St Pancras Old Church
Behind St Pancras station is a charming village church and public garden called the St Pancras Old Church. The location of this church has been recognised as a parish since the 9th century when it was a village north of London, giving the church the quaint and dated peaceful feel. Though medieval in its foundations, St Pancras Old Church has a deceptively Victorian exterior, due to some of the extensive renovations undertaken in 1847 by architects Gough and Roumieu. Despite its quaint qualities, the church’s history is filled with scandal. During the 17th century, it acquired a reputation for laxity in illegal marriages, as well as being renowned as a prime spot for duelling. Here, a vicar was also arrested under charges of debt. The churchyard later merged with St-Giles-in-the-Fields, a graveyard supposedly favoured as a resting place of murderers, blackmailers, and thieves. The church also holds the splendid tomb of Sir John Soane, the celebrated architect of the Sir John Soane’s Museum and the Dulwich Picture Gallery. For those interested in Dickensian London, St Pancras Old Church is also mentioned in A Tale of Two Cities, where it is featured as the burial place of an Old Bailey spy, who was brought to ‘the old church of Saint Pancras, far off in the fields’, only to be removed later by body snatchers.
Between London Bridge and the Tower of London on St Dunstan’s Hill is the Church of England parish church St Dunstan-in-the-East. The church was originally built in 1100, but suffered severe damage during the Great Fire of London in 1666 and again in 1817, when the weight of the roof proved to be too much for the structure. This may seem an unusual recommendation as the majority of the church was destroyed in the Blitz of the Second World War and now stands in ruin. However, this public garden, officially opened in 1971, is the perfect place to find nature and calm in the city. Its gothic arches, now draped in green foliage, impart a sense of sadness to the visitor whilst uniting this peaceful place with an understanding of history.
St James’ Piccadilly
On Piccadilly sits a small gem by the name of St James’. Situated on a virgin site, St. James was commissioned by a courtier to King Charles II, Henry Jermyn, the Earl of St. Alban, and the building of this wondrous church was entrusted to Christopher Wren. Consecrated in 1684, the church was built out of plain brick with Portland stone dressings and round-headed windows. Its gallery of clear-glassed windows light the white walls of the church gently, and illuminate the outstanding works of art it holds, such as the reredos, which incited claims by John Evelyn that there was ‘no altar anywhere in England, nor has there been abroad, more handsomely adorned’. Along with this stunning altar is an exceptional Renatus Harris organ given to the church by Queen Mary in 1691 and works by the Dutch maritime painter Van de Velde. St. James is also known for its use as a venue for concerts, exhibitions and talks, as well as for hosting Piccadilly Market, which sells food on Mondays (11am-5pm), antiques and collectables on Tuesdays (10am-6pm), and arts and crafts Wednesdays to Saturday (10am-6pm).
Behind St. Bartholomew’s Hospital lies its once associated church, St. Bartholomew-the-Great, founded by Rahere, a former court jester to Henry I’s court. Rahere established this Augustinian priory, as well as its associated hospital, upon his return home from a pilgrimage to Rome. After many years of dispute, the hospital and the priory separated from the church in 1420. The church then fell into disrepair, financing itself by a number of secular crafts, such as blacksmithing and carpentry, being undertaken in its transepts and sacristies until the 19th century when these crafts were expelled due to the renovations at hand. Today, St. Bartholomew-the-Great’s dark interior is laden with a great stone choir, along with a row of massive pillars supporting its many round arches. These, along with the very minimal decoration, present an excellent display of Norman architecture. As well as being a spectacular spot to find peace in the bustling sprawl of the City of London, this church has been featured in many popular contemporary films, such as Four Weddings and a Funeral, Shakespeare in Love, The Other Boleyn Girl and Sherlock Holmes.
The final recommendation is Westminster Cathedral. Though not necessarily off the beaten track, this wonderful Neo-Byzantine church is frequently overlooked due to its similarity in name to Westminster Abbey. However, this ostentatious church, located at the top of Victoria Street, is a breathtaking place to visit. It was first constructed under the third archbishop Cardinal Vaughn in 1895, and executed by the architect John Francis. Its red and white stripped brick work pulls in the visitor’s gaze. Once inside, the vaulted ceilings are impressively decorated with ornate Neo-Byzantine mosaics; though gloomy in terms of lighting, the decor is sure to bring a smile to your face. This cathedral is also celebrated for its emergence in contemporary religious politics. It was visited by the Queen in 1977 for a flower show in celebration of her Silver Jubilee, and again in 1995 for the first participation of a reigning monarch of the United Kingdom in a Catholic church liturgy for several years. Moreover, this church was marked by Pope Benedict XVI’s arrival for Mass in 2010. This spectacular church is well worth the visit, boasting impressive views of south-west London from the top of its tower for only £5!
By Imme Dattenberg-Doyle