29 April 2016

Why strolling through London is
better than using the Underground

Saint Mary-le-Bow … the sound of Bow Bells determines who is a true Cockney (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Patrick Comerford

I have learned in recent years that it is probably easier and certainly more healthy and much more interesting to walk through London instead of trying to use the London Underground.

Many writers, including Bill Bryson, point out that the standard tube map distorts geography so that it is not clear most times whether a tube trip is necessary at all. There is high density of stations in the city around Bank, Cannon Street, Mansion House and Saint Paul’s, when a walk between the stations is shorter, fitter and healthier than using public transport.

I have long learned that for meetings at the USPG offices in Southwark, I am better off when I arrive at Liverpool Street station to start walking instead of taking the tube. And I repeat this exercise at the end of the day, walking back to Liverpool Street for the Stanstead Express.

This walk allows me to enjoy the views of magisterial London architecture in buildings such as the Bank of England, the Royal Exchange, the Mansion House and Saint Paul’s Cathedral, to stroll through the side-streets by the Tate Modern, with their cafés, buskers and book shops, to enjoy the vista from the south side of the Millennium Bridge or the clutter of tourists around the Globe Theatre, to discover parts of London I have not known before, including Old Jewry and Lothbury, and to see some of the many surviving Wren Churches that are such an integral part of the heritage of London.

On Thursday morning I walked from Liverpool Street down Old Broad Street, Threadneedle Street, Poultry, Cheapside, the main east-west axis in the City, New Change and Saint Paul’s Churchyard, Sermon Lane and Peter’s Hill, before crossing the river on the Millennium Bridge. And then, after yesterday’s meeting, I retraced my steps.

On previous occasions, I have extended my stroll, taking opportunities to see Dr Johnson’s House in Gough Square, Saint Martin’s Church on Ludgate Hill, Saint Bride’s Church off Fleet Street, and Saint Dunstan-in-the West on Fleet Street, or stroll through Paternoster Square and the network of sidestreets that are clustered around Saint Paul’s Cathedral.

On Thursday afternoon, I stopped to see both the Church of Saint Mary-le-Bow and to stroll through the former ghetto that gives its name to Old Jewry.

A plaque from All Hallows in the churchyard of Saint Mary-le-Bow recalls the baptism of the poet John Milton (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Saint Mary-le-Bow with its steeple and bells is a London landmark. Tradition says that a true Cockney is someone born within the sound of Bow Bells, which could be heard as far away as Hackney Marshes. The story goes that when he heard the sound of the bells of Saint Mary’s, Dick Whittington turned back from Highgate with his cat, returned to London and later became Lord Mayor.

Saint Mary-le-Bow is one of the old London churches rebuilt by Sir Christopher Wren after the Great Fire of London in 1666. But there is archaeological evidence that there was a church on this site from Saxon times.

The church known as Sancta Maria de Arcubus was rebuilt in the later Norman period, and was known for its two arches or “bows” of stone. From the 13th century, the church was one of the 13 “peculiars” of the Diocese of Canterbury, so that it came within the ambit of the Archbishops of Canterbury rather than the Bishops of London.

These 13 parishes were: All Hallows’, Bread Street; All Hallows’, Lombard Street; Sait Dionis Backchurch, Lime Street; Saint Dunstan in the East; Saint John the Evangelist, Watling Street; Saint Leonard, Eastcheap; Saint Mary, Aldermary; Saint Mary Bothaw; Saint Mary-le-Bow, Cheapside; Saint Michael, Crooked Lane; Saint Michael Royal; Saint Pancras, Soper Lane; and Saint Vedast, Foster Lane.

Because of this connection with the Archbishop of Canterbury, Saint Mary-le-Bow became the seat of the Court of Arches, which took its name from the two arches or bows of stone.

The Court of Arches is the provincial court for the Province of Canterbury in the Church of England. The equivalent in the Province of York is the Chancery Court. The Court of Arches is presided over by the Dean of the Arches, who is appointed by the two archbishops. The dean must be a barrister of 10 years’ High Court standing or the holder or former holder of high judicial office.

Saint Mary-le-Bow remains the permanent home of the Court of Arches and the regular sittings include those to confirm the election of each new diocesan bishop in the Province of Canterbury.

In the past, the “bow bells” were used to order a curfew in the City of London, until the church burned down in the Great Fire of London of 1666.

In all, 88 parish churches were burned during the Great Fire. Sir Christopher Wren and his office rebuilt Saint Paul’s Cathedral and 51 parish churches.

Because Saint Mary-le-Bow was the second most important church in the City of London after Saint Paul’s Cathedral, it was one of the first churches to be rebuilt by Sir Christopher Wren after the fire. The present church was built to Wren’s designs in 1671-1673, and the 68 metre steeple was completed in 1680.

Most distances from London are measured from Charing Cross but, before the late 18th century, distances on the road from London to Lewes were calculated from the church door at Saint Mary-le-Bow, and the mileposts along the route were marked with a cast-iron depiction of a bow and four bells. Since the early 1940s, a recording of the Bow Bells made in 1926 has been used by the BBC World Service as an interval signal for some English-language broadcasts.

Like many Wren and City churches, much of Saint Mary-le-Bow was destroyed by a German bomb during the Blitz in 1941, and the famous Bow Bells crashed to the ground during the fire on 10 May.

Restoration work began in 1956. New Bow Bells were cast in 1956 and they were eventually installed to resume ringing in 1961. The church was re-consecrated in 1964, and is now a Grade I listed building. Today, the church, like many City churches, ministers to the financial industry and livery companies.

The paved churchyard has a statue of Captain John Smith of Jamestown, founder of Virginia and a former parishioner of Saint Mary-le-Bow. Inside, the church there is a memorial to the first Governor in Australia, Admiral Arthur Phillip, who was born in the parish. Beneath the church in the crypt is the appropriately-named Café Below.

Another Canterbury ‘peculiar,’ All Hallows’ in Bread Street, was pulled down in 1876, and the parish was amalgamated with Saint Mary-le-Bow. But a memorial from All Hallows, recalling that the poet John Milton was baptised there, has been re-erected on the walls of Saint Mary’s.

Two plaques recall Saint Thomas Becket was born in Cheapside (Photographs: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Further east along Cheapside, two plaques on a street corner marks the birthplace of Saint Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury (1162-1170). He was born in Cheapside on the Feast of Saint Thomas the Apostle, 21 December, in 1119 or 1120.

Old Jewry stands in the heart of the original Jewish ghetto in London (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

A little further on, I stopped at Old Jewry, a one-way street in the City that runs from Poultry to Gresham Street, close to Bank underground station and Cannon Street mainline station. The street now houses mainly offices for banks and financial companies but was once at the heart of the original Jewish ghetto in London.

A plaque on a wall marks where the Great Synagogue of London stood until 1271. In 2001, archaeologists discovered a mikveh or ritual bath near to Old Jewry, on the corner of Gresham Street and Milk Street, under what is now the State Bank of India. It would have fallen into disuse after 1290, when the Jews were expelled from England.

The original inhabitants are also remembered in the name of nearby church, Saint Lawrence Jewry, on Gresham Street, next to the Guildhall. This is another Wren church rebuilt after the Great Fire in 1666.

Saint Lawrence Jewry was described by Sir John Betjeman as “very municipal, very splendid.” It is yet another one on my list of Wren and City churches to visit instead of traveling underground.

Looking back at Saint Paul’s and the City of London (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

1 comment:

Janet McKee said...

I agree. I love walking in London. So many fascinating nooks and crannies. I hope to visit again later this year. One of our sons lives in Hampstead.