I stood in the middle of London on a summer’s day listening to birdsong. Sparrows and other small birds hoped around me and darted through the undergrowth. A breeze cooled by the foliage softened the heat. The sounds of traffic were barely audible. Some people from the nearby offices sat amongst the stones and vines eating their lunch, nodding to us as we wandered by.
London in summer continued to surprise me. With only two days I planned to show my daughter a range of places, from the old to the new, from the hidden to the startling obvious (yes, Big Ben was included). Common tourist sites are popular because they’re great places to go – but there are always other places well worth hunting down. Half the delight is in the contrast between them – followed by lunch at a nearby pub.
We took the tube to Monument Station. Since I so rarely catch trains at home, (and it always seems such a hassle when I do), I love catching trains when overseas. Deciphering the route and maps, working out which way to go, where to change lines is all part of the fun. In Japan I have found myself jolting along to a holy mountain; in Holland I’ve spied windmills while in Flanders the flat fields flashed past the windows. In places like London or Paris I find it a sheer delight to wander down to the nearest station without having to worry about timetables, for a train comes along every 5 minutes or so. I also like the warnings of the London Tube – it was all of 26 degrees, and everyone was encouraged to carry water, to prevent heat stroke.
St. Dunstan-in-the-East dates back to the time of the Saxons. Built around 1100, the church served the people of St. Dunstan’s Hill (which lies not far from the Tower of London) until it was destroyed by the Great Fire of London in 1666. When the ashes settled and Christopher Wren rebuilt London (and so established his reputation), his attention fell on St. Dunstan’s. The church was restored and a steeple added. Atop the steeple was a needle spire, supported by four flying buttresses.
Some 200 years later it became obvious that the combined weight of the roof and steeple, impressive as they were, had caused the walls to bow by some seven inches. The church was rebuilt in Portland stone, retaining Wren’s arches and spire – and could now hold a congregation of some 700 worshippers.
The next chapter in the story of the St. Dunstan-in-the-East came in 1941, during the Blitz. From September 1940, the Germans bombed London for over 60 days. On December 29 the Luftwaffe blanketed the city and so created a fire storm, starting what has been called the Second Fire of London. Despite receiving a direct hit, Wren’s tower and steeple survived the impact. Only the north and south walls of the church were as lucky; the rest was destroyed.
By the end of the Blitz, over 1,000,00 buildings had been reduced to rubble. With so much of London destroyed, St Dunstan’s remained in ruins while more important buildings – and especially housing – received priority in being restored or rebuilt.
In 1967 the decision was made to turn the still ruined St. Dunstan-in-the-East into a public garden. The buildings around the church have grown but the ruins of the old church remain, and it was here that my daughter and I found ourselves on a glorious summer day.
The church is a short walk from Monument Station. The name should have given me a hint. Outside the exit stands The Monument, a memorial built by Wren remembering the Great Fire of London. (Pudding Lane, where the fire began in a baker’s shop, is a street away.) A Doric column towering over the surrounding buildings was unexpected. (The height of the column marks the distance to where the fire began.) The base of the Monument was surrounded by flowers, in memory of recent terrorist attacks at Borough Market and London Bridge.
This part of London is narrow streets full of cafes and shops, and lots of traffic. Yet once we entered St. Dunstan-in-the-East, all this vanished. We entered past some crumbling walls into a hidden space. Vines grew over forgotten arches and trailed along the stones. Wren’s steeple soared towards a blur sky. Despite the windows of nearby windows peering down on us, I felt totally at peace. Little wonder some people sat on the stones or marble benches enjoying a coffee or an early lunch.
London has so much to offer, and never enough time to see it all. Yet forgotten nooks such as St. Dunstan-in-the-East are not only a place to recover from the hassles of travel; they are a reminder of just how much history lies under every street in this city.
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