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.
It’s easy to look at a map of the British Isles and assume that the outline of land that’s so familiar to us has been that way for millennia. However, the coastline – particularly in the east – has changed dramatically over the centuries, partly due to human intervention (such as the draining of marshy areas) and partly due to the forces of nature. Often, these changes are quite gradual and happen over many years (for example, towns on the Norfolk coast that have been gradually disappearing into the sea over many decades and centuries), but sometimes, a storm or other natural disaster could change the fortunes of coastal towns overnight. New Romney in Kent is one of these places. Once a thriving and important port, a terrible storm in 1287 cut off the town’s lifeline.
Over a doorway on one of the City of London’s many Wren churches is something really quite special. A large but intricate carving depicts the Last Day – the figure of Christ presides over the dead, who are rising up from their coffins in preparation for the final judgement.
I visited the Lune Valley again recently, that picturesque corner of Lancashire that I’ve found to be rich in history and fascinating old churches. This visit was no different – driving into the village of Hornby, a striking octagonal church tower caught my attention. Stopping to explore this church and the church situated opposite uncovered the stories of two men with strong links to Hornby who both made their mark on history.
The church of St Leonard sits on a hillside in the pretty coastal town of Hythe in Kent, overlooking the English Channel. Its history goes back at least 900 years, perhaps even further – a lot of the churches in the area have pre-Norman origins. It’s a beautiful and imposing building – but if you visit the church’s crypt you will find yourself coming face to face with some unexpected people.
I recently bought a copy of Mrs Basil Holmes’ 1896 book The London Burial Grounds. Isabella Holmes was a remarkable woman who took it upon herself to explore what had happened to the many burial grounds in inner London that had been closed in the 1850s. Her book records her findings, something which you can imagine will be a really useful resource for me when researching London’s old and forgotten burial grounds. However, what I wasn’t expecting was that the book itself would tell more stories than simply the ones contained within its pages.
St George’s Gardens, the park on the site of the former churchyard of St George in the East in Stepney, is a neat, peaceful place – when I visited, the play area was full of children, and other people were relaxing on benches or looking at the old monuments near the church. In the midst of all of this is a derelict building that looks terribly sad and out of place. However, this forlorn little building has a fascinating history that includes that most infamous of East End criminals, Jack the Ripper, and later became a pioneering centre for the education of local children.
London’s many plague pits have a certain dark allure – they’re mysterious because so many of them lie unmarked, hidden and forgotten under the city’s streets, buildings and parks. We’ve seen pictures of archaeologists excavating long-lost mass graves uncovered on building sites, with huge jumbles of bones emerging from the soil and centuries-old eye sockets peering out at us. We’ve heard dark tales of homes built over old plague pits, haunted by restless spirits. But upstream of the old city, in a quiet suburb by the Thames, a plague pit lies in plain sight – marked by a yew tree and a little memorial. This is the plague pit at All Saints church, Isleworth, where local plague victims were laid to rest in a mass grave in 1665.
John Ruskin once described Lincoln Cathedral as being “out and out the most precious piece of architecture in the British Isles.” Sitting at the summit of the hill that Lincoln is built on, the cathedral occupies a commanding position over the surrounding area. It’s easy to see why Ruskin held this wonderful building in such high esteem.
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.