sounds of buses and taxis from the body of the church. Entering from the north, one is struck by the great volume of the space. It is high, and it is gilded and painted like an Austrian Baroque interior. Well, not quite that lavish. This is England after all. The keystones, replaced after damage during the Second World War, are lovely carvings of key people to the church. The vicar at the time, complete with horn-rimed spectacles, looks down into his church.
St Mary Woolnoth is a little gem. Externally, it is surprisingly prominent. Hawksmoor was always one for doing his own thing, and the steeple here is undoubtedly one of the most distinctive in the city. It’s a shame that the Victorian and Edwardian baroque office buildings which now surround it have copied so much of its detail and texture that this most idiosyncratic construction seems to blend in. Internally, it is essentially a cube. Lit from above, the east wall feels so close as you enter. The Jacobean woodwork, dark and heavy, seems quite at odds with the gracious white columns and beautiful plasterwork. The galleries were, like in so many other churches, removed in Victorian times and their fronts stuck to the side walls, so we cannot fully appreciate the original design. It doesn’t have the peace or extravagance of St Mary Le Bow, but it feels much more ‘London’.
St Clements Eastcheap definitely feels like a poor relation. Externally, when viewed from King William Street, it has neither the prominence or seclusion which make the city churches hidden gems or landmarks of the streetscape. St Clements is dirty and a bit battered, like all the city churches were a hundred years ago before the finance companies and guilds gave so generously. It’s crowning claim to fame has been stolen from it- Oranges & Lemons. The ‘other’ St Clements, St Clement Danes in The Strand has usurped the title (supposedly). Internally something very beautiful stands in front of you as you enter from the west under the organ. The font. Carved within the font cover is a little marble dove. Dirty and a bit worn, like the whole of the church. The reredos is by Comper, and the blitz smashed the supposedly not very lovely 19th century stained glass. The church is a simple box, with one aisle to the south. It is oddly wedge shaped and has not features of merit except a removed balcony. The whole church is a bit sad and disappointing really, and that’s what makes it wonderful. It’s not a star. It doesn’t make it onto lists of great buildings or tourist trails. It isn’t serene or grandiose. It isn’t quaint. It’s just a church really. And that’s the remarkable thing.
The city churches are wonderful because they are so similar, yet so varied. They are so famous collectively, yet so forgotten individually. They are so densely packed that one can stumble across three or four in a single street. They are surprisingly empty too.