Wednesday, September 15, 2010

The Churches of London

I was on a business trip overseas this last week, and had Saturday to spend in London. This is always a pleasure; I lived in England for 4 years, and being a theatre buff, I spent lots of time in London's West End. So it always feels familiar, and I love wandering the city streets.

One of the things I learned, living there, is that when your feet are sore and you don't feel like having a coffee or a beer, the churches of the West End offer a tranquil place for a respite. Most tourists never get beyond St Paul's Cathedral or Westminster Abbey, but there are a number of lovely little churches that are well worth the visit, and some time spent in contemplation. All are within walking distance of one another.

My absolutely favorite (being a theatre buff) is St Paul's, Covent Garden. This church, called the Actor's Church, is lined inside with plaques commemorating actors and performers including the likes of Vivian Leigh and Noel Coward. This church provides the big portico over the west end of the Covent Garden plaza, but you can't get in that way; the entrance is through a narrow passage and a garden on a side street, and so few people find their way inside. The story goes that the architect Inigo Jones was advised that the patron of the church didn't want to pay for any more than a barn. "Then he will have the finest barn in Europe", retorted Jones, and the interior is indeed lovely. The church dates from 1638. On Saturday, I walked around inside reading the familiar plaques (like visiting old friends) and then sat for a bit, enjoying the peace. Curled up on a chair next to the chancel slept a small tabby cat, who clearly is Kitten Residentiary.

St Martin in the Fields (1721) is right on Trafalgar Square. Its spire and Georgian elegance make a famous image. Inside, it is also stunning, with a breathtakingly elaborate period ceiling. St Martin's is noted for the music program, and hosts many concerts. The crypt underneath has low, dark brick arches that are very earthy compared to the elegance above. Remarkably, the crypt has been converted into a cafe, which turns out to be a good stop for a bite. Also good if you need the restroom, a practical need of tourists!

Two churches along the Strand are often neglected by visitors. Tiny St Mary le Strand (1723) is the sole occupant of a traffic island. St Mary's is like a little jewel compared to the much larger, grander St Martin's, but clearly in the same style. And indeed, it was built by James Gibbs, the architect of St Martin's. There's seldom anyone in St Mary's, and it is a wonderfully serene and tranquil space for a moment apart.

A short walk east is St Clement Danes, built in 1682 by Christopher Wren (who also built St Paul's Cathedral--the London Cathedral, that is! ;-). It's the Royal Air Force Church, because that service raised the funds to restore it after it was nearly destroyed by bombing in 1941. Inside, there are memorials to the RAF and numerous donations and momentos. If you have an interest in WWII history, this is a worthy place to visit for that reason too.

Finally, if our own music program has inspired you, consider a visit to Westminster Abbey as a worshipper, rather than a tourist. Rather than paying for admission and wandering around in the chaos of a gazillion noisy tourists, you can sit and experience what the Abbey was built for. The Abbey closes every afternoon to tourists, but you can just turn up and tell them at the gate that you are there for the evensong service and they will let you in. It took 300 years to build it (from around 1245 to 1517) and there is nothing like the sound of the men's and boys' voices in that vast space, curling up into the stone tracery of the highest Gothic nave in England.

Last Saturday's evensong included music by Gibbons, Byrd, Howells, and a lovely anthem by Bruckner. The afternoon sunlight slanted through the stained glass windows and the stone glowed. It wasn't until later that day that I realized it had been the anniversary of 9-11. On the whole, it was the appropriate place for it.

Susan Forsburg, who is always happy to talk about London

Pictures from Wikipedia

1 comment:

Grandmère Mimi said...

Lovely post, Susan. St Martin in the Fields is one of my most favorite London churches, and I've been to a service at St Mary le Strand which is very much worth a visit.