At St Augustine’s Tower
St Augustine’s Tower
I wonder how many people even notice this old tower, secreted behind the betting office in the centre of Hackney? Without a second glance, it might easily get dismissed as a left-over from a Victorian church that got demolished. Yet few realise St Augustine’s Tower has been here longer than anything else, since 1292 to be precise.
“It is an uncompromising medieval building, the only one we have in Hackney,” Laurie Elks, the custodian of the tower, admitted to me as we ascended its one hundred and thirty-five steps, “and, above all, it is a physical experience.” Climbing the narrowing staircase between rough stone walls, we reached the top of the tower and scattered the indignant crows who, after more than seven centuries, understandably consider it their right to perch uninterrupted upon the weather vane. They have seen all the changes from their vantage point, how the drover’s road became a red route, how London advanced and swallowed up the village as the railway steamed through.
Yet inside the tower, change has been less dramatic and Laurie is proud of the lovingly-preserved cobwebs that festoon the nooks and crevices of his cherished pile, offering a haven for shadows and dust, and garnished with some impressive ancient graffiti. The skulls and hourglasses graven upon stone panels beside the entrance set the tone for this curious melancholic relic, sequestered among old trees just turning colour now as autumn crocuses sprout among the graves. You enter through a makeshift wooden screen, cobbled together at the end of the eighteenth century out of bits and pieces of seventeenth century timber. On the right stands an outsize table tomb with magnificent lettering incised into dark granite recording the death of Capt Robert Deane, on the fourth day of February 1699, and his daughters Mary & Katherine and his son Robert, who all went before him.
“There was no-one to wind the clock,” revealed Laurie with a plaintive grimace, as we stood on the second floor confronting the rare late-sixteenth-century timepiece that was once the only measure of time in Hackney, “so I persuaded my sixteen-year-old daughter, Sam, that she would like to do it and she did – until she grew unreliable – when I realised that I had wanted to wind the clock myself all along. I would come at two in the morning every Saturday and go to the all-night Tesco and buy a can of beans or something. Then I would let myself in and, sometimes, I didn’t put on the light because I know the building so well – and that was when I fell in love with it.” Reluctantly, Laurie has relinquished his nocturnal visits since auto-winding was introduced to preserve the clock’s historic mechanism.
It was the Knights Templar who gave the tower its name when they owned land here, until the order was suppressed in 1308 and their estates passed to the Knights of St John in Clerkenwell who renamed the church that was attached to the tower as St John-at-Hackney. Later, Christopher Urstwick, a confidant of Henry VII before he became king, retired to Hackney as rector of the church and used his wealth to rebuild it. Yet, to the right of the entrance to the tower, rough early medieval stonework is still visible beneath the evenly-laid layers of sixteenth century Kentish ragstone – bounty of the courtier’s wealth – that surmount it.
When the village of Hackney became subsumed into the metropolis, with rows of new houses thrown up by speculators, a new church was built down the road in 1797, but it was done on the cheap and the tower was not strong enough to carry the weight of the bells. Meanwhile, the demolition contractor employed to take down the old church was defeated by the sturdy old tower and it was retained to hold the bells until enough money was raised to strengthen the new one. Years later, once this had been effected, the fashion for Neo-Classical had been supplanted by Gothic and it suited the taste of the day to preserve the old tower as an appealing landmark to remind everyone of centuries gone by.
Thus, no-one can say they live in Hackney until they have made the pilgrimage to St Augustine’s Tower – where Laurie is waiting to greet you – and climbed the narrow stairs to the roof, because this is the epicentre and the receptacle of time, the still place in the midst of the mayhem at the top of Mare St.
The view from the top of the tower towards the City of London.
A bumper crop of conkers in Hackney this year, as seen from the parapet.
Laurie Elks, Custodian of the Tower
St Augustine’s Tower is open next Sunday, 29th September, and on the last Sunday of every month (except December) from 2pm-4:30pm