Bill Bryson and Joanna Lumley, supporters of the National Churches Trust, have chosen their favourite Wren churches for English Tourism Week.
National Churches Trust writes:
Sir Christopher Wren (1632-1723) was an English anatomist, astronomer, geometer, and mathematician physicist, as well as one of the most highly acclaimed English architects in history. He rebuilt 52 churches in the City of London after the Great Fire in 1666, including what is regarded as his masterpiece, St Paul’s Cathedral, completed in 1710, and where he is buried.
One of Bill Bryson’s favourite churches, St Michael Cornhill, City of London, 1669-72. He said: ‘In 2003, my daughter got married in London but couldn’t use her local church, so we found this one in the City, and what a jewel it is. Built by Christopher Wren after the Great Fire, it is easily overlooked from without, but bright and sumptuous within. I think the vicar was grateful for the business, and the choir sang like angels. It was a fabulous day.’
Joanna Lumley’s favourite church, St. Bride, City of London 1670-84. She said: ‘The tiny graceful spire, like a precious sea-shell, rises among the clustering modern and Victorian buildings like a dream vision. This spire was the inspiration (exactly the right word) for tiered wedding cakes the world over. It is the church of Fleet Street, the newspaper world of London. I love it.’ St Bride’s is inextricably woven into the history of the City of London. By the time the Great Fire of 1666 left the church in ruins a succession of churches had existed on the site for about a millennium.
One of the first churches to be rebuilt by Wren St Mary Le Bow, City of London 1670-83 and almost completely destroyed during World War II then subsequently rebuilt again! The Norman church was known as St Marie de Arcubus (or le Bow) because of the bow arches of stone in its crypt. Wren continued the arch theme in his new design. St Mary’s is one of the best known City churches because of its bells; a true Cockney is said to be born within sound of them and they are immortalised in the nursery rhyme Oranges and Lemons.
Wren lived at number 15 Walbrook and took special care in rebuilding St. Stephen Walbrook, City of London 1672-79, his parish church. Nothing prepares you, as you climb the 13 steps up to St Stephen’s, for the majestic space within. Inside, the dome is Wren’s finest, based on his original design for St Paul’s. Unlike St Paul’s the dome rests on elaborate carpentry frames so requires much smaller supports, giving an unparalleled feeling of lightness and brightness, uninterrupted by galleries. The spiritual effect depends not on decorative richness but on pure geometry and soaring space.
Wren’s masterpiece St. Paul’s cathedral, City of London 1675-1711, is one of the most famous and most recognisable sights of London. Its dome, framed by the spires of Wren’s city churches, has dominated the skyline for over 300 years. In the Great Fire of London of 1666, Old St Paul’s was gutted, and the task of designing the replacement was assigned to Sir Christopher Wren on 30 July 1669. The design process took several years, but a design was finally settled and attached to a royal warrant. The result was the present St Paul’s Cathedral, still the second largest church in Britain, with a dome proclaimed as the finest in the world.
One of least damaged during the Second World War St. James Garlickhythe, City of London 1676-83. The exterior of the church is deceptively simple, however the steeple is one of the city’s most beautiful and ornate. Apart from St Paul’s, the forty foot high ceiling is the highest in the city and Wren was so successful at introducing natural light into the church that it became known as ‘Wren’s Lantern’. The original woodwork includes the altar table carved with doves, the font cover and the churchwardens’ pews at the west end. The font is of marble with carved cherubs’ heads. The original ironwork includes the mayoral swordrest with lion and unicorn supporters on the south side.
Just a short stroll from the chaos of Piccadilly Circus is St. James, Picadilly 1676-84 an oft overlooked church built by Christopher Wren as well as a vibrant daily outdoor market. It is unique as Wren only built a few ‘new’ churches and it is one of only three he built outside the City of London. William Blake, poet and artist, was baptised here in 1757. The church was damaged in WWII but has been sympathetically restored.
The only Wren church left unaltered St. Benet Paul’s Wharf, City of London 1677-83 – all but four were damaged in the Second World War and the other three suffered the effects of an IRA bomb or have been restored. Since 1555, St Benet has been the church of the College of Arms, it is the burial place of architect Inigo Jones and even appears in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. In the 1870s eminent Welsh Anglicans petitioned Queen Victoria to be allowed to use the building for services in Welsh and it is now one of the City Guild churches as well as the Metropolitan Welsh Church.
St Martin’s within Ludgate, City of London 1677-84 was one of Wren’s later rebuildings and its slender lead spire was most carefully considered in relation to the dome of St Paul’s Cathedral. The view eastward from Ludgate Circus towards St Paul’s is one of the most memorable in London. In 1941 an incendiary bomb damaged the roof, but St Martin’s received the least damage of all the city churches in the war. 1962 saw St Martin’s become the Chapel of the Honourable Society of the Knights of the Round Table whose history is ancient, although evidence is only patent from 1720.
Chapel of the Royal Hospital, Chelsea 1682-87 was built between 1681 and 1687 and the chapel is a rare example of Wren’s pure ecclesiastical work, being carried out without site constraints. It was designed to accommodate about 500 people, all the staff and pensioners, and rises 42 feet high. The chapel was consecrated in August 1691 and one of the original service books has been preserved. The stunning painting of the Resurrection in the half dome of the apse is by Sebastiano Ricci and was probably paid for by Queen Anne.
Among the wealth of fine Wren-era woodwork made for St Margaret’s Lothbury, City of London 1686-90 are the high altar reredos, the pulpit and the baptismal font. Pieces were brought here in the 19th century from other Wren churches then being demolished, and include the magnificent choir screen (1683-84) from All Hallows the Great, the finely carved font and the reredos in the south chapel (both thought to be by Grinling Gibbons) from St Olave Jewry, and colourful paintings of Moses and Aaron on either side of the high altar from St Christopher le Stocks.