Another London Walk Part 2


In the face of so much change, it’s pleasing to the senses to wander into a church and find it still intact after over a thousand years. At least some places were built to last.

Lurking behind the dust-mote beams in St Bartholomew the Great, in the south transept of the Square Mile’s extraordinary priory church, stands ‘Exquisite Pain’, Damien Hirst’s glowing statue depicting the martyred apostle with his flayed skin and instruments of torture. It manages to be simultaneously sacred and sacrilegious, a startling work in a still-functioning church.

St Bartholomew the Great was founded as an Augustinian priory in 1123 and built with stones gathered from all over London. On St Bartholomew’s Day (24th August) miracles were expected to occur within and without the walls of the building, including ‘a light sent from heaven’ that brought miraculous healings and cured disabilities. It probably helped that St Bart’s Hospital was next door.

It’s an extremely atmospheric place that has retained a sense of age and has avoided the earnest scrubbing up too many churches have undergone to cater to Instagrammers. I’m starting to appreciate that the Square Mile churches can offer spiritual succour without aggressive religious doctrine. In a place where almost everything gets pulled down if it stands still for too long, constancy is a balm.

There are plenty of books about the alleyways of the City, and I had expected more of these passages to have disappeared, but a surprising number are intact. David Long’s ‘Hidden City’ is the book you need here, as it lists them all from Frying Pan Alley to Pissing (now Passing) Lane.

There are a lot of missing churches and chapels now, from the Old Red Hand & Mitre Chapel, where the clandestine marriages of Fleet prisoners were performed, to the very hidden St Mary-At-Hill, started in the 14th century and reached via a narrow doorway in what looks like a private house. Cutting across the Square Mile, I try to use as many alleys and courtyards as possible.

In his celebrated time travel novel ‘Time And Again’ author Jack Finney’s theory is that you can go back in time if everything around you is of the same period, but unfortunately London is not Venice and almost everything has changed – even the buildings you think are the same have been subtly altered. Until recently the plan was to demolish and rebuild, but now – too little, too late – the thinking is to preserve remnants.

My old house in Cathcart Street, Kentish Town, looked untouched to me until an architect pointed out over a dozen modernisations that had occurred in its long life. The standard Victorian worker’s box cottage had three floors, one below the road but level at the back, because gardens were dug lower. Inner city houses are older – the rich get to choose the best spots – but still work on the same design because staff occupied the basement and attics.

There are enough sights in the overlooked backstreets to satisfy snoopers for months. An enjoyable new book entitled ‘All The Tiny Moments Blazing: A Literary Guide to Suburban London’ by Ged Pope recognises that when we speak of London and seek out literary references, we too often talk of Kensington & Chelsea, Mayfair and Park Lane, or perhaps the pungency of the East End, as if everywhere else is deficient in history. But many London authors were raised in the suburbs – the first in the world – and wrote about them with affection or loathing.

The book takes a clockwise tour through the London suburbs, quoting extensively from the writers who lived there. Here’s Dickens crossing Blackheath;

‘A clammy and intensely cold mist made its slow way through the air in visible ripples that followed and overspread one another, as the waves of an unwholesome sea might do. It was dense enough to shut out everything from the light of the coach-lamps but these its own workings, and a few yards of road; and the reek of the labouring horses steamed into it, as if they had made it all.’

Pope points out good reasons for certain areas being considered ‘low’. They protruded into the diminishing countryside surrounded by brickworks, the ground churned up, the air rank. To live there was cheap, and so class enters the picture, for the wealthy can afford clean air and wide vistas.

For anyone remotely interested in London and its people, it’s an essential and highly readable volume. I can’t imagine why nobody ever thought of it before.



25 comments on “Another London Walk Part 2”

  1. Diane Englot says:

    Wow…looking for a copy of Hidden City, and coming up with only massively expensive prices…even from ABE Books! It was published in 2011, so why so dear?

  2. Ian Mason says:

    It’s a comforting thought that one can plan a walk across part of London trying “to use as many alleys and courtyards as possible” without immediate thoughts for your own personal safety. There are some, for want of a better phrase, “first world cities” where that would most certainly not be true, and where I for one would be wary of plotting a like path.

    Not so sure about the Damien Hurst statue, but YBAs tend to provoke an allergic reaction in me. Especially ones whose names are reminiscent of a horror film franchise. I can’t hear the name “Damien” without the word “Omen” also forming in my mind; I always want to lean forward, part the subject’s hair and hunt for a satanic birthmark.

  3. Jan says:

    I tell you what is a funny thing….. there is a distinctly odd/ crazy connection between the sites of more than a couple of the C of L churches where miracles occurred and heavenly lights were seen and the fact that these churches were built on the sites of earlier Pagan places of worship.
    Sites that had long been sacred.

    Bartholomew ‘s church and the site of the hospital are of course intrinsically connected Medieval Hospitals were not really analogous to our idea of hospitals but out of these places of respite hospitals grew. This church is supposedly haunted by “Rahere” haunting being another expression of the same phenomena of miracles or heavenly lights. It’s just a weird thing Chris I am not saying I 100% or perhaps even 50% believe in all this stuff but it’s like there’s a concentration of these phenomena round certain C of L churches. Odd but perhaps useful for someone writing a story about the ancient C of L!

    Have you read about St Brides church off Fleet St? the water from St Brides Holy well was used in the Coronation of English kings until the well dried in the 18C. Every king – the waters formed part of a sacred ritual. Now there’s Roman remains beneath St Brides a villa or temple. The Romans are big on incorporating previously sacred sites into their culture. St. Brides Wrens church ((which inspired the tiered wedding cake) is in a BRIDE valley the Fleet Valley. Named for the goddess Bridget who becomes Christianised as St Bride. I’d best stop rabbitting on but it’s interesting topic.

  4. Dawn Andrews says:

    The sculpture by DH I recognise from an escorche illustration in the medical tectbook by Vasalius based on classical form, there’s a museum in Florence where there are great examples of the art made in wax. Beautiful and very creepy. He would gild it, Mr Goldfinger. It’s certainly eye catching.

  5. Peter T says:

    Whatever it is, for me, the sculpture isn’t art: the building around it is.

  6. Ian Luck says:

    The multi-tiered wedding cake was introduced by a baker called Mr. Rich, which is what the popularity of the cake certainly made him.

  7. Dawn Andrews says:

    Agree with you Peter, it’s not, it’s a cynical rip off of the skill, insight and imagination of others. A lot of that about, sadly.

  8. Jan says:

    The Wren church which as previously mentioned tops Roman remains + a Saxon church (Churches being one of the few buildings the Anglo Saxons actually built with stone they were more your build in wood and live in a shed type of old lads) is a beautiful thing. The church was bombed in WW2 and almost completely rebuilt in the 1950s which enabled much of the archaeology to be discovered. Oddly St Brides has it’s own ossuary (probably spelt wrong) on site a very interesting place. The tour beneath the church is far more revealing than a walk round upstairs! Honestly it’s fascinating there used to be organised tours here each week probably suspended @ present but very much recommended. They have recreated and rebuilt a wonderful medieval chapel down beneath the church dedicated and originally the property of a prominent Medieval family. This same family funded St Brides church throughout history and the chapel features memorials to this families losses in WWs 1 + 2 which tells you something about power and money in both Britain in general and The City of London in particular.

    The steeple the inspiration for the actual wedding cake design is a lovely thing. He was a shrewd old lad that baker to transfer the design into a tiered wedding cake a great bit of thinking which as you say Ian made him a good few bob.

    St Brides is also the journalists church being just off Fleet Street (named of course for the Thames tributary river).

  9. Dawn Andrews says:

    Great comments Jan, the spaces that have an ancient, sacred depth of atmosphere are very special. As admin says, succour without dogma.

  10. Jan says:

    Cheers Dawn. Although not particularly (Make that at all!) sensitive to such things I found the atmosphere within the Medieval chapel space beneath St Brides to be wonderful. I haven’t really got the words to describe it but there was something exceptional there. A strange old site but serene and well..just wonderful really. No other way for me to describe it…..

  11. Dawn Andrews says:

    Think it’s to do with the Medieval that feeling Jan, I used to feel that kind of wonder in Bristol cathedral and Herefordshire churches, the fragments of ancient stained glass were so intense, the carvings often irreverent too. The green man was much favoured!

  12. Brooke says:

    Before the site became a “shop and eat” destination, many many years ago the tiny bubbling spring underneath Bath’s Roman Temple was an atmospheric, serene, liminal place–dark with earthy smell. Lends understanding to why early humans returned generation after generation to Saluwesi, Lascaux, Altamira, Chumash,etc.

    You sometimes get that strange, primeval, quiet feeling when near objects in museums like the Cloisters; most often wood and clay objects retaining the touch of hundreds of years of human contact. In contrast coveted items of our lives–mobile phones, polyester fashion and so forth– convey nothing to future generations.

  13. Peter T says:

    There’s a special magic in the masonry arch.

  14. Ian Luck says:

    Goldfinger. Blofeld. Scaramanga. All people known to Ian Fleming, and more importantly, disliked by Ian Fleming. One was an architect, who complained at Fleming’s use of his name, and the other two were school adversaries. All ended up as villains in Fleming’s books. Never cross a writer. He’ll make you look a weirdo, and then kill you horribly.

  15. Dawn Andrews says:

    I’m saddened to hear they’ve tarted up the Bath spring Brooke, it’s decades since I visited, I used to love wandering around there in the late Autumn, when it was quieter. Just realised this is probably why Irish churches don’t have that feeling for me, not being built on the sites of old temples, the Romans never bothered much with Ireland, the peat bogs probably played merry hell with sandals.

  16. admin says:

    I agree about Bath and the general de-atmosphering of places. Libraries, churches and cinemas had exact smells, but now any kind of odour is the enemy. The cleaning of bricks is generally a good thing, though. In old photographs of London architectural features are buried beneath soot. For an amazing example, look at the old filthy brutalist Camden Town Hall and its restored incarnation as the Standard Hotel.

  17. Jan says:

    Ian I think Goldfinger- Erno is it his first name? was a neighbour of Flemings in Hampstead and yer man wasn’t best pleased that Goldfinger got permission to build his futuristic house nearby.

    Funnily enough I saw this house on C4 telly last night when I got in from work. On the show that the Geordie architect guy did with the National Trust during lockdown. It was a futuristic house really I think built in the ’30s + looked like a sixties build. Let’s face it sixties architecture is probably an acquired taste.

    Goldfinger then adds no end to the visuals of the capital with Trellick Tower in North Notting Hill and it’s evil twin over in the East End somewhere The twin might even be the precursor of Trellick. Think Fleming might have been a man of his time with some pretty outmoded views but I can’t see he was far wrong about old yellow metal digit.

    Dawn it’s only a pretty small proportion of churches in UK which are built on ancient sacred sites.

    This stems from a decision made by Pope (later saint – who says you can’t get promoted after death? ) Augustine in a letter I think to Bishop Mellitus if that’s how you spell his name. Not sure. The crux of this letter being let the natives of this country continue worshipping at their pagan places just change the nature of the God(s) they worship. Mellitus is the 1st or 2nd Bishop of London but gets chased out of town by irate locals who I think did for him. Think he received a similar posthumous promotion in the field.

    Now funnily enough Mellitus has a small monument or chapel within St Paul’s the Wren church and apparently also in the earlier and larger cathedral. There being at least three churches of Paul on the site of a previous Roman temple. There’s been a long-standing rumour in circulation that when the Wren edifice was being built that beneath the broken foundations of the previous structure a circle of standing stones was revealed. All a load of rubbish apparently but so interesting in that the Romans do have a lot of form for honouring/plonking their temples atop indigenous sacred sites. Same idea as Augustine probably being at the root of this behaviour. It’s very interesting. EO Gordon certainly believed that St Paul’s was originally a pagan site. She knew her stuff did EO Gordon.

    Just one last quick thing. Yew trees are enormously long lived they have really mega life spans one at Ashbrittle in Somerset is truly ancient as is the Fortinghall yew in Scotland where legend has it Pontius Pilot was brought up locally. (I’m not making this up but i bet someone else did) Well bearing this in mind next time you see a very very old church probably on a slightly raised site with Yew trees in the church yard think of it like this. The yew trees are very possibly the descendants of a sacred tree grove and those trees, the sacred grove, were there well before the church – or its predecessor were built. The sacred grove the churchyard is likely to predate Christianity. That’s what the first point of worship was. The churchyard determines the location of the church.

    Best stop chirping have got to go and do computer courses today and I don’t really want to.

  18. Dawn Andrews says:

    So the Romans would plonk their sacred site on top of older. Neolithic ones, Jan, they would have loved Ireland, which is covered in mounds and stone circles and all sorts, either totally ignored and neglected or packed with tourists. I’ll watch out for yew trees, that’s a great point, there is an Irish yew that’s smaller than the UK variety, they are so dark green they look black in the rainy Irish light.

  19. Ian Luck says:

    Jan – You are right about the house – 2, Willow Road, Hampstead. Erno Goldfinger was so angry about his psychopath namesake, he threatened to sue Fleming’s publisher. Hearing this, Fleming said that he could change the offending name to ‘Goldprick’.

  20. Liz Thompson says:

    Jan, did you know you can get a T shirt with “Sorry I’m late. I didn’t want to come”. Might be useful?
    Everyone else, I didn’t realise Ian Fleming had a sense of humour!

  21. Ian Luck says:

    Liz – I like that T shirt slogan. It’s not a million miles from the correct answer to the question:
    “Why are you late to work?” The truthful answer being, of course:
    “Because I hate my job.”

  22. Jan says:

    Liz it took me ages to restart my E mail’s at work + to get back on NHS systems and do some course I was out of date with! Made it worse that I was in some dark empty ward with a computer and phone line and it was not appropriate to get help off colleagues who usually get me out of bother with their computer advice because of the virus of doom. The lads on the Compuer advice desk @ Bournemouth earned their money yesterday I’ tell you.. They were great in truth .

    Just got to get through first aid day and am sorted.

  23. snowy says:

    [Rather than indulge myself in a mega-burble about everything raised in the comments being linked together in a rather convoluted manner.]

    Bettiscombe update

    Entry from Historic England database:

    (ST 40370056) Standing Stone (NR). (1)

    This stone, on Sliding Hill, is 2.0 metres high, 2.0 metres wide
    and 1.0 metre thick. It is a natural feature, the result of a
    landslide which has caused it to be set in its present position.

  24. Jan says:

    I didn’t twig we were on about the Sliding Hill stone at all!
    Didn’t link the two up. Double Doh! I thought it was a glacial erratic. Definitely not a standing stone.

    Think this is private land and not that easy to access. I’ll say one thing about true standing stones modified stones placed into the landscape there’s nearly always a footpath accessing such a stone. Even if they are on private land e.g. The Tingle stone which is on Princess Anne’s private estate (Gatcombe Park is it?) Or the tumulus the ancient mound @ Chequers the P.Ms country residence there rights of way. Which is interesting in itself. Like Hill Forts nearly always a couple of rights of way serving these places.

    Cheers Snowy.

  25. Ian Luck says:

    David Long’s ‘Spectacular Vernacular’, and ‘Tunnels, Towers, and Temples’ are well worth reading, as is his ‘London’s 100 Strangest Places’. If you’re fond of London, but not necessarily the ‘touristy’ bits, then you’ll probably enjoy these.

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