London, I think, is the most remarkable of British cities for its church collection. On one level, it’s like Norwich – a large group of much the same, in this case, Stuart churches. There’s little medieval here and nothing externally of that era to please.
St Andrew Undershaft has an interior like an inferior version of Bristol’s St Stephen’s and Lord Mayor’s Chapel. St Helen’s has potential, but both St Helen’s and Undershaft are diminutive outside. The great Norman priory at St Bartholomew’s is not only shorn in half or less, but insensitively and anachronistically restored externally – and mean enough to enforce an entrance fee. I like round 12/13 C Temple church which doesn’t count under parish churches – I like it less now that it too imposes an entrance charge. Out of the classical ones, it’s hard to choose as I have not spent the time with them that I have in other cities. For the interiors, domed St Stephen Walbrook is supreme, but overall I think St Mary le Bow is my favourite; and I’ve just discovered St Mary at Hill near Monument.
Above: St Stephen Walbrook – the photo on the right captures the City.
Perhaps we take London’s churches for granted – would they would seem more special in other cities where there are none or few of these? If you visit several in one day, they can run into each other.
By analysing them, you come to see the brilliance of Wren and his office. He used gothic as well as classical; and not all the same type of classical. There are white stone and red brick ones (St Mary le Bow being both), and some of more beigy stone (St Dunstan in the West), whereas the pre-Fire ones are of flinty rubble or whitish ragstone. Some have traditional spires (St Margaret Pattens), some have cupolas (St Magnus), some have little hats (St Benet) and some have tiered wedding cake toppings (St Bride). St Mary Aldermary has long parapets. Three have round ceilings (St Mary Abchurch left, St Mary at Hill and St Stephen Walbrook) as did the wonderfully named Barton [Bat] Fink (now gone). Bombs from the war and the 1990s have meant there’s several modern windows and other fittings.
Wren did not build all the City’s churches; some are pre Fire survivors, some by other 18th or 19th C architects; and some like bat eared St Sepulchre are mishmashes of several centuries, Classic and Gothic.
The rest of London has many more ecclesiastical treasures, but most are fairly central.
In the West End, there’s rightly famous St Martin in the Fields with its delectable plastered ceiling, but there’s other special classical churches around there – St James Piccadilly, St John Smith Square, St Clement Dane…
Hawksmoor’s 6 1/2 highly original churches are also quite central (one in the City). There’s one of these top left:St George in the East, in the Shadwell area.
London perhaps is the most remarkable city for breadth, but it lacks what Norwich and Bristol have by way of gothic and I don’t think that even Westminster Abbey really makes up for that, though the Lady/Henry VII Chapel is a supreme example of gothic.
Final thoughts in the next piece…