St Bride’s Church

IMG_8276

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.

IMG_7663

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.

IMG_8304

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.

IMG_7674

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 info@stbrides.com or just turn up on the day.

http://www.stbrides.com/visit/guided-tours.php

IMG_7680

Advertisements

Magpie Alley Crypt

Next time you find yourself in Fleet Street why not take a cheeky detour along Magpie Alley? This little lane not only commemorates the area’s history but contains a hidden surprise for visitors in the form of a late 14th century crypt.

A wall of illustrations, photos and text along the alley celebrates the area’s long association with the printing and newspaper industries. These flourished here for centuries, starting with the early printing presses (circa 1500), right up until the late 1980s when the last newspapers left in search of cheaper rents.

Venture to the end of the alley and down the flight of stairs directly in front of you and you will find the remains of the crypt – imprisoned behind glass in the basement of a law firm. This site was home to the Carmelite Order of the White Friars since 1253. Their domain once stretched from Fleet Street to the Thames, and at one time included a church, cloisters, cemetery and garden. After Henry VIII disbanded the priory in the mid-16th century and gifted the land to his doctor the buildings deteriorated, with the crypt at one stage having the rather unglamorous function of a coal cellar.

The crypt’s remains were re-discovered in 1895 during construction, and it was restored in the 1920s. It was originally located on the eastern side of the site but was moved to its present location – balanced on a concrete raft – when it found itself on the wrong side of re-development in the late 1980s after the newspapers’ exodus.

Magpie Alley is not searchable on Google maps – adding to its secretive nature – but can be found off the eastern side of Bouverie Street, towards the Fleet Street end. The ‘lantern’ you will see if you look through the crypt’s arch burns day and night.