I went today on a guided walk around the City of London's surviving churches from before the Great Fire of 1666. Of the ninety-seven churches that stood before the fire, only eight survive today, and some of those later suffered severe damage from the blitz and IRA mainland bombing campaign. I thought I had poked around a lot of the City's architectural nooks and crannies during my years working there and subsequent visits to London, but I had never looked at half of them, so it was a day well spent.
We started at St Ethtelburga's on Bishopsgate. I must have walked past its modest front hundreds of times, and was aware of its almost-destruction in the bomb blast of 1993 and subsequent restoration, but had never ventured inside. It is tiny, plain and beautiful, and still a consecrated church, though now it is home to the Centre of Reconciliation and Peace which has a modern steel and glass office behind the church, plus a little garden and incongruous but charming Turkish tent.
Just around the corner is St Helen's Bishopsgate, the largest surviving parish church in the City, with massive roof beams and a fine collection of tombs and memorials. I particularly liked the medieval couple in alabaster lying side by side, she with her feet resting on what looked like two tiny pet dogs, and his on a lion with a magnificent mane but whose rounded snout looked more like a sheep or a guinea pig. St Helen's Bishopsgate is an evangelical church, so there are chairs instead of pews, a baptismal bath sunk in the ground, carefully walled off with some of the chairs so that people wouldn't walk into it, while there was a drum kit piled in one corner.
We didn't go into St Andrew Undershaft. The name derives from the large maypole that stood outside before being banished by the puritans. We did go into All Hallows by the Tower, a large, gaunt building near the Tower of London and Trinity House. Pepys watched London burn from its tower, having buried his Parmesan cheese in the garden. It was badly damaged in the blitz, but possesses a marvellous Grinling Gibbon font cover, and I liked the stained glass windows commemorating various shipping companies.
St Katherine Cree was rebuilt on the site of a Medieval church just before the Great Fire. It is quite restrained by Baroque standards, with a fine rose window, partially restored following blast damage in 1993. The organist in our party looked longingly up at the organ, which was not accessible. Apparently it is a very good one, played in times past by Purcell and Handel. My favourite of them all is St Olave Hart Street, the sister church of St Katherine Cree. Pepys is buried there, and the maritime and Trinity House connection is apparent in the ship models. It was badly damaged in the war and has been restored, but has a lovely warm atmosphere, and there are some wonderful seventeenth century memorials. It hosts lunchtime concerts, and I have heard my aunt play the cello there in the past, which is another reason why I like it.
We popped into a couple of Wren churches while we were at it, to see the model of the Medieval London Bridge in St Magnus the Martyr in Lower Thames Street, and the display of pattens in St Margaret Pattens. And we climbed up the Monument, though only four out of our party of ten would attempt the 311 steps. In all my years of working in the Square Mile I had never once been up the Monument, but it is worth the climb. The view may not be as panoramic as it would be from the Shard, but right in among the glass towers of the City you have a bird's eye view. London is still changing at a great pace: to the west the horizon was rimmed with cranes.
When we got back to Liverpool Street the party unaccountably did not have any appetite to go and look at Smithfield, and we agreed to catch a train back to Colchester. I could not have absorbed any more information about any more churches, but it was a good day out. And one final snippet of church lore: St Botolph is the patron saint of innkeepers and hoteliers, and the church of St Botolph is always outside the walls. Sure enough, the one in Bishopsgate is just north of the line of the old city walls along London Wall, while the Colchester St Botolph's Priory is just beyond the remains of the Roman town wall.