St Bride’s Church – arguably best known for its wedding cake spire – is a place brimming with history – and even a rather gruesome surprise or two. There have been eight places of worship (the earliest dating from Roman times) in total on St Bride’s Fleet Street site – a location that has also made it the journalists’ church of choice; today it features an altar to fallen reporters. But 1,000 years of its history was hidden away underground until the Blitz unearthed St Bride’s secrets.
St Bride’s was amongst a number of City churches that were destroyed in the 1666 Great Fire and rebuilt by Wren only to be destroyed again during the Second World War. But these bombs did indeed have a silver lining of sorts, as they exposed the crypts that had long lain beneath the church. Sealed up after parliament decreed there were to be no more burials in the City, this underground area was revealed to contain seven crypts, a medieval chapel, two charnel houses, and loads of bodies – many dating from the Great Plague of 1665 and the 1854 cholera epidemic.
You can visit St Bride’s and most of its crypts any day of the week, but to get the full picture of its history – and full access to its underground areas – take one of their regular guided tours. These 1.5 hour tours are the only way to access St Bride’s rather ghoulish – and absolutely fascinating – charnel house and ossuary. A narrow passage past a rather prosaic kitchen and storage area leads you to these unusual last resting places.
The medieval charnel house (pictured above) features literally piles of bones buried on top of one another in an unusual chequerboard pattern – and I’m told it goes much deeper than what is currently visible. The ossuary is decidedly more organised and contains the remains of 227 individuals all neatly packed away in numbered cardboard boxes. The bones were identified by their coffin plates – some of which can also be seen in the ossuary. Names and other data, such as cause of death, have been systematically recorded, along with drawings of each bone.
I managed to catch the last tour for 2012, but they start up again on Tuesday 8th January, and then run each fortnight at 3pm, £6 each. You can book in advance on 020 7427 0133 or firstname.lastname@example.org or just turn up on the day.
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.