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.