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In City Of London Churchyards

May 25, 2019
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

13 Responses leave one →
  1. Susan Levinson permalink
    May 25, 2019

    Lovely photos!

    We’ll be back in London for nine days as of June 2, and – as always – we’re eagerly awaiting long walks through our favorite city in Europe.

  2. Jill Wilson permalink
    May 25, 2019

    Snap! I love these City churchyards and remember the joy of discovering St Dunstan’s in the East when I was having a mooch around the back streets one day. It is an oasis of calm, and a wonderful place to stop and have a ponder.

    There are several church yards I haven’t come across yet and so I look forward to sussing them out in the future. Thank goodness they have survived, especially when you think of what the ground they are built on must be worth.

    And snaps – fabulous photos again, especially the one with the shaft of holy light!

  3. May 25, 2019

    I think St. Dunstan and Saint Olave are my favorites, but the pond at St Lawrence Jewry is lovely and Christchurch Greyfriars is certainly worth seeing. Beautiful spots. Thank you.

  4. Michael Irwin permalink
    May 25, 2019

    What a beguiling stroll. As so often you’re offering a kind of of local, private pleasure that simply isn’t seen in our public media. Thank you.

  5. May 25, 2019

    Absolutely beautiful photos of havens of peace and solitude where one can go and listen to ones thoughts. Thank You.!
    Just one observation regarding Charles Dickens. Perhaps if he were alive today he would be a film director known for being “Just that bit better than Alfred Hitchcock”

  6. Helen Breen permalink
    May 25, 2019

    Greetings from Boston,

    GA, what a lovely photo-essay of your favorite churchyards in the City of London laced with spring blooms against the stone tracery of ancient places of worship. Made rich with mention of Shakespeare, Pepys, Dickens, and Wren who trod these pathways centuries ago.

    May they continue to be preserved amidst the continual “urban renewal” of the city’s landscape.

    Missing London today …

  7. Eric Forward permalink
    May 25, 2019

    Great post and you’ve just given me inspiration for a number of walks in the coming weeks. As big & busy as London is, there are these little pockets you sometimes stumble across. It’s like time has stood still and you could just for a short time forget you are actually in a city. These look like those sort of places to me.

  8. gkbowood permalink
    May 25, 2019

    Did you happen to wander over to that electric blue plant in the background of Greyfriars, Newgate St.? It is growing beneath that pink clematis …what a great burst of color it offers!! Do you know what plant it is? Thanks for the relaxing stroll- very refreshing to see all that green!

  9. May 25, 2019

    A peaceful meander around some enchanting places……hidden gems amidst the hustle and bustle of city life. Thank you GA.
    St Olave’s is a favourite of mine.

  10. May 26, 2019

    GA – These photos are excellent and capture beautifully the serenity and beauty of these graveyards, which unfortunately I have never seen nor will I see in the future. I live in Australia and the years lay heavy upon me and the ‘plane trip is long an tiring. When I was a little girl I always enjoyed visiting the graveyards in my home town. I would sit for hours in the company of those long gone. As I grew older I would take a book of poetry with me. I love Keats. His work always seemed appropriate in such a genteel atmosphere. Your photos have captured that memory for me and I thank you for it.

  11. Alison permalink
    May 29, 2019

    A wonderful post, and fantastic photos. I share your love for the City churchyards, and visit them often. The lovely garden at St. Dunstan’s in the East may be my absolutely favorite place in London.

  12. Barbara Barrington permalink
    September 11, 2022

    Thank you so very much for every single one of the Spitalfields life articles over the years. They are so very good and informative and make me regret that I did not take even more interest in the City during all the years that I worked there. I want so much to be able to come to London one of these days in the future and remind myself of all the wonders that I took for granted; well at least those I breezed over, and perhaps make a monthly date to meander.
    Thank you very much once again.

  13. September 6, 2023

    Hello from Manchester. Wonderful pictures and information. Highgate cemetery has always been on my list and todays email led me to all your other posts. I shall start from the very beginning and get that train booked!

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