Friends of the City Churches

The Friends put on lectures, tours, and special events, while encouraging others to make use of the buildings.

The church spires that once formed the skyline above the rooftops of the City of London are now dwarfed by tower blocks over 150m in height (a broadly accepted definition of a skyscraper). St Paul’s Cathedral, the City’s tallest church, manages just 111m, and St Bride’s, off Fleet Street (the second highest, and famous as the spire that gave rise to the shape of the traditional tiered wedding cake), comes in at a mere 69m.

The City’s churches symbolise constancy and a link with the past in an otherwise futuristic urban environment built on very different values to those that inspired the original patrons of these places of worship. As congregations dwindle (the City’s resident population numbers 8,000, and many

ABOVE LEFT St Helen’s Church, Bishopsgate: the sarcophagus of Sir Thomas Gresham (c.1519-1579), founder of the Royal Exchange and Gresham College. The grasshopper on top of the helmet could be a pun (‘grass’ for ‘gresh’), but family legend has it that Sir Thomas’ 13th-century ancestor was abandoned as an infant and rescued by a woman who was alerted by the chirping of a grasshopper.
St Helen’s Church, Bishopsgate: the sarcophagus of Sir Thomas Gresham (c.1519-1579), founder of the Royal Exchange and Gresham College. The grasshopper on top of the helmet could be a pun (‘grass’ for ‘gresh’), but family legend has it that Sir Thomas’ 13th-century ancestor was abandoned as an infant and rescued by a woman who was alerted by the chirping of a grasshopper.

of those people live elsewhere at the weekend), these few remaining historic buildings need champions and advocates – hence the sterling work of energetic charity Friends of the City Churches.

The Friends organise a rota of more than 100 volunteer ‘watchers’ to keep the churches open. They put on lectures, tours, and special events, while encouraging others to make use of the buildings. They also publish a comprehensive web-based guide to the services, concerts, lectures, and other events taking place in the City’s Anglican churches, and in the places of worship of other faiths and non-Anglican denominations, such as Bevis Marks Synagogue and the Dutch Church, Austin Friars.

ABOVE RIGHT St Helen’s has a remarkable collection of pre-Fire monuments, of which these alabaster effigies of John de Oteswich and his wife are the oldest, dating from the late 14th or early 15th centuries.
St Helen’s has a remarkable collection of pre-Fire monuments, of which these alabaster effigies of John de Oteswich and his wife are the oldest, dating from the late 14th or early 15th centuries.

City workers can enjoy any number of free lunchtime organ, piano, or chamber recitals, ranging from early classical music to jazz and rock. In one recent recital at St Bride’s church, pianist and composer Neil Crossland started his programme with Beethoven’s ‘Moonlight’ sonata and ended with ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ by Queen.

Cake stalls, second-hand bookshops, Fairtrade shops, cafes, and art, photography, and needlework exhibitions, as well as programmes of lectures and tours, help to keep these churches in use. And with 1,200 subscribing members, the Friends also make donations to the cleaning, repair, and restoration of church clocks, bells, monuments, textiles, stained glass, and furnishings.

LEFT A city of contrasts: St Andrew Undershaft (named after the shaft of the maypole that once stood alongside the church) now sits in the shadow of 30 St Mary Axe (commonly known as ‘The Gherkin)’.
LEFT A city of contrasts: St Andrew Undershaft (named after the shaft of the maypole that once stood alongside the church) now sits in the shadow of 30 St Mary Axe (commonly known as ‘The Gherkin)’.

The best times to explore the 48 City churches that have survived (and sometimes bear the scars of) the Great Fire, the Blitz, IRA bombs, and the indifference of an increasingly atheistic age is during the Open House London weekend each September, or when these characterful buildings are festively dressed for their annual carol services.

Further information: www.london-city-churches.org.uk

IMAGES: Kate Owen.
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