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London: A Pilgrimage

Updated: Apr 4, 2020

A #YearofPilgrimage day combining the British Pilgrimge Trust's two routes through the nation's capital: history, faith and culture.

St Ethelreda's RC Church, Ely Place

London, as even a cursory glance at the map could tell you, has dozens of churches. There are more churches in London's boroughs than might seem strictly necessary in so small a space, and around twenty cathedrals (of differing denominations).

The city has been a hub of religious, economic, cultural and political activity for centuries, so unsurprisingly the streets are paved with historical names and events. Coupled with an abundance of churches and holy sites, London is an almost irresistible focus for travel and discovery.

My Route

The British Pilgrimage Trust, possibly having decided that London is simply too big for one route alone, have put together two pilgrimage routes for the capital, each with a different emphasis.

The 8-mile London Martyr's Way, or the Way of Tolerance and Strength, passes various sites associated with those who have suffered and often died for their faith or beliefs (and the route is non-denominational). It's a route dedicated to remembrance, tolerance and an abhorrence of persecution, which winds up at the former gallows on Tyburn Hill.

Then there's the 5-mile London Royal Route, or Sovereign Line, which roughly follows the procession route used for royal coronations, stopping off at landmarks along the way. This one is more celebratory than sombre, and takes in both St Paul's Cathedral and Westminster Abbey, with their many commemorations of the great and good of British history.

These modern pilgrimages aren't tied down to one denomination of Christianity, or even one religion. Instead, they are explorations of a capital city that has often been in turmoil and which can be seen as a microcosm of the nation at large.

Sensibly, with all that ground to cover, both routes start from within the city itself; specifically, at the Tower of London.

Always being one to kill two birds with one stone where possible, I decided to combine the two routes and take my personal highlights from them both. A pilgrimage should be a meaningful journey, and I wanted to favour locations that had a more personal significance for me. The intention I'd set for the journey was to explore and visit sites significant to London's history (often easily confused with British history, though it's worth noting they aren't the same thing), but that also resonated in some way with me.

Plus, I was travelling in from Oxford (yesterday's destination), so didn't have a lot of time to include the six or so miles of walking as well as fully appreciate the sites I was visiting – and even though I thought I'd started out fairly early, two churches had closed before I got to them (sorry, St Giles-in-the-Fields and Temple Church, maybe next time!).

My combined route skipped the lengthy excursion to Tyburn, and largely followed the Sovereign Line, ending up at Westminster Abbey, with a few of the sites from the Martyr's Way. It came to around six miles, which was plenty for me, the day after my trek to Oxford.

The Tower

The Tower of London, from Tower Hill Underground station

That both of these routes start at the Tower is a salutary reminder that these modern pilgrimages aren't tied down to one denomination of Christianity, or even one religion. Instead, they are explorations of a capital city that has often been in turmoil and which can be seen as a microcosm of the nation at large.

Built by William the Conqueror as a means of establishing some authority over the City of London, the Tower has historical roots reaching back almost to the earliest days of what we now call England, and has been a nexus of political power in that time. Not only has the Tower's accommodation been used to prepare monarchs before their elevation to supreme power, but it has also been a most effective and fatal means of containing and destroying enemies of those same monarchs. Well-known incarcerated residents include rivals for the throne (like the Princes in the Tower), and opponents of religious change (like Sir (later Saint) Thomas More).[1]

This two-fold background makes the Tower an ideal starting-point for a pilgrimage focused on London's history and effect on the wider nation, and a good place to begin paying respects to that history and the individuals within it. Indeed, much of the Martyr's Way is about paying respect to victims of intolerance (whether Catholic, Protestant, or politically dissident), many of whom don't have a clearly marked grave where well-wishers might otherwise assemble. That non-denominational focus makes the pilgrimage that much more palatable to the non-religious.

Its long and varied history makes the Tower of London worth a visit in its own right, and I didn't make one on this occasion – so let's move on. Here's a run-down of some of the places I visited along the route. Some of them will appear in their own posts later on.

Sites Along the Way

It seemed something was happening in every one of the London churches I visited. For some reason, I'd been expecting them all to be oases of calm in the midst of the city's turmoil – places of peace and sanctuary from hectic urban life. But they were far from quiet, and some were far from tranquil too.

St Olave's on Hart Street

I arrived at the first stop, St Olave's on Hart Street, to find the place in the middle of warming-up for one of their regular lunchtime recitals. That made it a bit difficult to reflect quietly before the journey ahead, or to generally look around – which is a shame, because the Atlas Obscura website describes St Olave's as 'history as a kind of layer cake, boom piled on bust, war piled on plague,' and that sounds too good to miss![2]

The main attraction of St Olave's, for me, was the connection with Samuel Pepys, whose diaries are a major source of our knowledge of Restoration London. He's buried in this church, opposite what was the Navy Office, his workplace for many years. There's a garden there now (the old Navy Office was destroyed by fire – not that fire – in the 1670s), but the story goes that Pepys had a covered walkway constructed so that he could get to St Olave's in the rain and stay dry. The doorway (now bricked-up) to the church has a more recent memorial to Pepys.

It seems to me that a man in charge of the Navy shouldn't be so frightened of getting wet.

At All Hallows-by-the-Tower, people were putting up some sort of cloth screen that ran around the seating and smacked of a performance space. Whatever it was, they were noisy about assembling it. The museum in the crypt was the quietest part of the building.

Down in that crypt there are a few interesting bits and pieces, though, including a section of Roman pavement, models of Roman Londinium and the 1797 marriage register featuring John Quincy Adams, 6th President of the United States. The crypt's entrance is next to an archway that supposedly formed part of a Saxon church built on this site and underlying All Hallows' claim to be the oldest church in the City of London.

Many of the City's churches, if they survived the Great Fire of 1666, were heavily damaged during bombing raids in the Blitz, so having a church that has survived both is something to shout about. St Olave's also made it broadly intact through both events (though the interior was gutted by firebombs).

There's plenty more to be said about All Hallows, so maybe I'll write a separate post for that.

Speaking of the Blitz, my next stop was at the church of St Dunstan in the East. This was once a parish church, but these days it's an overgrown ruin in the middle of the city – from certain vantage points you can't see the ongoing life of the city, and could almost be in a post-apocalypse landscape, skyscrapers in the distance and abandoned walls nearby. The walled garden serves as a reminder of the damage done by enemy bombing, and the destruction of war. But it's also an example of that can-do, Blitz spirit that survived the bombs: people eat their lunches here now, and a student band were having a photo shoot as I passed through.

It's impossible to talk about the history of the City of London without referring to the events of 1666. My interest here is in the churches, so discussion of the Great Fire will necessarily be limited to the effect on those – and generally that means how many were lost and subsequently rebuilt. But the BPT Martyr's Way takes in the Monument to the Great Fire, so there's an opportunity for the pilgrim to reflect on the wider impact of the fire.

The Ten Commandments above the altar

I arrived at St Magnus the Martyr in time for Mass, which tricked me into thinking this baroque church full of memorials, statues of saints and the smell of incense was Catholic. It’s dedicated to a martyr, after all, and there were priests in surplices and stoles. But no, I remembered, for all its High Church effect (the Ten Commandments written across the back of the altar, anyone?), St Magnus is merely Anglo-Catholic. This is a church where the rector uses the unusual (for the Church of England) title 'Cardinal Rector'.

The church of St Magnus narrowly avoided destruction by fire in 1633, but wasn't so lucky come 1666, and became one of many London churches rebuilt, remodelled or repaired by the office of Sir Christopher Wren.[3] This wasn't the last fire to threaten the church; much of the roof was burnt in 1760 when a neighbouring oil shop caught light, and a nearby warehouse fire in 1827 is commemorated in a plaque, which also offers thanks for the church's survival.[4]

Southwark Cathedral choir

Southwark Cathedral – another place that will get its own post – was full of school parties, but that shouldn't really be a surprise, given that cathedrals are such tourist destinations. Inner-city cathedrals in particular are convenient for showing children some physical evidence of history. These kids were shown some Roman mosaic flooring that had been unearthed during building work. “It's not often,” their guide said, “that you're allowed to walk on something that's 1700 years old!”

At St Lawrence Jewry, the church was taking a food delivery for an event the next day, and very noisy it was too. But there's coffee and water available for any visitor, which is nice. The building's interior is light and airy, unlike the exterior, which like so much of inner London is showing the effects of air pollution and city grime.

The history of nearly every church in this part of London almost inevitably includes a phrase like 'rebuilt by Christopher Wren after the Great Fire of 1666'. Sir Christopher, and his office, rebuilt or redesigned over fifty City of London churches after the fire, and he has left an enviable legacy across the city. So it's fitting that the inescapable architect should appear himself in a stained glass window here at St Lawrence Jewry, which was itself entirely 'rebuilt by Christopher Wren after the Great Fire of 1666'.[5]

Most famous of Christopher Wren's jobs is surely the Cathedral of London, better known as St Paul's. I'll go into more detail about St Paul's elsewhere. But for the purposes of the pilgrimage, I'm happy to report that the ticket office sent me off through the nave to find a verger to stamp my Pilgrim Passport. St Paul's is a major tourist destination, so I was surprised to find that this was somewhere with a quiet place – even in the middle of the bustling nave – to reflect on the day so far. Then I enjoyed what felt like a whistle stop tour - it really is just the highlights in half an hour, and I felt like there was lots more to discover.

Even in the out-of-the-way St Ethelreda's Roman Catholic Church, there were preparations going on for what looked like a wedding reception in the crypt. It was hard to tell, because none of the lights were on down there, and the only two people in the building were me - no help at all - and a young chap trying to wheel huge round tables inside, and treating me as if I knew the place better than he did. “After you!” he cheerily shouted, after I’d held the front door for him and one of his huge tables (alright, I wasn’t completely unhelpful) - and I couldn’t help thinking it might have been better to let him go first, rather than have me going down an unfamiliar corridor with no idea where I was headed, while the sound of approaching death gathered speed behind me. You’ve seen that bit in the Indiana Jones film where the boulder comes rolling towards Harrison Ford?

But this was the closest to a truly secluded church I'd yet come across, the only genuine oasis of calm in the hubbub of the city. St Ethelreda's sits in Ely Place, and had for a long time been the private chapel of the Bishops of Ely, who had their London residence and palace on the street. These days, the church is all that's left, but there's still a barrier across the entrance to a street that enjoys certain privileges.

I had the sanctuary to myself, with plenty of time to reflect and admire the magnificent stained glass window. The glass depicts several English martyrs who died traitors' deaths at Tyburn for defying Henry VIII over his break with Rome. Ely Place will have been a significant site of opposition to that move of Henry's, as the Bishop, Nicholas West, was part of the legal team defending Queen Catherine of Aragon against Henry's attempts to have their marriage annulled. The chapel and house in London was also loaned out to Spanish ambassadors, who of course represented their master, Catherine's nephew King Charles V, and were keen to maintain their alliance.[6]

I've a soft spot for St Ethelreda, founder of Ely Cathedral, mainly because I have a soft spot for that cathedral, standing tall as it does with its distinctive octagonal lantern over the broad, flat fens. She set up her abbey on what was then a raised island in the fens, and she’s depicted holding the building in the stained glass at her much smaller, still Catholic, church in Ely Place.

Westminster Abbey

I turned up to Westminster Abbey at the heart of the British political establishment half an hour before closing time. Naturally, after stamping my Pilgrim Passport, they charged me the entry fee and told me not to take any photographs.

I can hardly do justice to the place here, so I'll concentrate on the aspects that appealed most to me as a pilgrim. Like St Paul's, Westminster Abbey is a repository of national memory, housing tombs or memorials to the great and good of British history. The pinnacle of civic achievement in this country to have a memorial or statue in (or just outside) Westminster Abbey.

That other repository of national memory, St Paul's

For my wife's sake, I spent a little of my half hour visiting the Lady Chapel added by Henry VII. Here one can find the funeral monument of my wife's favourite monarch, Elizabeth I, to whom I briefly paid respect. Moderate Protestant Elizabeth shares a tomb with her determinedly Catholic half-sister, Mary I (the daughters of, respectively, reforming Protestant Anne Boleyn and staunchly Catholic Catherine of Aragon), and there's a space in the chapel aislededicated to those who 'divided at the Reformation by different convictions laid down their lives for Christ and conscience' sake', making the Abbey an appropriate end to both Sovereign and Martyr routes.[7]

Next, I visited Poets' Corner. As a writer myself, I should have had Poets' Corner higher on my list of priorities – remembering and respecting the nation's artistic dead would be a fine focus for a pilgrimage for me. Having finally arrived, I had ten minutes.

I picked out a few favourites and gave them a respectful nod, as I might greet a superior in the street. Half the fun is working out which you think are worthy of a little nod. It’s personal taste, I suppose.

Naturally, Chaucer's tomb, which was the first in Poets' Corner (though not for his poetry, it turns out), got a deep nod, as did Shakespeare's large effigy round the corner. Then a nod for George Eliot, the First World War poets (Owen, Sassoon, Graves, Brookes etc.) and Tennyson.[8]

Shaespeare's memorial in Southwark Cathedral

Around the corner, and I gave a nod to Jane Austen, Charles Dickens and Thomas Hardy. But then there was James Thomson. Who? Who is he, I asked myself, to not only have a full body statue nearly as large as Shakespeare's (and nobody else nearby has more than a bust), but to have one so large that it hides almost entirely from view the small plaque dedicated to the Brontë sisters? They got a nod from me. But this Thomson fellow? Later research suggests his most lasting contribution to the world is the lyrics of 'Rule Britannia'.[9] I'm sure the Brontës would appreciate the irony of being overshadowed, literally, by a man from a century earlier whose talent and achievement they have dwarfed. Personally, I'd say any one of their individual contributions tops 'Rule Britannia', and yet three of them share a little plaque. Three of them! And you can't see them in Poets' Corner because of this Thomson statue.

My third and final deep nod was saved for the far side of the Abbey, in the north aisle of the nave. There's a small stone, low down in the wall, and I stumbled across it almost by accident. 'O rare Ben Jonson' the inscription says, marking the uniquely upright grave of my favourite of Shakespeare's contemporaries. Jonson wrote, among other things, poetic, dramatic entertainments for the court of James VI/I, and was the first person to take the role we now know as Poet Laureate. He had a fascinating life as soldier, poet, playwright, duellist and possible Catholic convert, and of course died in poverty. I can't help feeling he'd have laughed at my earnest tribute to his memorial.[10]

The history of nearly every church in this part of London almost inevitably includes a phrase like 'rebuilt by Christopher Wren after the Great Fire of 1666'

Near to the exit are a few marble slabs for politicians and statesmen – the likes of Clement Attlee and Harold Wilson – and huge statues for the likes of Edward Fox. Interestingly, I felt less moved by Churchill's poppy-adorned green memorial stone than by the much smaller, plainer and communal slab for the War Poets. But then, when storming down Whitehall to reach the Abbey before closing time, I'd been more impressed with the memorial to the women of World War Two (represented, as so often the case with women, by their clothes) than I had been with the statues of famous individual men like Field Marshal 'Monty' Montgomery, standing opposite.


In a way, I think that contrast is a key lesson from the Martyr's Way. It's all well and good to memorialise leaders and history's 'great men', but we mustn't lose sight of the great mass of people being led and offering their own sacrifice through history. St Paul's and Westminster Abbey both hold large marble tombs of national heroes, but with all the focus on those, it's easy to overlook the smaller tributes to larger groups of people who have been just as heroic, often in more front line roles than the commemorated leaders faced. Fortunately, the trend in history recently has been to move away from 'great men' and to look more closely at ordinary lives and those narratives that have been overlooked.

Like I said earlier on, something seemed to be happening in nearly all of these churches, which rather undermined their ability to provide an oasis of calm in the middle of the city. The positive side to that is that the buildings are being used for their intended purpose – these are living houses of worship, and not ossified museums. The danger is that they might swing too far the other way, and be so keen on bringing in new visitors that they lose sight of what it is they're supposed to be providing for those visitors.

Of course, the role of churches in public life has changed over time, and this is an ongoing process. Churches once offered a rounded social care package, but since the Reformation and Thomas Cromwell, much of that function has been taken over by the state and, more recently, charities. In an increasingly non-Christian country, many of our churches will still be working out what their new role is. This was a pilgrimage route that showed plenty of evidence of that, often within the same buildings that have witnessed centuries of history.

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