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Notes on the Geography of The United Kingdom: London 5: Churches

Not even Wikipedia ventures to count the churches of London. Here we look at a mere eight.

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St. Olave's Church is dedicated to the patron saint of Norway, who fought against the Danes in 1014. The present church dates to 1450 (but not the tower, which is from 1732) and so survived the Great Fire of 1666. Haakon VII worshipped here during the Second World War. So had Pepys, a few years before the fire.

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At the entrance, a verse from the Vulgate (Philippians 1:21) welcomes death as the reward for those who live in Christ. The skulls above don't make it seem too appealing.

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Two miles and one bend of the Thames to the west, St. Martin-in-the Fields, at the northeast corner of Trafalgar Square, was completed three centuries later (1726) and became the model for churches across the British Empire. The plan, steeple on portico, was by James Gibbs, and the novelty of the design was not simply the bell tower atop the portico but the portico itself, the first English church to present a classical facade. Pevsner, anticipating Obi-Wan Kenobi, writes: "Integration this procedure can hardly be called." Near copies of the church can be seen on this website in the folders for Madras, Bombay, and Meerut (India), Georgetown (Malaysia), and Tashkent (Uzbekistan).

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Seen from the east.

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Forget the huge Wallbrook Building, alias Darth Vader's Helmet. (It was designed by Lord Foster and became perhaps most famous for its protracted inability to attract a tenant after its completion in 2010.) Instead consider the Church of St. Stephen Wallbrook, designed by Christopher Wren and built just after the Great Fire to replace a previous church. Pevsner calls it "the most majestic of his parish churches." The building has always been squeezed by its neighbors. Pevsner writes that its "present exterior with its rough masonry and brickwork hardly hints at the grandiose interior" (1:260).

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A model of the church. The tower, Pevsner writes, "seems additional." In fact it was added later, about 1715.

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The interior disrupts cruciform simplicity with a spectacular dome resting not on massive piers but on slim columns, four sets of three each, arranged to help retain a sense of the cruciform plan.

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The layout has become especially confusing because the table-like traverine altar blocks the axis of the nave; behind it is the dark pulpit.

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You have to look up to the entablature to be reminded of the geometry of nave and crossing.

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This is All Soul's, built at the head of Regent Street by John Nash in 1824. He wanted to run Regent Street as straight as possible from Piccadilly to Regent's Park but couldn't get the land, so he bent the street here and continued it north as Portland Place. A member of parliament stood up to say that passersby were confessing that they "would give a trifle to have this church pulled down." The press jumped on, with one cartoon captioned "Nashional Taste!!!" It showed Nash sitting impaled on its wicked-sharp spire. In The Architecture of John Nash (1960), Terence Davis is much kinder. He writes (p. 89) that All Souls' "was the target of every form of lampoon, cartoon and public derision. It was, in fact, a brilliant solution to the problem of how to marry the north end of Regent Street to the south end of Portland Place further to the northwest. The round steeple and portico form the perfect link, and the main body of the church is cunningly tucked away, unseen from the main vistas." The ocean liner behind it is the BBC's Broadcasting House.

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A bit less than a mile to the west, this is St. Mary's Church, also from 1824. This is a so-called Commissioner's Church, funded in part by a grant from Parliament in 1818. The church-building act of that year provided a million pounds for assistance in the construction of 100 churches scattered across a country that was rapidly urbanizing and at risk of a political upheaval that might be countered by a dose of theological tonic. (An additional half-million pounds was added a few years later and was scattered among 500 more.) The design in this case was by Robert Smirke, best known for the facade of the British Museum. The Commission was dissolved in 1857; by then Smirke had designed two other London churches with its help.

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A more controversial church, St. Pancras New Church makes a religion out of classical Greece not in the church proper, designed by William Inwood, but in the apse designed by his son, who on a visit to Athens had been smitten. He wasn't the only one, of course: two decades before the church was consecrated in 1822, Lord Elgin lifted the Parthenon marbles. But company isn't absolution, and the figures were said to have significantly advanced London's Gothic Revival. A good thing? Pevsner reports that Pugin, the great advocate of Gothic, stormed about, "resenting the whole church ferociously" (4:349). (Close as the copies are to the caryatids of the Erechtheum, a few details were added, such as the inverted torches to symbolize mortality. Unlike the originals, too, these figures are of terracotta and have iron cores.)

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Modest alongside its neighbor, St. Margaret Westminster was built between 1482 and 1523, though only faced with stone in the 18th and 19th centuries.

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Like so many of England's churches, this one, too, was restored by the Victorian hand of George Gilbert Scott.

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Its neighbor. Westminster abbey is especially important as both a coronation church and a royal mausoleum, an English equivalent of Reims Cathedral combined with St. Denis. The church was begun in 1245 and reflects Henry III's fondness for things French. The towers date only to the 1730s and 40s, however, and were begun by a pupil of Christopher Wren. Wren wrote that to deviate from the existing style "would be to run into a Disagreeable Mixture, which no Person of good Taste could relish" (6:115). Work on the exterior has continued ever since, with the result, in the words of one man charged with the work a century ago, that it had been "so completely recased that to describe it will be to describe a series of modern works." (William Richard Lethaby, Westminster Abbey and the King's Craftsmen..., 1906, p.1.)

We're not going inside. When churches (or national monuments) charge to enter, you know that the spirit that moved their builders has flown the coop.

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Half a mile to the southwest and only 300 meters from Victoria Station, London's Roman Catholic Westminster Cathedral is free, a great relief after the exorbitant charge levied for Westminster Abbey. Begun late in the 19th century and therefore bereft of the historical load Westminster Abbey had to carry, this church compensates by expressing a remarkably strong faith in a century and country otherwise pretty short of it.

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The architect was John Francis Bentley, judged by Pevsner to be the leading Catholic architect of late 19th century Britain. Speaking of this church, Pevsner calls it "his greatest building by far" (6:673). For Norman Shaw, this was "the finest church that has been built for centuries." The tower, at 284 feet, seems higher than St. Paul's, which at 365 is actually much higher.

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The base is granite, above which red brick is laced with bands of Portland stone, a limestone from Dorset. The domes are concrete, the copper added in 1948. Before he died in 1902, Bentley saw the church complete except for the tower. Had he lived longer he might have got the second tower he hoped to build.

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The interior recalls Hagia Sophia, which Bentley never saw. He did visit S. Vitale in Ravenna, and he wrote that it, along with Hagia Sophia by Lethaby and Swainson, "really told me all I wanted." Bentley intended to cover the interior with mosaics above a marble base. A century on, the marble is in place but the mosaic work has barely begun.

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Several chapels hint at what might be done. This is the Chapel of St Gregory and St. Augustine. In the central panels Augustine stands in a papal gown next to Gregory in the dress of a Benedictine monk. Hanging from the roof is the red galero or broad-brimmed hat worn by the late Basil Cardinal Hume, himself a Benedictine. It nearly blocks an image of Gregory commanding Augustine to take the gospel to the Angles.

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The same chapel is kind enough to label St. Cuthbert, the reluctant bishop of Lindisfarne; he is conventionally shown carrying the head of Oswald of Northumbria.

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The Chapel of St. Andrew, added om 1915.

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Andrew is associated with six towns including Constantinople, of which he is traditionally considered the first bishop. Because Andrew was martyred in the first century, the image of Hagia Sophia is as good an anachronism as you're likely to find this side of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar.

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Finally St. Paul's, approached here on Watling Street, once an important road leading to Ludgate, the western gate of Roman London.

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Domes often have two shells separated by a hollow space. Uniquely, St. Paul's has three, the third being conical and entirely hidden from view. Its purpose: to support the heavy stone lantern.

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All the more remarkably, this was probably the first dome built in London.

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The view from the northwest. The column in Paternoster Square is new, from 2008.

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The view from the west. An even larger church--longer and higher--had burned in the fire of 1666. Wren worked quickly, completing its replacement in 1710. Funding? The church was mostly paid for by a tax on coal entering the city.

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The front door.

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The choir.

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The inner dome.

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The nave seen from the whispering gallery around the base of the dome.

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The view up from that gallery.

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The route up goes between shells.

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Another view.

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From the top, looking west.

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Looking down to Paternoster Square. The white building is the London Stock Exchange.

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The view north to the three towers of the Barbican Estate, London's first experiment with highrise apartments.

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One New Change claims to be the only shopping center in the City of London proper. Architect: Jean Nouvel. Nickname: The Stealth Bomber. Once again the British strike home. No wonder: it's their language.

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Still looking east but this time toward the skyline, distinguished by the Gherkin or St. Mary Axe building about 3/4 of a mile away. To the left, with the mast, is the Heron Tower; between it and the Gherkin is the tri-level Tower 42, suffering for lack of a nickname.

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To the southeast, the Shard rises in gloom. Dare we venture another name for it: the Dalek?

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The statue is of Queen Anne and was executed by Francis Bird, who also carved the pediment sculpture.

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Behind her back, an Occupy London protester rallies the troops.

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A small group take up residence.

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Home away from home.

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It's in black and white.


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