There are so many fascinating old churches in London – however, St Leonard’s in Shoreditch is the first church where I’ve been greeted by a cat. Schrödinger, who was featured in an article on Spitalfields Life earlier this year, is a former stray who now lives at the church. The handsome black and white fellow seemed to spot me as soon as I arrived with my camera, and trotted into the church to wait for me to open the door to let him in.
The heart of London is full of strange old places with unusual names and odd stories, but there is one place that for a very long time was not a true part of London at all. Ely Place, just to the north of Holborn Circus, was until relatively recently considered to be a part of Cambridgeshire. For centuries, it was an enclave – an area of land physically located in the City of London but not under its jurisdiction. Instead, it was privately owned by the Bishops of Ely, and even today the street has its own gatehouse and beadles.
Last summer, I visited a part of my native Lancashire that I’d never been to before – the Lune Valley. It’s a beautiful part of the world which probably gets overlooked due to its proximity to the famous, dramatic landscapes of the Lake District and the Yorkshire Dales. The valley is probably most famous for Ruskin’s View, the stunning vista – immortalised by John Constable – that can be observed from Kirkby Lonsdale (just across the county border in Cumbria). But the Lune Valley also has a fascinating, half-forgotten history, and is home to some wonderful old churches.
I remember the first time I saw Christ Church Greyfriars – I was on my way to a job interview near the Old Bailey, and as I was walking up Newgate Street from the tube station by St Paul’s I saw the ruins of a church. Intrigued, I went over to the ruin to read the sign explaining what the site was. I’ve always been fascinated by ruins – not just the reasons why a building became a ruin, but also why the ruin itself was preserved. When one considers how valuable every square foot of space is in the City of London, it’s quite something to come across a ruin that’s stood there for over seventy years.
Nestled between pubs, restaurants and the hospital buildings of St Bart’s on West Smithfield is a Tudor gatehouse. During the week office workers, hospital staff and the traders of nearby Smithfield Market hurry past this structure without giving it a second glance, but groups of people on guided tours usually stop outside this rather incongruous site. The gatehouse marks the entrance to the City of London’s oldest parish church, St Bartholomew the Great, a rare survivor from the Great Fire, albeit much changed from its early years.
Hidden behind high walls, the Charterhouse in Clerkenwell exudes an air of mystery – at least to those who, like me, spend their lunchbreaks wandering around the interesting old places close to their place of work. The Charterhouse is only open to the public for pre-booked guided tours, but a few weeks ago I was fortunate enough to be able to visit the Charterhouse to attend a wonderful lecture about the history of the site by the Charterhouse’s head archivist, Dr Stephen Porter.
The City of London is home to many curious little green spaces, gardens that today are often teeming with office workers enjoying their lunch on a sunny day. The little garden pictured below is just one of them, a small space nestled between office blocks and the busy thoroughfare of London Wall. In the introduction to his 1901 book The Churches and Chapels of Old London, J G White notes that “the sites of old churches are very plainly indicated in most instances by little green spots, formerly church-yards, now changed into pleasant gardens and resting places.” The subject of today’s post is the “green spot” on the site of the church of St Olave, Silver Street.
Many of the City’s churches were closed and demolished as the area’s population began to decrease in the 19th Century, and more were destroyed in the Blitz and never rebuilt. St Olave’s was situated in a part of the Square Mile that was particularly heavily hit by aerial bombardment during the Second World War – it lies just south of London Wall and the Barbican complex, an area devastated by the Luftwaffe. Silver Street, where William Shakespeare once lived, is no longer on London’s maps, utterly wiped out by the devastation of the Blitz.