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.
The term “hidden gem” gets bandied around a lot in relation to all sorts of places in London – bars and restaurants, museums, galleries and historic buildings. It’s a bit of an overworn phrase, but the subject of today’s post definitely fits the criteria for a hidden gem: small and off the beaten track, pretty and perfectly formed.
Through a little gateway on Fleet Street lies the Temple, the inner sanctum of Britain’s legal profession. It’s a curious name – one that always intrigued me when I was younger, going through Temple Station whilst on the District Line and wondering if there actually was a temple there. There is no temple, but amid the chambers of barristers is a little old church that has a history going all the way back to the Knights Templar.
I’ve lost count of the number of times I walked past this church and its burial ground before finally stopping to explore it. All Saints, Fulham, is situated close to the River Thames, and is the twin to the more famous church on the other side of Putney Bridge – St Mary the Virgin, Putney. St Mary’s was the home of the Putney Debates, a series of discussions amongst members of the Parliamentarian New Model Army, in 1647. But All Saints also has an interesting history, and has a churchyard full of fascinating graves – including the tombs of many of the Bishops of London.
A few weeks ago, I was spending the weekend with old friends in Sheffield, and on the Saturday afternoon we drove out to Southwell, a pretty little town in Nottinghamshire. I wasn’t sure what to expect – my friend had sold Southwell to me as a beautiful and interesting historic town, but I had no idea of the magnificent gem at the heart of Southwell – the Minster.
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.
London is home to a number of ruined churches – in the City of London alone there are several, victims of the bombing raids of the Luftwaffe in the Second World War. However, not all of the ruined churches of Greater London are victims of the Blitz. In Stanmore, a comfortable suburb at the top of the Jubilee Line, another ruined church can be found alongside its Victorian successor. The current parish church of St John the Evangelist was built in the mid-19th Century, but the picturesque ruins of the 17th Century church it replaced still survive in the church’s large burial ground.
The burial ground is a tranquil place, despite being close to a busy main road. Numerous squirrels darted in and out of the gravestones and a pair of magpies strutted around, while pigeons cooed softly, hidden from sight. It was a humid September day when I visited, with shafts of sunlight shining through the clouds. For an hour or so I had the place to myself, before the ruin was opened for the afternoon.
Today, the tiny Scottish island of Iona is not the easiest of places to get to. It’s a long drive across the Isle of Mull to Fionnphort from the main ferry link with the Scottish mainland at Craignure. However, in the past Iona was the centre of Christianity in the region, as well as being a site of political significance. Travelling by boat, it was easier to reach than its geographical isolation suggests.
I visited the island on a mild September day, after a long drive from the eastern coast of Mull. The sea was clear and calm and made for a smooth passage on the short ferry trip from Fionnphort; later on a pod of dolphins could be seen in the Sound of Iona. It is a peaceful place, with beaches of white sand and outcrops of pink granite. Since the 7th Century it has been a place of pilgrimage, and it continues to welcome thousands of visitors every year.
It’s quite easy to get lost in the maze of highwalks in London’s Barbican Estate, and to some it may be disorientating to discover a medieval church in the middle of the Barbican’s brutalist sprawl. St Giles without Cripplegate is a rare survivor of the Great Fire – even if it didn’t fare too well during the Blitz – and its name is one of the last remaining references to this ancient corner of the Square Mile.
One of the best things about living in London is the great potential for discovering wonderful places completely by accident. In this instance, I was required to go to Mortlake to pick up a parcel from the sorting office that had been too big to fit through my letterbox. Whilst walking up Mortlake High Street my eye was caught by some worn old gravestones peeping out through bushes and shrubs.