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In City Churchyard Gardens

September 10, 2023
by the gentle author

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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

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Click here to discover more about this autumn’s blog course

3 Responses leave one →
  1. September 10, 2023

    These photographs look like they come from a set of elaborate botanical gardens. It is amazing how plants enhance the beauty of buildings. Thank you GA for an atmospheric visual wander around these historic and lesser frequented spaces.

  2. September 10, 2023

    The only thing more beautiful than stained glass……………is the tangled greenery shown here.
    After viewing these beautiful photographs, I feel refreshed and restored. What a stunning location! — GA, you always take us to the BEST places.

    Saluting your magnificent history, from here in the Hudson River Valley.
    Pip, pip!

  3. Lew Tassell permalink
    September 11, 2023

    Thank you TGA, a fascinating read that brought back many memories from my early days as a policeman in the City of London. I particularly love the churchyard at St Olave’s, also referred to as the church of St Ghastly Grim by Dickens. The church was often on my beat from Bishopsgate police station and I would enter the churchyard in the dead of night (in those trusting times when the gates were not locked) and just sit in silence and contemplate the history of where I was. The yard was used for the burial of plague victims in 1665, 357 were buried in this tiny space and I suspect that is why the yard is raised is above the level of the church entrance.

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