City residential church towers

Fancy living in an old church tower? The towers that have been converted into homes must surely be amongst some of London’s most unusual residential options. The City’s churches have taken quite a battering over the years – once numbering over a hundred, 35 were lost in the Great Fire of 1666, while many of those which were painstakingly rebuilt afterwards were again damaged or destroyed during the Blitz. In between these two catastrophic events, yet more were demolished from the late eighteenth century onwards. The towers of a number of these lost churches were saved and put to new uses – while the conversions into commercial premises are more obvious, some have also been turned into rather intriguing private residences.

Christchurch Greyfriairs on Newgate Street (above) was damaged in the Great Fire and rebuilt by Wren between 1684 and 1704, only to be destroyed during the Blitz. Luckily the tower survived and was restored in 1960, along with the urns that now grace it which had been removed in the nineteenth century. The area that was once part of the body of the church is now a garden, which has been planted to follow the lines of its original layout, pews and pillars. The rebuilt Vestry House adjoining the tower is now a dental practice, while the tower is indeed somebody’s home (with the rather flashy front door at the top of this post) – you can see their dining area from the garden.

No doubt visitors to Wood Street over the years have pondered exactly why there is a lone church tower standing in splendid isolation in what is now the middle of a traffic island (directly across from the police station, you can’t miss it!). St Alban Wood Street (pictured above and below) was also rebuilt by Wren after the Great Fire – sadly it was destroyed on a single night during the Blitz, 29th of December 1940. Wren’s gothic-style tower survived – a glance through its doors reveals an entry foyer (when the wooden doors aren’t locked) and old stairs leading to the residence above.

I’ve heard that the tower of St Mary Somerset on Upper Thames Street is also somebody’s home, but I’m not so sure. It looks pretty desolate and boarded up to me. Another church that Wren rebuilt after the devastating fire of 1666, St Mary’s was not a victim of the Blitz. Instead it was scheduled to be demolished in the nineteenth century as it was deemed no longer necessary due to low attendance rates. Fortunately someone recognised the beauty of Wren’s wonderfully intricate Baroque pinnacles (seen below) and the tower was saved. The good news is that there appears to be some work being done on it – so maybe there could be some vacancies coming up…

If you’d like to discover more about the City’s lost churches try Gordon Huelin’s book Vanished Churches of the City of London (available at the Guildhall Library for only £5), which lists 69 vanished churches in total.

St Mary Somerset

Christchurch Greyfriars


Written in Soap

When Londonist wrote about the soap sculpture in Cavendish Square last week I knew this was something I had to see for myself. Much like the structure featured in last week’s post, Paleys upon Pilers, Meekyoung Shin’s soap sculpture is a temporary addition to London’s streetscape, which is part art installation, part historical reference.

This soap scultpure of the Duke of Cumberland, which launched on 24 July, replaces the one originally installed in 1770 then removed in 1868 when the subject became increasingly unpopular. While the fate of the original statue is unknown, the stone plinth has stood empty ever since in the middle of Cavendish Square, just behind Oxford Circus.

While Shin’s work is indeed made of (vegetable-based) soaps it does include a metal skeletal armature attached to the base on which it stands to hold the sculpture upright. The piece was intended to be as close as possible to the original, based on existing sketches – although the exact dimensions remain unknown it was created to fit the proportions of the plinth. Intriguingly there are no signs in the square about its latest addition, so I can only guess that the casual visitor would assume it was an ordinary statue.

Shin’s work has much to say about the changeable nature of art, monuments and history – she is particularly interested in the way that history is drawn (and re-drawn and erased) on the urban landscape. The sculpture will remain in Cavendish Square for one year – and it’s anyone’s guess how it will endure the four seasons. I plan to revisit it over this time and will update you on how it is progressing.

Paleys upon Pilers

Next time you find yourself in the vicinity of Aldgate tube station take a moment to investigate this intricate wooden structure floating above the streets. This marks the location of the City wall’s easternmost gate – Aldgate. The original gate once included a small house above it, which was home to the poet Geoffrey Chaucer from 1374 to 1386.

This new structure – named Paleys upon Pilers (meaning ‘palace on pillars’) was designed by architects Studio Weave. They also took inspiration from Chaucer’s two dream poems, featuring elevated temples, which he wrote while living above the old gate.

The timber – which references the wood used in the old houses of the area – is described by the designers as a kind of ‘timber embroidery’ and it is indeed beautifully intricate. The painted pillars supporting the structure were inspired by designs found in the illuminated manuscripts, and have been gilded with Dutch gold leaf.

Don’t miss the wooden owl – nicknamed Geoffrey – who perches silently in the eaves. Part architectural installation, part historical reference, Paleys upon Pilers is a welcome addition to London’s architecture, and creates fascinating juxtapositions with the various buildings surrounding it. The good news is that although it formed part of the London Festival of Architecture 2012, it is now expected to stay much longer than the three month period originally intended. It can be found very close to Aldgate station, near St Botolph’s church.

Fulham Palace

You know that a residence is very old when it has ‘est 704’ in its logo. In fact, although the earliest written evidence for Fulham Palace dates from 704 it was acquired by a bishop around 700 and the site has evidence of occupation dating back much longer than that, with Neolithic, Iron Age and Roman artefacts uncovered here. Originally the country home for the Bishop of London, the Palace later became their main abode – the last bishop to live here was Bishop Stopford, who moved out in 1973.

Today Fulham Palace is open to the public and you can wander around a number of rooms at your leisure, including the Great Hall (circa 1495), which was re-panelled in the 19th century from recycled materials including an old communion rail. Or you can have lunch in the cafe that was once Bishop Howley’s Georgian drawing room. There is also a small museum covering the history of Fulham Palace. The moat (now dry) that encircles the property was once the longest domestic moat in England. Both the Palace and the grounds have been altered over the years by the different bishops in residence, who have left their various marks upon it.

Fulham Palace is understandably excited about recent happenings in its walled garden, originally landscaped in its current form by Bishop Terrick (1764-1777), although the Tudor entranceway (pictured below) signifies an older version. It is currently being restored and was re-opened to the public on the 27th of May. The restoration is still in progress, giving visitors the opportunity to see a partial ‘before’ picture. Bishop Blomfield’s knot garden – planted in the colours of his own coat of arms and replicating his original 1831 design – is complete and a new greenhouse has been built on the exact footprint of the original. Bee boles – holes along the outside of the walls once used to attract bees, not only for their honey but to pollinate the walled garden’s fruit trees – have just been uncovered after being bricked up for over a century.

I don’t know about you, but when I hear about an archaeological dig I tend to think about bones and dead bodies. However, the purpose of the archaeological dig currently taking place in the walled garden is to uncover remnants of previous garden design, so as to inform plans for the restoration. They are seeking hints and patterns of previous planting, formal beds, paths, statuary and the like. As well as a girl guide’s badge (from the days when lunches for guides where hosted here), they have also uncovered Victorian plant labels, children’s toys and buttons from the clothing worn by former gardeners. The dig has been a community one, with volunteers joining in from the local area and schools.

The dig has recently been extended until the 10th of August, so you’ve still got time to join in if you’re interested. Fulham Palace also offers historical walks and garden tours, check their website for details:  These are £5 per person, but admission to the Palace and its grounds is free. The closest tube is Putney Bridge on the District line.