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.
Bowl Of Chalk
Bowl Of Chalk based shenanigans.