Often we remind ourselves that we are heirs of nine centuries of Christian worship on this hallowed site (Revd August Powell-Miller, Rector of St Olave, Hart St 1943-1959)
It has been considerable time since travelswithadiplomat laid metaphorical quill to electronic parchment. Six months to be precise. A fair amount has happened…the U.S. did the electoral unthinkable, British lamentation for lost celebrities through 2016 reached its wailing zenith with the departure of George Michael, and war continued apace through a fair chunk of planet. Through it all I trundled on an ever-increasing circle of cultural church voyages in London; sometimes by cycle, mainly on foot. It has been an exploration of the impact of Sir Christopher Wren on London’s ecclesiastic skyline – albeit one now swallowed by the classy skyscrapers with their sobriquets like The Shard, The Gherkin, the Walkie-Talkie – that hasn’t inspired me overly to blog about it.
I was mulling this dearth of output, when I realized that it was a classic case of perceiving one’s own home to be un-exotic, un-quixotic, undesirable…unappealing. Writing for an audience when ensconced in the romance of Bangkok seemed, somehow, more fitting. That’s not to say there isn’t a London to show off, to opine about; but…somehow, it has led to a certain apathy.
Anyhow…St Olave, Hart St has broken the fugue. It is a merger of three churches: St Catherine Coleman, All Hallows Staining and St Olave. With this firmly in mind…
I stroll away from Bank one loury, rain swept lunchtime. I wander dolefully up Cornhill, past the Marks and Spencers, down Fenchurch St. The worker ants of London are rushing from their formic colonies, heading to one of the fifteen or so eateries that dominate the ground level of Central London; you know the ones: Starbucks, EAT, Pure – Made for You, Costa, Pret, etc.. To escape the black clad march, I find myself diving right into Star Alley and emerging, blinking, next to All Hallows Staining (see the black and white tower below) which has emerged from a long period of desuetude into the locale’s cynosure. This 400+yr old ancient church thrusts skywards proudly towards the north end of Mark Lane. These days the church has only its tower and the echoes of its churchyard outline with some historic grave markers. I meander cautiously up to a plaque. Fascinating…the Clothworkers Company maintain All Hallows Staining, their hall standing next to the site. Traditionally it is considered one of the earliest London stone churches, constructed around 1140A.D. With such a long history the walls have been dissembled and reassembled many times; it has pealed its six bells for Queen Elizabeth I when she was released from the Tower of London in May 1554; it escaped the Great Fire of 1666 but then fell a few years later to “the pernicious practice of making graves within and close to places of worship.” (James Malcolm); its very name (Staining) was given to many foundling children; its final service was held here in 1870.
I skip away, my cultural batteries partially recharged. Ahead I can see the Lloyd’s Register Building. This is where St Catherine Coleman once stood. Spun from Saint Katherine, whose fable tells us she was a virgin of Alexandria, daughter to King Costus. Her lamentation is one of conversion to Christianity, torture by Emperor Maxentius, ending her life crushed between wheels made of iron saws and swords at the age of eighteen. Not a happy life at all. London has three churches dedicated to her. The ‘Coleman’ part of this lost church came from a garden attached to it. It too escaped the Great Fire of 1666 but by 1726 was closed due to its dangerous state of disrepair; demolished in 1734 to ensure the street level it was on could be raised 20feet to match Fenchurch St.
I bet you didn’t know this part of London was deliberately raised 20feet after the Great Fire. There were steps down from the ‘newer’ London to this ‘older’ London and St Catherine Coleman’s sat on the ‘boundary’.
But, these two churches are not my destination. That is St Olave. Named for the renowned King of Norway, Olaf II Haraldsson (995-1030A.D.), he who helped the English King, Elthelred the Unready recapture London from the Danes. Olaf was key to the success of the Battle of London Bridge (thought by many to be the source for the rhyme London Bridge is Falling Down).
The entrance to this church is a smallish wooden door unobtrusively set into a high brick wall. I edge in cautiously (as is my introverted wont), pretending insouciance. Luckily there is only a single person there. Older, balding, pretending to be fascinated by a Latin epigraph mounted above a dusty shelf. That’s good. As you can see from the photos above, the light at midday is caught rather spectacularly by this building. The pulpit catches my eye and I sidle up the nave, turn left at the end of the pews and look at it. It appears to have been brought to St Olave’s from St Bene’t Gracechurch as a gift. 17th century. At the ends of chancel wall are four wrought-iron staves. I recognize these as a common feature to London’s churches; customary for the Lord Mayor to have a sword rest on his pew. The stain glass windows date to post WWII; accordingly the designer accounted for the skyscrapers all around. There is a lot of plain class, the aisle windows with heraldic devices in slightly tinted cathedral glass. In the East window I can see two lights: Christus Salvator and Christus Victor. The Anglo-Norse tradition is in place, the angels depicting both King Olaf and Queen Elizabeth I.
The Lady Chapel window has three lights: Virgin and Child, Elizabeth I, and St Katherine. Above them are four more recent female paragons of Christian virtue: Elizabeth Fry, Florence Nightingale, Josephine Butler, and Edith Cavell. Of course, there are other windows, notably in the South Aisle, Trinity House Chapel, the window east of the Riccard Memorial, and above the north Porch but I encourage you to go look at them.
As I look around I am aware of a small set of tight stone steps leading down to a crypt. I descend, as silent as church mouse, for I hear voices. I am in a small antechamber that houses a three-shelf glass cabinet with some notable archaeological findings, a sculpted monument to Tobias Wall and various musical accoutrements. There is a niche passage to a crypt chapel. I spot people sitting there. A hidden voice is exhorting them to a better life away from the miasma of drug use. It is a modern gathering, anonymous yet together in their efforts to find a future.
I tip toe away, absquatulate. Got to become an ant and visit Pret for lunch. Lastly, but not for this blog…another one…is the real draw of St Olave’s: the monument to Sir Samuel Pepys. His 17th century 9-year diary a fitting journal for Restoration London. This was his parish, his church, his final resting place in 1703.
More on that later…
Is this what diplomacy is all about?