(Thursday 18 August 2016)
This is part of the City where ancient and very modern just about rub along ok, sometimes almost literally! I’m so close to gardens I’ve visited before: Postman’s Park, St Pauls, St Alphage and Finsbury Circus are each less than 5 minutes away. The map here is littered with these little green fragments, almost as though the occupants of this area of high rise, high finance and high flyers, more than most, need regular grounding!
It’s warm and bright and breezy. Perfect conditions for drawing. So today I’m feeling ambitious and aim to tackle three gardens, all on the footprints of ruined churches. They’re so close that you could comfortably hold your breath while walking from one to the other. I don’t do that though.
But exactly 350 years ago you’d probably want to! If you were winding your way through the waste ridden and filthy narrow streets of this part of London in the heatwave of August 1666, the air would be ripe and malodorous and full of flies. But in just over a fortnight, and less than a mile away, a small bakery fire was to get out of control, fanned into the thundering inferno of the Great Fire, and funnelled ever closer towards these alleys, fuelled by the tinder dry timber and thatch houses. You and your family would be forced to take flight, clutching the few possessions you could manage, towards what you hoped would be the sanctuary of one of the three nearby stone churches of St Mary Aldermanbury, St Mary Staining or St Olave Silver Street. But very soon you’d have to flee again, as these havens were also threatened. A desperate dash towards the staunch firebreak of London Wall, joining the panicking throng trying to squeeze through Cripplegate. Maybe abandoning precious belongings so you could protect your children from the worst of the choking smoke and showers of burning embers. And looking just to the south: a great plume of leaping flame and sparks from the tower and roofs of St Paul’s Cathedral. What hope then for these small parish churches.
St Mary Aldermanbury
I stand in the shade of a robinia tree, a flame of golden green, in a corner of this comfortable retreat of just under 2 acres. Hedges, shrubs, herbaceous planted beds, a parched, well- used lawn and enclosed seating areas on different levels. The ancient stone pillar footings, now used as picnic tables, seating or backrests for relaxing and lunching office workers: an ever- changing, munching congregation. The cooling breeze brings spiced and pungent aromas of at least 30 diverse lunches to my nostrils. And the mix of scrunches, crackles and rustles of food wrappers to my ears.
This ground is where a Roman amphitheatre once stood, the largest in the land (you can still see remains of it in the nearby Guildhall Art Gallery basement
). Over the centuries, this became established as a major gathering place; probably why the Guildhall
(the administrative centre of the City of London for over 800 years)
was originally sited here in Saxon times. The church of St Mary Aldermanbury was built next to the Guildhall in 1437. After its destruction in the Great Fire, it was rebuilt in Portland stone by Christopher Wren
, but fire-gutted once again during the Blitz
on the night of 29/30 December 1940. It was not rebuilt (although its stones were transported across the Atlantic in 1966 by the residents of Fulton, Missouri to build a replica of the church)
A plaque on the garden wall reads ‘Aldermanbury Conduit stood in this street providing free water 1471 – 18th century’.
This was a branch of The Great Conduit
: a system of lead pipes
which channelled fresh water from a spring near Tyburn village. Local streams and rivers were becoming increasingly contaminated as the City’s population grew. Much of this pipework melted during the Great Fire and proved too costly to replace.
The breeze ruffles the newspapers of bench occupants in the upper terrace area, surrounding a pink granite monument to Henry Condell
and John Heminges
, who lived in this parish. They were the first publishers of Shakespeare
‘s plays, and actors / partners in the Globe Theatre
(It’s known that Shakespeare wasn’t bothered much about publishing his writing. One of the plaques reads: “What they did was priceless, for the whole of his manuscripts, with almost all of those of the dramas of the period have perished”
). The monument is topped with a bust of Shakespeare, sunlight glinting from shiny bald head.
St. Mary Staining
A minute’s walk down Love Lane and through the square tunnel of St Alban’s Court under the 100 Wood Lane office building and out into this intimate space enclosed
by the towering semicircle of steel and bluegreen glass around two sides, and the brick solidity of the 1950s Pewterer’s Hall
along the west edge opposite. I can’t believe this overshadowed little garden (less than tenth of an acre!
) ever receives sunlight! One great plane tree is all it can support, along with evergreen shrubs, a fatsia, laurels. And a bed of hydrangeas and amaryllis. I find a spot in the flowerbed by the entrance steps to set my easel so I can get the best possible view across the garden.
In 1189 there is a reference to the church here as ‘Ecclesia de Staningehage’
. This roughly translates as ‘church under the control of Staines
‘; it is thought that this church was attached to an area here which was owned and administered from Staines, possibly as temporary compound and storage for crops and livestock being
moved to market. In 1278 a murder took place here when Richard de Codeford, accused of robbery, took refuge in the church and speared his pursuers with a lance through a hole in the window.
After the Great Fire in 1666, the church was never rebuilt, but the space kept as a churchyard.
This isn’t nearly as busy the other St Mary. A few people come and go. Workmen eating and smoking, chatting and laughing. One is lounging on the grass and talking on his phone. The breeze is picking up and I have to hold my sketchbook down. I can hear the clattering of a drink can being blown around in circles, echoing from wall to wall. Three official looking men in suits carry huge bobbing bags of metallic red balloons up Staining Lane and into the office building opposite.
St. Olave, Silver Street
Only another minute or so up to the top of Noble Street (Silver street no longer exists, wiped out in the massive redevelopment of this area after the 2nd World War
), and the garden of St Olave, on the edge of the frantic thoroughfare of London Wall. The original church was dedicated to St Olaf
, a Norwegian Christian ally of the English king Ethelred II