If you find yourself in Covent Garden, which let's face it, is quite likely if you visit London ... then to the west side of the piazza is the grand entrance to a church. The church is St Paul's and upon closer inspection, you'll discover that there is no discernible way in. The rather large door, set back behind the portico is completely blocked up. The area, instead serves as a daily haunt for circus and street performers.
To understand why, involves unraveling numerous historical threads, right back to when the land was a walled garden, belonging to a Convent in which vegetables were grown for Westminster Abbey. Convent Garden, over time became Covent Garden. When Henry VIII took away land belonging to the church in the 1530's it was given to one of his advisors, John Russell, the Duke of Bedford. Almost 100 years later, the 4th Duke of Bedford decided to use the land to develop an area where the wealthy of London could reside. He enlisted the help of Inigo Jones, who fashioned an Italian style piazza (a complete anomaly in those days) to the west of which would be the church. Not wanting to waste too much money on the church, the Duke of Bedford is said to have asked Inigo Jones to provide something "not much better than a barn", to which the architect replied "Then you shall have the finest barn in England". However, tradition dictates that the Altar be placed at the east end of church, but Inigo went against convention, placing his front door there instead. The church was finally consecrated in 1638 (the first new Anglican church built in London for 100 years), but at the request of the Bishop of London, the door was blocked up, the Altar placed in its rightful place, and to this day, the back door, is the front door.
Access to St Paul's now is through a rather tranquil garden on the other side of the church, far removed from the hustle and bustle of the piazza. At night (and even during the day sometimes) you'll be greeted by an array of twinkling gas lamps, leading you up in to the church. The garden of course, was once a burial ground and in fact, during the fatal year of 1665 when 60,000 Londoners are thought to have died from the plague, the first casualty of that epidemic, was buried there. With that cheery thought you'll enter in to a church, often (and perhaps more frequently than it's actual name) referred to as 'The Actors' Church'. The building is of course slap bang in the middle of the West End or theatre land (as it is often known) and has for centuries been affiliated with actors and those working in the profession. As I have mentioned before, many churches, like St Clement Danes, (further down the Strand towards Fleet Street) have associations with particular groups of people.
The inside of St Paul's was badly damaged by a fire in 1795, but rebuilt to Jones' designs and as you wander around will undoubtedly spot numerous plaques and memorials to actors, playwrights, designers and the like who spent much of their careers entertaining either on the stage or screen. There are many, like Sir Charles Chaplin (above) who will be familiar, and many who will not, but are never-the-less remembered here inside The Actors' Church. At the front left of the church, you can see a model of a theatre, made in the 1920's and used by members of the Actors' Church Union (ACU) to illustrate talks promoting the workplace of actors and theatre staff. The talks were in effect a fundraising effort, to drum up support for a hostel the ACU ran for the children of actors away on tour.
One of the many things I like about London is the fact that you can pretty much always guarantee that there is a reason why streets, pubs and areas have their name. You've just discovered how 'Covent Garden' got its name, but this short post will also shed some light on why you approach the church via 'Inigo Place' and you have 'Bedford Street', 'Bedford Place', 'Bedford Court' and of course 'Russell Street' all in the vicinity. If you stand under the church portico and look out across the piazza, in front of you is the Punch & Judy pub. On the 9th May 1662, diarist Samuel Pepys noted that he saw on the same spot the first performance of an Italian puppet show, now known as 'Punch & Judy'. Also, if there are any fans of the musical 'My Fair Lady' out there, it derived from a play by George Bernard Shaw called 'Pygmalion', the opening of which is set under the very same portico.
St Paul's, the Actors' Church in Covent Garden is of course open for prayer, reflection and services, but they also host a massive amount of events, concerts and theatrical productions throughout the year.
It turned out to be a one day weekend, as far as walks went, as Sunday's east London walk never happened due to illness. Not my illness, but other peoples. There's always a lot of it around at this time of year and sensible to buy a bulk load of tissues and keep them within easy reach.
On Saturday morning, as we were merrily wandering along Fleet Street, we came across an even merrier band of Santas coming the other way. It is safe to say, they were all pretty drunk, as it was part of the annual SantaCon, which is effectively a massive pub crawl whereby participants get dressed up as Father Christmas or Elves and get incredibly drunk. They seemed to be succeeding in their quest.
You can see some of the old signs on buildings along Fleet Street that hark back to the streets days as the centre of the newspaper industry. On the photo above, you can see 'News Agency Ltd' to the left of the dry cleaners. The last red bricked building to the left of that, is El Vino, a wine bar and Fleet Street institution. When it was opened in 1879 by Alfred Bower it was called 'Bower & Co'. The name changed when Mr Bower decided he'd like to try and become Lord Mayor of the City of London, which meant that he had to stop trading in the City under his own name. Evidently, 'El Vino' was chosen as a replacement, and in 1924 Alfred Bower achieved his ambition, and became Lord Mayor.
In the afternoon, Triona and Martin from Dublin, returned for their second walk with me, which took us over to Bankside and Borough. Here are the group standing outside the Anchor, which although a historic pub in its own right, is incredibly popular in the summer, offering great views over the Thames.
First person to ever have his own heart thermometer - Joel
Most people from Peterborough in one group - Tim, Julie, Karl & Maxine
Most Australian - Marcus & Karen
Special Award for doing their 2nd walk - Triona & Martin
The experience of walking along a busy, bustling and noisy Fleet Street and stepping through an innocuous gate in to the quiet, calming courtyards and lanes of Temple, is (I think at least) ... rather magical. If you spend some time exploring this area, you'll find many fascinating historical trinkets but before long you'll find yourself standing in front of the 12th century Temple Church.
The church was originally built by and belonged to the Knights Templar, a monastic order of Knights that became one of the wealthiest and most powerful orders in Christendom; a fact that ultimately proved to be their undoing. The Round Church, modelled on the Church of Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem (considered the site of Christ's death, burial and rising) came first, consecrated in 1185, whilst the rectangular Chancel or 'Hall Church' came in to use in about 1240. The Chapel once formed part of a much larger compound that comprised of halls, cloisters, domestic buildings, butteries and a kitchen. The whole ensemble sat conveniently next to the medieval waterfront, as at that time, the Thames invaded inland rather more than it does today.
On a date in 1307, which is now forever associated as a day of ill fortune (Friday 13th October) the mighty Templars were finally toppled on the orders of King Philip the Fair of France. The accusations of blasphemy and heresy brought against the Templars are generally considered to be a convenient excuse for King Philip to seize the order's vast wealth and treasures, so as to pay off his own substantial debts. Either way, it marked the end for the Knights Templar, and the church was passed to the Knights Hospitallers, an order which still survives today in the form of St John Ambulance. They in turn had the land confiscated by Henry VIII during the Reformation and the church and surrounding area reverted to the Crown. For centuries now, the area nestling between Fleet Street and the Thames has accommodated the legal profession, housing two of the four Inns of Court in London; Inner Temple and Middle Temple. In the early 17th century, James I formally granted the area to 'those studying and following the profession of the laws' and even today, as part of the same arrangement, the two Inns are responsible for maintaining the church and ensuring that its priest, the Master of the Temple has a splendid mansion to live in.
The church survived largely unscathed during the Great Fire of London, but almost inevitably, succumbed to German incendiary bombs during the Blitz. On the 10th May 1941, Temple Church was struck during an attack and badly damaged. It was to be seventeen years before it was fully repaired, and despite this it is amazing to think, that aside from the pews, a few Victorian alterations and the post WWII stained glass windows, the church is much as it would have looked to the Knights Templar all those centuries ago. If you're familiar with your William Shakespeare, then there is a scene in the play 'Henry VI, part 1' which takes place in the church garden; the plucking of two roses, one red and one white, representing the War of the Roses.
More recently, the Temple Church has seen a bit of a renaissance in the interests of tourists visiting London (and perhaps why they began charging a modest fee to enter) which can probably be attributed to a visit from Tom Hanks whilst filming the film version of Dan Brown's 'The Da Vinci Code'. Either way, it's a beautiful area, an incredible church and is one of those places that often, people who have lived in London for many years don't even know exists.
There was healthy sized group last Saturday for the walk from Trafalgar Square to St Paul's including Margot and Sara who had joined the Sunday east London walk the week before. Jay was also doing her second walk, and the remainder were all first timers hailing from the States, Australia, Nottingham and the south of England. Here they all are standing on one of the streets just off Fleet Street.
On Sunday, Drew (former winner of the best new haircut award) returned to complete 'The Trilogy' before heading back to New Orleans after spending a couple of years in London. 'The Trilogy' of course refers to having done all three of my weekend walks. Unfortunately, a group of six people got the wrong starting time, so the group was mildly depleted, but included Chad & Sarah visiting from the States, Angela & Lara from Glasgow and Danielle who I think was from New York. This is them near to a pub called 'The Birdcage' which can be found at the west end of Columbia Road, which of course on Sundays is positively brimming with flowers.
Special 'I've completed The Trilogy' Award - Drew
Most vibrant shoe laces - Chad
Most people called Dennis in one group - Saturday (Dennis & Dennis)
Best moustache - No winners
Tallest - Jeff
As well as my regular weekend 'pay what you want' walks around London I do 'private walks' during the week (and sometimes on weekends too) which can pretty much entail going anywhere and doing anything. You'll see from the ones below that it's a real mix and very much depends on the people, their interests and what they'd like to see or hear about.
Below left is Margo, Linda, Maureen and Brenda in Arnold Circus, east London. Hiding amongst some telephone boxes are Jill and Jody from the States. They literally had 3 hours to kill, whilst on a layover en route to South Africa. They jumped on the tube at Heathrow, I met them in Green Park and we whizzed around Westminster taking in Buckingham Palace, Westminster Abbey, Big Ben and wot not. It was their first time in London, so I think they figured that rather sitting in an airport for a few hours, they might as well try and explore a bit. We certainly did that. I deposited them back at a tube station, and they made it back to Heathrow in time to get their next flight.
I met Mitzie, Chip and Corey down at their hotel in Waterloo and headed up in to Westminster. You can see them in China Town in the West End. Below right is Craig and Teresa from Los Angeles who I met at their hotel in Smithfield. It's a fascinating area, and the meat market which has been in the area for over 800 years is still hanging on there, whilst Covent Garden, Billingsgate and Spitalfields have all left their central London homes for the outskirts. We made our way in to the City of London and you can see them standing inside the courtyard of the beautiful Apothecaries' Hall.
I met Aneil and his son one Friday morning by Monument, so we headed over London Bridge to Southwark. Borough Market food market is full swing on Fridays and they both stopped off to get some mussels I think ... or maybe it was oysters. Finally we have Larry, Sam and Ryann from New York in Westminster, between the Abbey and the Houses of Parliament, with Big Ben in the background.
So, if you fancy doing a private weekday walk around London, do let me know. I'm very happy to suggest possible itineraries, spend just a few hours exploring a particular area, or the whole day doing what I call an 'All Day London Extravaganza'.
We rounded off November with a large group for the Saturday morning walk that was pretty much half and half English people who were either born in, or lived and worked in London and visitors from the States and New Zealand. Here they are, towards the end of the walk in an area known as the King's Wardrobe, not far from St Paul's cathedral.
We pass by lots of places of interest on this particular walk, including an old pub called 'Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese' which I eventually got round to writing about last week.
Sunday was the first day of December, and the Christmas trees were already being snapped up at Columbia Road Flower Market. There's always a great atmosphere down there in the run up to Christmas, and the many independent shops that line the street have a special late night opening on Wednesdays during December, so if you fancy looking for some choice gifts without all the busyness of the Sunday market, it's well worth a visit. They'll also be open on Saturday 21st December from 12noon until 8pm, just in case you like to leave your shopping until the last minute. It seemed only right and proper that I took the photo of Sundays group standing amongst the Christmas trees.
There were also a couple of surprise walkers on Sunday, friends of mine Anna & Kat who I wasn't expecting ... hence why it was a surprise.
Also, seeing as I only wrote about Clet Abraham and his altered street signs last week, here's another of his creations I spotted later in the day on Redchurch Street in Shoreditch.
Most Swedish Group - Sunday
Most Peruvian hat - Tony
Best moustache - No winners
Name that most rhymed with 'vermin' - Fermin
Bowl Of Chalk
Bowl Of Chalk based shenanigans.