Byward Street EC3R 5BJ
Thursday April 24th 2014
This visit was to provide something of a contrast to the Gold of Mammon that had been our previous visit, to the Bank of England Museum. It is not a very long walk from Bank, essentially a gentle eastward incline though it is not advisable to dawdle on the comparatively narrow pavements of the City of London as you may well get shunted aside by someone in a hurry.
We did not really know what we were looking for but the church is a sizeable edifice that seems to stand on a kind of island on Byward Street very close to the Tower of London. You really cannot miss it. I was doubtful about who could form part of the congregation of such a church, there being a distinct shortage of local homes, but once inside the distinctly rebuilt interior it seemed clear it is still quite a lively local church offering itself as a sanctuary for ‘city workers’. Certainly the Kitchen, which is the church’s café, smelt most appetising and has an entrance straight onto the plaza area which fronts the modern glass building. During our visit the Organist / an organist was having a practice for a scheduled lunch-time recital, which added to the atmosphere.
The Church claims to be the oldest in the City with origins going back to Saxon times, the Arch for example, but due to some inexpertly kept gunpowder sacks the whole building went up in a boom just in time to be rebuilt in a post Reformation style, with a sturdy brick tower, to survive the Great Fire of 1666; in fact Pepys climbed said tower in order the better to observe the extent and progress of the fire. The building fared less well during the Blitz and was badly damaged, hence the somewhat bland interior. However there are plenty of artefacts to keep one’s interest and to warrant it counting as a Museum as well as a place of worship. There is a strong Maritime theme with several ship models hung on the walls, a dedicated chapel and a ship’s bell from a recent shipwreck.
The font cover is displayed behind a grille as it is a beautiful piece by Grinling Gibbons. Here is an artist whose key works have to be seen where he completed them, and this one seems to soar towards heaven.
If you can manage the few steep steps down to the crypt there are other treasures on display – it’s a charmingly mixed bag which somehow summarises the history of London – a tessellated floor complete with drainage channel from a Roman home and a glass case of that strongly earth coloured Samian ware and some burial plaques – the light was a bit low to decipher the (Latin) text. Unusually (because many of these artefacts, if not destroyed in the Reformation, definitively went during the Civil War) the church has a lovely carved alabaster plaque, which apparently was stolen fairly recently but recognised and returned.
The church’s registers – impressive ledgers – are also displayed to show that William Penn was baptized here and another book certifies the marriage between Samuel Adams and his wife. These US connections have ensured periodic sponsorship of different restoration or building projects.
As ever we could have lingered longer and certainly the church offered not only a welcome contrast to our earlier visit but also to the bustle of tourists heading for the Tower of London.