In the first week of December I spent a free afternoon walking from the heart of the City of London (and it does have such a thing) to Trafalgar Square. I’ve always felt that this is the part of Christmas-time when London is at its most attractive (assuming that you aren’t completely broke, in which case it’s always fairly wretched).
There is a prickle of anticipation, but the shopping frenzy has yet to reach Maenad proportions, and the streets of the City itself aren’t yet full of impenitent bankers spewing Chateau Petrus into the gutters and waste bins.
My walk was in the opposite direction to the Sunday excursions that Dickens made when he was living in Covent Garden, and recorded in his essay “City Churches“, published in “The Uncommercial Traveller“. Dickens was writing at a time when the exodus of the residential population from the City had left its Churches attended on Sundays only by skeleton congregations (almost literally so in the case of St Mary Woolnoth) but before the C of E had done the sensible and unsentimental thing by demolishing many of them to pay for new churches in the growing suburbs.
What’s striking is how – a century and a half later – then unanticipatable life has returned to those churches that survived the cull.
In St Mary Woolnoth – sandwiched between the Mansion House and the Bank of England – the Vicar was conducting a two hour open service (“come and go as you please”) before a congregation of what might have been penitent bankers. It was so packed it didn’t feel seemly to take a photograph.
Moving down Cheapside past St Mary-le-Bow (whose restaurant was doing a roaring trade), St Vedast (home to Weight Watchers and Alcoholics Anonymous), the usefully occupied St Paul’s itself and St Bride’s (inspiration for wedding cakes everywhere), I stopped in at St Dunstan- in-the-East, which, like many other City Churches, has come to what, in footballing terms, would be called a ground share arrangement with the Romanian Orthodox Church. The C of E holds lunchtime services during the week, and the Romanians have it at the weekend. This results in some interesting cross-cultural and cross-temporal hybrids –
Progressing on to the City boundaries, the Templar Church in the Temple (of which more anon) was having an open day (admission £3.00) –
and finally to St Mary in the Strand, marooned on a traffic island in the middle of that street. This has survived several attempts to destroy it, most recently a road-widening scheme.
As you can just about make out here, a small choir were rehearsing for a carol service. This St Mary is the official church of the W.R.N.S., but the choir didn’t look like Wrens, and were probably from nearby King’s College,or perhaps the Courtauld Institute.
My walk also took me past the inexplicably splendid branch of Lloyd’s Bank, where T.S. Eliot used to work –
All Inexplicably Splendid.