In Spires

The spire stood alone outside the window, an isolated grey tower, traffic curling around it on either side. Next to it, the stolid, Portland cement-clad headquarters of the City of London’s police force: the rest is all glass and metal towers, throwing the street into shade. From my third floor vantage point, I was already at the same height as the Church of St Alban, on Wood Street in the City, just behind the Guildhall. It stands as a great survivor, a 92 foot tall relic that testifies each and every day to the history of a city which, with each new outlandish invention – the Gherkin, the Cheese Grater, the Walkie Talkie, the Scalpel – seems determined to erase and forget.

For the City has now been built not to be seen in close-up: only at a distance, from the viewing platform of the Shard perhaps. Instead, we all filed in at 8.30 sharp to our offices, jackets draped over our shoulders in the first gusts of summer heat, a sea of white shirts and faces in throbbing lines spilling out of the stations at Bank, Barbican and Moorgate. We were the white drones snaking into vertiginous towers, looking at our phones or hastily eating breakfast. We’re not supposed to see what’s around us. For two months, I took the lift to the third floor of my office, finding my desk amidst the vast open-plan floor, logged in, opened my email and launched spreadsheets. We all breathed the same air-conditioned air and looked at the same burning screens and never turned our heads to St Alban’s, a stone remnant in a land of metal.

I was spending my summer working for one of Britain’s larger retail banks, trying unsuccessfully each day to understand the intricacies of derivative trading, and to fight against the crushing institutional weight of an organisation which spent almost as much on its sophisticated computers as its workers. I was stripped of agency, reduced to my seven-figure identity number. It was an institution which had never found an acronym it disliked: CFADS, FVA and LTM were bandied around by slate- faced mandarins.

All our emails were read, all our phone calls listened in on. Under the desks there were sensors monitoring how long we were away from work. A veteran of the organisation, fond of caustic bon mots, declared to any who would listen that ‘there are more kangaroo courts around here than in the Australian judiciary’, before concluding sombrely: ‘it’s like Big Brother around here, only more efficient.’

The City of London is now a paean to global capitalism, expressed through its increasingly authoritarian monuments of architectural arrogance, interested only in the rawest expression of power and reducing their tenants to digits. Yet, there used to be another material vision of power, a kind of power that used to be the binding agent of the state: London’s churches.

Fifty seven churches lie within the 1.12 square miles of the City – that’s a church every 31.62 square metres. It now no longer makes any sense, of course, to have so many churches for so few, since only 9,500 people live within the City’s boundaries. The churches, like the network of medieval streets which still survive in outline, are a reminder of a pre-nineteenth century world, a densely packed urban centre first mentioned by Tacitus in AD 61, when he offhandedly mentions a certain ‘Londinium, which, though undistinguished by the name of a colony, was much frequented by a number of merchants and trading vessels.’

To look at St Alban’s was to remind myself of another London which the relentless cycle of building, demolition, and rebuilding sought to subsume. Over seven weeks, I visited all 57 churches. At lunchtime, I would escape for 45 minutes out into the elements, both sun and rain, or after work in the cool light of day and make pilgrimage to the noble icons of a past which refuses to be dismissed. With me I took a battered paperback, shorn of its front cover: Nikolaus Pevsner’s indispensable London: the City Churches (1998), extracted from the larger Buildings of England series (1951-74), companions for the inveterate wanderer. Pevsner observed that ‘To this day [the churches] are the outstanding accents of the City,’ and it is hard to disagree with him. Many remain open during weekday lunchtimes, brought to life by organ recitals, book sales or small counters selling coffee and tea – anything to bring the shattered workers in for a brief moment of respite. Many of the parishes have combined, as congregations have shrunk, while crass road widening has left some isolated, hard to access, on the wrong side of four lane roads, yet clinging on.

It’s a grim irony that our temples have been replaced with the altars of bank tellers, worshipping mammon with unrestrained glee. I make no argument for some fantastical return to a Church of England grown mellow in memory, but wish rather to highlight that we have not stopped building cathedrals – their functions have merely changed. For what is the Shard, glowering across the water, but a new St Paul’s, a new symbol for the city? If we consider the values of dominance and authority as embodied by both buildings, then its transmutation from a religious to a secular context leads us to see that we still build churches. They have got larger, taller, more violent in their allusions (a shard of glass, a cutting scalpel), but we are still supposed to respond only in declamations of awe.

Yet, if the Shard’s architect, Renzo Piano, is our new Christopher Wren, then we are impoverished indeed. Circumnavigating the narrow walkway inside the dome of St Paul’s, you have the feeling that you are suspended in the air, floating above the transept, looking down at the cream coloured marble arches, traced with gold, the black and white paving very far away, very small below. It is unnerving, and majestic – and Wren sought precisely such an effect. It was amongst the largest freestanding domes in the world at the time and the tallest building in London for over 250 years. It was visible for miles around, especially from the then-villages of Hampstead and Highgate – they have now swallowed up in the city. Nowadays, to understand such an effect on surrounding areas, we have to go outside of London, to the low-rise cities of Ely, or Wells, or Salisbury, to recreate the impact of such a cathedral rising up on the horizon.

Instead, where once the city’s skyline was dominated by Wren’s and Hawksmoor’s spires, thronging the air like white silver needles, now we have the blunt rectangles of innumerable office blocks, conceived and executed in isolation to their surroundings, most lacking even the sheer gusto of Piano’s Shard.

However, it is precisely because the churches’ status has been so diminished within the City’s urban space that they are now, at times, curiously moving. I’m thinking of the bombed remains of St Dunstan-in-the-East, eviscerated in 1941 and now turned into a small garden, acknowledging but pacifying the violence inflicted upon it. Or the restored thirteenth-century façade of St Ethelburga’s Bishopgate, shattered by a terrorist bomb in 1993, now so plain and small and neat, whose diminutive garden still retains some kind of serenity despite the vast expanse of building work for 100 Bishopgate next door. An £86 million office development, for all its fire and fury, it is still overpowered by the quiet St Ethelburga.

There are too many churches to mention, and often their qualities merge into one another, with the venerable cheap box design, built from brown London brick, a steeple positioned asymmetrically in a corner, a common plan much followed in the decades of reconstruction following the Great Fire. Yet, I could still be astonished. The stuccoed dome in St Stephen Walbrook, suspended over a naveless church, is a glorious space. I circled it, my head raised aloft, observing the purity of the geometry preserved despite a botched restoration from the 1980s, complete with an incongruous Henry Moore round altar.

No churches, however, quite latched onto my imagination as St Alban’s did. Let me return there, for I always did: it was always just beyond me through the window. Its history covers in miniature the whole story of the City churches, a metonym for the entire project of building and restoration in London, phases repeated time and again with every church.

St Alban’s foundations can be traced back to medieval times. It had fallen into decrepitude by 1634 and was demolished to be rebuilt, only to be burnt down in 1666 by the Great Fire. With two thirds of the City gutted, Wren’s office was contracted to rebuild the churches, and the resulting Perpendicular Gothic style of St Alban’s was similar to many other Wren churches. Intriguingly, the vast rebuilding of places of religious worship was mainly funded by a state tax on coal, the funds of which were neatly divided into threes: a third for the parish churches, a third for the reconstruction of St Paul’s, and the final third for street renovation. Despite proposals to sharply reduce the number of churches and reorder the city in a classical, Italianate manner, the medieval streets were mainly preserved, while of the 85 churches destroyed in the inferno, 51 were restored.

St Alban’s survived the Victorian spree of church destruction, where land value proved an easy aid to disregarding slim beauty. Instead, the church was renewed and restored by Sir George Gilbert Scott in 1858-9, while the city around it changed fundamentally, from being a city to the City, the financial heart of an empire which stretched from Pitcairn to the Trucial States.

On Sunday 29 December, 1940, there would have been a service in the morning, but from 6pm that evening until the early hours of the following day over 124,000 high explosive and incendiary bombs rained down on London in the winter’s night. Instead of darkness, there were the shooting flames and choking smoke of the Second Great Fire of London. In the conflagration, St Alban’s, along with 19 other churches, fell victim to the immortal euphemism ‘enemy action’. It was this final orgy of demolition which left so much of the City a blank board for post-war architects. There would be no Barbican or Golden Lane Estate without the war. St Alban’s, its nave a hollowed out shell, was knocked down in 1965 save for its tower. In a final bizarre twist, it was converted in 1985 into a house, and today seems to be used for offices. The tower, now, I think, represents a past London we can scarcely imagine.

St Alban was the first recorded English martyr, executed by the Romans around AD 305 for taking the place of a priest and allowing himself to be arrested instead. He was scourged and beheaded. It was claimed a spring sprung from the ground where the head came to rest. It is tempting to see St Alban’s, Wood Street, as that head, the tower surviving after its body has been razed, its spire still standing, an island in a road, an isle in a city.

‘The church-spires flamed, such flags they had,’ Robert Browning wrote in ‘The Patriot’ (1855), and still they remain lit in my mind’s eye, stone edifices still breathing, monuments to another world.