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The fires of St Mary-at-the-Hill

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image: Wikimedia Commons

Reading Private Eye makes me laugh and cry. Inside the latest issue, among the jokes and cartoons, I found a report on St Mary-at-Hill:

On 1967, John Betjemin, sainted founder of this column, described the church of St Mary-at-Hill, tucked away between Eastcheap and Billingsgate Market, as 'the least spoiled and the most gorgeous interior in the City, all the more exciting for being hidden away among cobbled alleys, paved passages, brick walls, overhung by plane trees and the smell of fish'.

The glory of the building was the interior, for it was the only Wren City church that retained unaltered box pews. As Betjemin put it: 'The west end, with its glass and wood screen, gallery and magnificent organ case, the high pews with their many delicate sword-rests, the altar piece, altar table, turned Communion rails, the sounding board and pulpit below, approached by a long wooden staircase with carved balusters, are all seen in a mysterious light filtering through pretty early Victorian windows. . .'

This wonderful, precious interior was the result of the subtly combined work of Sir Christopher Wren, the early 19th century architect James Savage and a brilliant woodworker called William Gibbs Rogers. There had been a medieval church here which was rebuilt under Wren's direction after the Great Fire. Wren's plan [has] four equal arms radiating from four free-standing Composite columns. . .

. . In 1848-9 after a second fire, Savage gave the church barrel vaults and a central cupola with delicate plasterwork. At the same time, Gibbs Rogers altered and added to the woodwork in a 17th century style. . . . .

Rogers was a marvellous wood carver.

St Mary managed to avoid the bombs and fires of World War II, but in 1988 there was a third fire, followed by the 'notorious' Templeman Report, which in 1994 called for closing St Mary and two-thirds of the City's churches. Happily the idea was quashed by the Bishop of London, Richard Chartres. St Mary was partly rebuilt.

Puzzlingly the glorious woodwork has not been reinstalled, though it appears to be a national treasure. In a nation pretty protective of its heritage, this seems a pity, as Private Eye points out.

Harried men and women often duck into London churches to find contemplative quiet, to discover beauty, and to explore a deep pool of history.

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