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In City Churchyards

July 10, 2017
by the gentle author

In the churchyard of St Dunstan’s in the East, Idol Lane

If ever I should require a peaceful walk when the crowds are thronging in Brick Lane and Columbia Rd, then I simply wander over to the City of London where the streets are empty at weekends and the many secret green enclaves of the churches are likely to be at my sole disposal. For centuries the City was densely populated, yet the numberless dead in the ancient churchyards are almost the only residents these days.

Christopher Wren rebuilt most of the City churches after the Great Fire upon the irregularly shaped medieval churchyards and it proved the ideal challenge to develop his eloquent vocabulary of classical architecture. Remarkably, there are a couple of churches still standing which predate the Fire while a lot of Wren’s churches were destroyed in the Blitz, but for all those that are intact, there are many of which only the tower or an elegant ruin survives to grace the churchyard. And there are also yards where nothing remains of the church, save a few lone tombstones attesting to the centuries of human activity in that place. Many of these sites offer charismatic spaces for horticulture, rendered all the more appealing in contrast to the sterile architectural landscape of the modern City that surrounds them.

I often visit St Olave’s in Mincing Lane, a rare survivor of the Fire, and when you step down from the street, it as if you have entered a country church. Samuel Pepys lived across the road in Seething Lane and was a member of the congregation here, referring to it as “our own church.” He is buried in a vault beneath the communion table and there is a spectacular gate from 1658, topped off with skulls, which he walked through to enter the secluded yard. Charles Dickens also loved this place, describing it as “my best beloved churchyard”

“It is a small small churchyard, with a ferocious, strong, spiked iron gate, like a jail. This gate is ornamented with skulls and cross-bones, larger than the life, wrought in stone … the skulls grin aloft horribly, thrust through and through with iron spears. Hence, there is attraction of repulsion for me … and, having often contemplated it in the daylight and the dark, I once felt drawn towards it in a thunderstorm at midnight.” he wrote in “The Uncommercial Traveller.”

A particular favourite of mine is the churchyard of St Dunstan’s in the East in Idol Lane. The ruins of a Wren church have been overgrown with wisteria and creepers to create a garden of magnificent romance, where almost no-one goes. You can sit here within the nave surrounded by high walls on all sides, punctuated with soaring Gothic lancet windows hung with leafy vines which filter the sunlight in place of the stained glass that once was there.

Undertaking a circuit of the City, I always include the churchyard of St Mary Aldermanbury in Love Lane with its intricate knot garden and bust of William Shakespeare, commemorating John Hemminge and Henry Condell who published the First Folio and are buried there. The yard of the bombed Christchurch Greyfriars in Newgate St is another essential port of call for me, to admire the dense border planting that occupies the space where once the congregation sat within the shell of Wren’s finely proportioned architecture. In each case, the introduction of plants to fill the space and countermand the absence in the ruins of these former churches – where the parishioners have gone long ago – has created lush gardens of rich poetry.

There are so many churchyards in the City of London that there are always new discoveries to be made by the casual visitor, however many times you return. And anyone can enjoy the privilege of solitude in these special places, you only have to have the curiosity and desire to seek them out for yourself.

In the yard of St Michael, Cornhill.

In the yard of St Dunstan’s in the East, Idol Lane.

At St Dunstan’s in the East, leafy vines filter the sunlight in place of stained glass.

In the yard of St Olave’s, Mincing Lane.

This is the gate that Samuel Pepys walked through to enter St Olave’s and of which Charles Dickens wrote in The Uncommercial Traveller – “having often contemplated it in the daylight and the dark, I once felt drawn towards it in a thunderstorm at midnight.”

Dickens described this as ““my best beloved churchyard.”

In the yard of St Michael Paternoster Royal, College St.

In the yard of St Lawrence Jewry-next-Guildhall, Gresham St.

In the yard of St Mary Aldermanbury, Love Lane, this bust of William Shakespeare commemorates John Hemminge and Henry Condell who published the First Folio and are buried here.

In the yard of London City Presbyterian Church, Aldersgate St.

In the yard of Christchurch Greyfriars, Newgate St, the dense border planting occupies the space where once the congregation sat within the shell of Wren’s finely proportioned architecture.

In the yard of the Guildhall Church of St Benet, White Lion Hill.

In St Paul’s Churchyard.

You may also like to read about

The Secret Gardens of Spitalfields

At Bow Cemetery

At St Mary’s Secret Garden

10 Responses leave one →
  1. Jim McDermott permalink
    July 10, 2017

    GA, your itinerary mirrors my former weekend jaunts almost precisely! The City is wonderfully peaceful then (which is sad too, reflecting how far commerce has supplanted human intercourse there), and its churches and churchyards are pure delights. But St Dunstan’s was one of my favourite weekday lunchtime oases also.

  2. July 10, 2017

    Thanks for showing these wonderful Churchyards, which were all places where I spent much time when I was living in London. Valerie

  3. July 10, 2017

    City churchyards text/pics today is outstanding packed with interest. I liked the piece on St Olave’s with Sam Pepys a real winner. Didn’t realize Dickens loved this churchyard too, I liked his visit trigger. Enough material must now be amassed for a new book on churchyards and their environs. With lots of famous people shown. This book would appeal to our overseas friends and fellow bloggers after all, its in away a social history of London. Poet John PS – would contribute to a start up for such a book.

  4. Helen Breen permalink
    July 10, 2017

    Greetings from Boston,

    GA, thanks for yet another great piece on London, hitting on my favorites – Wren, Shakespeare, Peyps, and Dickens. Indeed, the novelist was wont to roam the city for miles many nights while working out his intricate plots.

    Love the street names too – Mincing Lane, Seething Lane, and Love Lane among others. I can imagine how quiet the City is on weekends.

    I agree with Poet John above that the subject would lend itself to an excellent book.

  5. July 10, 2017

    Ah…….the “three graces”: Architecture, history and Mother Nature.
    You’ve taken us on a beautiful bucolic stroll this morning.
    Many thanks, as ever.

  6. pauline taylor permalink
    July 10, 2017

    There is so much potential for a book on this subject I agree but where would one begin it would be a monumental (pardon the pun) task, I think several volumes would be required. Everything about the subject fascinates me; the history and the connections with famous people, the impact of the plagues and the destruction caused by the great fire and the blitz, but most of all I enjoy the visual pleasure of the juxtaposition of all the lush greenery and stonework which always inspires the artist in me. I think if you started now this would be a lifetime’s work for you GA but regular updates would enthral your loyal readers and especially this one who has so many ancestors baptized, married and buried in so many of these churches and churchyards. When can you start?

  7. Jim McDermott permalink
    July 10, 2017

    … and may I also make an honourable mention of St Botolph’s graveyard, Aldersgate, which, although stolen from its church, still provides blessed relief to Londoners as Postmans’ Park, always shaded by the high buildings that surround it?

  8. July 10, 2017

    Inspiring piece plus photos – reminded me I should get out there when the City is quiet
    and draw – thank you

  9. July 12, 2017

    What wonderful and inspiring places are these!

    Love & Peace

  10. July 13, 2017

    A wonderful place with some less worthy additions.

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