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St Mary Woolnoth.

In the three months leading up to Christmas, while researching my forthcoming book,  City of London Pubs, I spent rather more time than usual walking the streets of the Square Mile. On several occasions my perambulations took me close  to the church of St Mary Woolnoth, which stands at the junction of Lombard Street and busy King William Street. Once or twice this historic and idiosyncratic structure even took me a little by surprise.

One dreary November afternoon, for instance, I emerged from Bank underground station via the Lombard Street exit and as I did so was astonished to encounter the tower of St Mary’s looming over me as I ascended to street level. The tower is imposing with its sturdy Corinthian columns and twin turrets, and certainly unmatched in the Square Mile for quirk and strangeness. Indeed Pevsner reckoned St Mary ‘The most original church exterior in the City of London.’

Architecture aside, St Mary Woolnoth is certainly one of the oddest churches in London, for a number of reasons.

Many of you, I dare say, will be familiar with its name from TS Eliot’s The Wasteland – ‘Flowed up the hill and down King William Street/ To where Saint Mary Woolnoth kept the hours’ –  while the church also crops up in Peter Ackroyd’s groundbreaking 1985 novel Hawksmoor.

The book, Ackroyd’s most accomplished piece of fiction, weaves elements of magic realism and London noir into a plot surrounding a series of murders linked by seven churches designed by the architect Nicholas Hawksmoor. The novel won a number of awards at the time of its publication and remains a piece of cult London fiction, not least because of its occult subtext and the fact that it’s an early example of contemporary psychogeography (Ackroyd is on record as acknowledging the influence of Iain Sinclair’s epic Lud Heat on the genesis of Hawksmoor).

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Inside St Mary Woolnoth with, bottom, John Newton’s self-penned plaque.

 

The real Nicholas Hawksmoor, 1661-1736,  was a prolific and mercurial architect who as a young man worked under Wren.  Hawksmoor’s other notable London churches include Christ Church, Spitalfields, St George’s, Bloomsbury (the tower of which can be seen in the background of Hogarth’s Gin Lane) and St Anne’s, Limehouse.

St Mary Woolnoth was Hawksmoor’s only City church, although he did also work on St. Paul’s Cathedral. St Mary is certainly a bold design, essentially English Baroque, built between 1716-27 and one of the fifty ‘Queen Anne churches’  constructed as a result of the New Churches in London and Westminster Act of 1710. A place of worship has probably stood on this site for more than 2,000 years and St Mary Woolnoth itself is mentioned in 1273, rebuilt in 1440. It was damaged in the Great Fire of 1666 but ‘repaired’ by Wren.

Despite the rather grand and perhaps even foreboding exterior, the church interior is surprisingly compact and, according to A short guide to the City of London Churches, published by The Diocese of London no less, ‘perfectly proportioned and…modelled on the Egyptian Hall described by the Roman architect, Vitrivius.’

Among those most strongly connected with the church is John Newton, who was Rector here until his death in 1807. Newton, who was born a mile or so away in Wapping, led a remarkable life, during which he was press-ganged into the Royal Navy and later flogged for attempting to desert. Later still he became a slave to the, by all accounts, sadistic wife of a wealthy slave dealer.

Despite this last experience, some years later Newton himself was captain of a slave vessel. Many years later still, once established at St Mary Woolnoth, he became an outspoken abolitionist and an associate of William Wilberforce. He was a great orator and also wrote the hymn Amazing Grace.

A plaque commemorating Newton adorns the north wall inside the church. A lengthy inscription includes the following:

“John Newton.

Clerk.

Once an infidel and libertine.

A servant of Slaves in Africa.

Was.

By the rich mercy of Our Lord and saviour Jesus Christ.

Preserved, restored, pardoned.

To preach the faith he had long laboured to destroy.”

Apparently Newton wrote the words himself shortly before his death.

Largely as a result of Ackroyd’s novel, Hawksmoor himself is regarded by many as a mysterious figure and for some this is reflected in many of the buildings that he designed. St Mary Woolnoth is no exception and certainly there is a feel about the place that is difficult to put into words.

On my most recent visit I found myself inside and, briefly, alone. The soundtrack to this moment was an almost gentle, ambient hum. The muted sound of traffic crawling down King William Street towards London Bridge perhaps? The rumble of tube trains underfoot?

Woolnoth Bank station

Emerging from Bank station St Mary Woolnoth looms large.

St Mary Woolnoth is a handsome church in a rather unconventional way. And with that in mind we should be grateful that it is still with us at all, for there have been several times over the years when it has been under threat from the ball and chain.

The best chronicled of these came late in the 19th century when the Central Line was under construction. The plan was to demolish St Mary’s to make way for Bank station, but so vigorous was the public outcry that the City and South London Railway company were forced to come up with an alternative. Which is why St Mary Woolnoth is the only church in London, I dare say in the world, that stands atop an underground station.

Many City churches have only small congregations, if indeed they have any at all, and survival can be a precarious business. With this in mind St Mary’s, like several other Square Mile churches, boasts a small coffee outlet – I hesitate to use the term shop – in its intimate porch area. It means you can have a spiritual experience and get you caffeine fix at the same time.

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Melina Herrmann, coffee vendor at St Mary Woolnoth.

Running the operation is Melina Herrmann, an elegant and cheerful Brazilian lady who has been offering superior coffee here for a few years now. She opens at around 7am each morning to cater for her loyal and regular customers, most of them City workers, and continues to dispense a range of hot drinks and cakes until around 4.30pm.

To sit outside in the shadow of St Mary’s, with perhaps the ghosts of Hawksmoor and Eliot looking over your shoulder, is one of London’s more unique drinking experiences. And as Melina offers what is probably the best cup of coffee in the Square Mile it’s an experience not to be missed.

 

 

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