At St Mary Stratford Atte Bow
In 1311, the residents of Bow became sick of trudging through the mud each winter to get to the parish church of St Dunstan’s over in Stepney, so they raised money to build a chapel of ease upon a piece of land granted by Edward II ‘in the middle of the King’s Highway.’ Seven hundred years later, it is still there and now the traffic hurtles past on either side, yet in spite of injuries inflicted by time, the ancient chapel retains the tranquillity of another age.
Even as you step through the churchyard gates of St Mary and cast your eyes along the undulating stone path bordered by yews, the hubbub recedes as the fifteenth century tower looms up before you. At this time of year, a galaxy of celandines spangles the grass among the tombs as a reminder of the former rural landscape of Bow that has been overtaken by the metropolis. Partly rebuilt in 1829 after a great storm brought down the tower, new ashlar stone may be easily distinguished from the earlier construction, topped off in the last century by red bricks after the church took a direct hit in World War II.
Once you enter the door, the subtly splayed walls of the nave, the magnificent wooden vaulted roof and the irregular octagonal stone pillars reveal the medieval provenance of the ancient structure which is domestic in proportion and pleasing in its modest vernacular. Escaping the radical alterations which damaged too many old churches, St Mary was restored gently in 1899 by C R Ashbee, who set up his School of Handicrafts in Bow at the end of the nineteenth century. Ashbee inserted twenty-two foot oak beams across the nave at ceiling height to hold the structure together, fitted discreet double-glazing to exclude the sound of iron cartwheels upon the cobbles and added a choir vestry at the rear in understated Arts & Crafts design.
Beneath your feet, previous residents of Bow lie packed together in a vault sealed by a Health Inspector in 1890, now rehydrated by rising water as tributaries of the River Lea flow beneath the shallow foundations. Meanwhile, on the day of my visit, a mother and toddler group played happily upon the floor inches above above the charnel house and laughing children delighted in racing up and down the nave – past the stone font of 1410, replaced in 1624 with a one of more modern design and which lay in the rector’s garden for three hundred years before it was re-instated.
Monuments to members of the wealthy Coborn family loom overhead. One is for Alice who died of smallpox at fifteen years old on her wedding day in 1699 and, challenging it from across the nave, a much more elaborate memorial to her wealthy step-mother Prisca who died two years later – hinting perhaps at long-forgotten family tensions.
Diverting the eye from such distractions, the architecture draws your attention forward and an elaborate Tudor ceiling rewards your gaze in the chancel, where C R Ashbee’s richly-coloured encaustic tiles rival the drama of the celandines in the churchyard outside and a curious post-war Renaissance style window offers whimsical amusement with its concealed animals lurking within the design.
Not overburdened with history, yet laced with myriad stories – St Mary’s was once the parish of Samuel Henshall who saw the potential in patenting the corkscrew before anyone else and of George Lansbury, the pioneering Socialist, whose granddaughter, the actress Angela Lansbury, who came back to honour his centenary recently.
Reflecting the nature of our era, the current focus of work at St Mary’s is the organisation of a food bank to serve the needs of local people, but if Geoffrey Chaucer or Samuel Pepys came through Bow – as they did centuries ago – they would still recognise the chapel of ease of their own times and its lively East End parish, of rich and poor, fish merchants, reformers and entrepreneurs.
The bells of Bow
Oak beam added by C R Ashbee as part of his restoration of 1900 and double-glazing, against the noise of the cartwheels upon the cobbles, which is the oldest example in a church in Britain
Tudor roof in the chancel
Bow’s oldest monument, commemorating Grace Amcott, wife of wealthy ‘ffyshmongr’ 1551
Encaustic tiles of 1900 by C R Ashbee
Iron Flag from the tower discovered among the bomb damage of World War II
East Window with architectural design and concealed animals
Cat from the east window
Parish chest, seventeenth century
Medieval font of 1410, rescued after three hundred years in a garden
C R Ashbee’s choir vestry of 1900
Medieval tower restored in 1829 with ashlar stone and with brick after World War II bomb damage
The statue of Gladstone has his hands daubed with red paint
Bow in 1702
Bow Church seen from the east, early eighteenth century
Bow Church seen from the west, eighteenth century
Bow Church seen from the west, early nineteenth century
C R Ashbee’s drawing of his proposal for the renovation of the church in 1899
St Mary’s Football Team, 1910
St Mary’s Football Team, 1938
With grateful thanks to Joy Wotton for her kind assistance with this feature
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