St, Mary-At-Hill (Photo by View Pictures/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)
Artillery Row

In Betjeman’s footsteps

Admiring the sheer imaginative power of Wren

It is the time of year that most suits the City churches. Their stone and brick towers are well offset by a pale grey sky. They gleam splendidly in the sun, but they compete best against modern buildings with a few clouds and a wide sky. As the air gets cold and crisp, cobbles and spires take on a new appeal. The church porch is well suited to the stamping weather of winter. Long stretches of afternoon sun illuminate Wren’s interiors in a magical way. Sit in St. James Garlickhythe as the afternoon closes in and watch it glow to see what I mean. 

Most City churches were built by Christoper Wren after the Great Fire of London. He put up fifty — slightly less than half remain, the others demolished for insurance buildings, as a result of vanished congregations, or shattered in the Blitz. In 1954, John Betjeman wrote for the Spectator about the state of the City churches. It was a sorry time. Many he had known in childhood were gone. Others were in shoddy repair, missing roofs. We are lucky to have so many, all in good condition. They bring continuity and history to the otherwise changing city. 

You can still follow in Betjeman’s footsteps, visiting what he felt were “the most characteristic Wren churches, comparatively unmolested by Victorian ‘restoration’”. Along this path, you can trace the City’s changes. St Stephen Walbrook, which survived restoration unscathed, has now been unsettled — Wren’s layout is distorted with the incongruous Henry Moore altar. Wren’s imagination is on its best display here, outside St. Pauls. The altar is an affront to the building and ought to be removed.

Wren brought sheer imaginative power to every church

Betjeman lamented the loss of fish-tail gas lamps but was grateful for St. Mary-at-Hill, with its box-pews, pulpit and sounding board, and carved altar. That is all gone. Instead, there are the sort of cushioned chairs you find in village halls and a nasty curtain where the reredos once was. This is the fault of God, not man. A fire broke out in 1988 and the roof crashed in. To see Gavin Stamp’s pictures of the damage is quite heartbreaking. As you turn in from narrow, cobbled Lovat Lane, one of the City’s little rising hills, the old doors open with a hushed squeak, and the magnificent Greek cross startles you with the sheer imaginative power Wren brought to every church. The interior is an empty space, however, not as it was intended and not yet much of anything else. The dome fills with light in the middle of the day, and if you are lucky you will hear a piano rehearsal. Much of the woodwork is in storage in Devon. It ought to be restored. 

Close by is St. Margaret Pattens, much as Betjeman knew it. This is one of the most peaceful City churches, a contrast to the busy corner it occupies. Here are the City’s only canopied Churchwardens’ pews. The royal coat of arms is from the time of James II; the iron sword-rests are original. Betjeman contrasted St. James Piccadilly as a tourist spot with the fact that in a City church “you will generally find someone on his knees”. St. Margaret has Holy Communion on Thursdays, and the small elderly choir rehearses beforehand, a moment of joy. As usual in these churches, the congregation is small, diverse and friendly. In St. James only recently I saw a woman concentratedly muttering her prayers.

You realise what little sense of history we can ever get

St. Benet Pauls Wharf is as it was in 1954, not least in that it is “inclined to be locked”. Thursdays between 11-3pm is the time to go. The Dutch brickwork and stone quoins make a strong impression next to grimy Lower Thames Street. Inside the woodwork is light and the carving is splendid, especially the Flemish altar table. You can stand in the gallery. The reredos is marvellous. In St. Benets you will realise what little sense of history we can ever get, however, even though it is perhaps the church Betjeman listed that is most the same today. That or St. Margaret Lothbury, hidden behind the Bank of England, with the City’s sole surviving altar screen (brought over from another Wren church that was demolished). Here, there is still something of what Betjeman called, “the atmosphere of merchant grandeur”. 

You can catch a little of the past in other ways. I heard a church watcher in St. Benet say she can remember when there were bowler hats in the City. These days hats and tightly-rolled umbrellas are only to be seen in the West End, but it is not unusual to find churchwatchers with long associations with their church. At St. Mary Abchurch, they can tell you where to stand to get the best view of the dome. 

Betjeman listed post-Wren churches, too. St. Mary Woolnoth and St. Botolph Aldgate remain in splendid condition. St. Botolph is full of the cool elegance of the late 18th century. Like Betjeman we must accept that though much remains, much has gone away. 

The most popular City churches now are the garden churches. Christchurch Greyfriars is an excellent year-round garden, planted inside the bombed-out shell as a memorial to the night in the Blitz when nine churches were destroyed. St. Mary Aldermanbury is a quiet spot for City workers and smokers. Best of all is St. Dunstan in the East, with its fantastical spire held aloft on flying buttresses, and the walls so wildly occupied by climbers and vines it has a calm and mythical quality. Go there, even if you go to no other City church, sit by the fountain under a tree, and listen to the robins sing.

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