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.
A few weeks ago, I went to Brompton Cemetery again. I was with my friend Sharon, a fellow graveyard explorer, and I also had a new camera lens to put through its paces. Since my last visit, a lot of the undergrowth that had swallowed up a good many gravestones had been cleared, and as a result we came across many graves that I’d never seen before. Last time I wrote about Brompton, I felt that I’d not been able to do the place justice in just one article, so it seems like a good time to revisit the cemetery and look at more of its rich heritage. Some of the graves featured this time around are grand and mysterious, others are modest and unassuming; yet all of them have their own fascinating stories to tell.
30 St Mary Axe – better known by its nickname “The Gherkin” – is one of the most distinctive skyscrapers in London. It stands on the site of the old Baltic Exchange, which was badly damaged by a Provisional IRA bomb in 1992 and subsequently demolished. It was during excavations taking place prior to the construction of the Gherkin that, in 1995, the skeleton of a Roman Londoner who had lain undisturbed for 1,600 years was discovered.
Of the many bridges that span the River Thames in London, Hammersmith Bridge must certainly rank as one of the most picturesque. Each year it is seen by spectators of the famous University Boat Race, which passes beneath it, and its striking design makes it a favourite with photographers. The bridge has, however, had rather a dramatic history, ranging from alarming incidents of overcrowding to IRA bombs and daring rescues.
If you’ve ever travelled east of Stratford on the London Underground’s Central Line, you’ve probably seen the vast graveyard of St Patrick as the train clatters between Leyton and Leytonstone. It is the final resting place of around 170,000 residents of East London. On a pleasant Saturday afternoon, I explored this fascinating cemetery with my friend and fellow graveyard enthusiast Sharon and we discovered so many stories about the people buried there – stories of war, of love, of immigration, of the faith that united all of those buried at St Patrick’s. Along with St Mary’s at Kensal Green, which Flickering Lamps visited earlier this year, St Patrick’s is one of only two cemeteries in London to cater exclusively to Catholics.
When stepping into the grand entrance hall of Battersea Arts Centre, it’s not obvious that only a few months ago a terrible disaster struck the building. On a Saturday afternoon in October, the place is bustling. Families have gathered in one of the rooms for a child’s birthday party; half a dozen buggies are parked on one side of the marble staircase. Other people sip coffee and tuck into snacks at the centre’s cafe bar. It all seems like a normal day – business as usual – except for the group of people donning high-visibility jackets and hard hats. They have come to the centre to see for themselves the devastation left by a fire in the centre’s Grand Hall in March 2015, and to hear about the plans to rebuild the venue that has been at the heart of social and cultural life in Battersea for over a century.
The period between the two World Wars was one of massive expansion for London. The city’s population grew and grew, peaking at 8.6 million in 1939 (a total not surpassed until very recently), and new housing was built at a rate never seen before to accommodate this growth. These new homes, council houses and private houses alike, contained modern facilities such as indoor toilets, making them attractive to those living in older, less well-equipped homes. But a new housing development in East Sheen, in south west London, had yet another desirable feature for potential buyers: as the fear of war grew in the 1930s, St Leonard’s Court came with its own purpose-built air raid shelter.
It’s a little known fact that more of the City of London’s churches were demolished during peacetime than were destroyed during the Blitz. As London expanded, the population of the Square Mile declined. Fifty one of the eighty-seven churches consumed by the Great Fire of 1666 had been rebuilt, but as the City’s population dwindled during the 19th and 20th Centuries, congregations fell and many churches became surplus to requirements.
However, as you make your way along the Chertsey Road in Twickenham, towards the famous rugby stadium, an unexpected sight looms into view: a baroque Christopher Wren church tower. This is one of the lost City churches, All Hallows Lombard Street, reborn as a suburban parish church.
Tucked away in a pretty garden that was once an old churchyard near the River Thames is an extraordinary, richly-carved tomb. Decorated with exotic scenes and creatures, it marks the resting place of members of the Tradescant family, who made a name for themselves in the 17th Century collecting plants and other curiosities from all over the world.