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Travelogue G10

December 22, 2015

To my realization in Bow Churchyard was soon joined a similar experience in the garden surrounding St. Paul’s Church. First laid out as an open space in the Victorian period, the park’s grounds brought together the one-time churchyards of St. Paul, St. Gregory by St. Paul’s and St. Faith the Virgin under St. Paul’s. The signage I found on site left unanswered what had become of the former denizens but provided a map which shed some light on the places which would occupy my thoughts those days.

Indeed, the map showed the full extent of the city’s parks and gardens and indicated other points of interest for visitors. A cross symbol naturally suggested the presence of a church, and I was astonished to note the frequent proximity between crosses and greens, as though the entire garden network, as managed by the Corporation of London, had grafted on that underlying one comprised of churchyards and religion. From the afterlife was born the city’s outdoor leisure.

From that point on, my eyes and feet would carry me further and further on into that network, as best I could make it out. The historical details which I might carefully hold in mind, such as the restored 1714 cast-iron railings ringing St. Paul’s garden or the dissolution of certain parishes with the Pastoral Reorganisation Measure of 1949, passed me by without further notice. Gripped by this need, I pressed on to the next link in the chain with which I was to encompass the City of London.

Christchurch Greyfriars, or what remained of it, appeared as that link. Although the church itself passed from religious service to serviced ruin with the December 1940 firebombings and the absorption of its parish with that of St. Sepulchre-Without-Newgate, the belfry had remained largely intact and now housed a dental care center. As the center seemed to occupy only the ground floor of the so-called “Vestry House”, the windows above provided a glimpse into the activities of its other residents. So cluttered were the boxes and shelves behind the panes that I could scarcely guess at the upper floors’ present function, if not archives.

Curious, I rounded the belfry and made my way beneath an arch to find myself in what had formerly been the nave. From a passing sign, I learned that the church lost to the flames had not been the first nor even the second to occupy the site. That honor belonged to a Franciscan monastery raised in 1228 and brought low in the century that followed. The second church, newly constructed in 1325, fell in the Great Fire and gave way to a structure of Christopher Wren design, and in the bones of which I found myself that day.

The Corporation of London had, with the end of the Thatcher years, converted the nave into an imposing rose garden made to match the Wren building’s original layout. To either side of the central aisle they chose to place box-hedged beds to echo the pews, since disappeared, as well as copies of the wooden surrounds which had adorned the church’s stone pillars. Simple and austere frames, the surrounds had taken the pillars’ place, if not their function. For they served to support nothing more than clouded-over sky and a network of wires which climbing vines and creepers might one day overrun.

Moving towards the rear of the garden, I reflected for a moment on the way in which ruins of the kind captivated me, just as they had countless others before. Yet I had a hard time putting my finger on precisely what set ruins apart from other sights that one might come upon. For Greyfriars presented much the same aspect as another: black coating the local stone beneath, ranging in color from white to dull tan; stained glass long since lost to the years; new growth and verdure in what had once been a space closed off from that inside. Certainly, it could not be a question of novelty, so I attributed it, as the most plausible explanation, to the unexpected interplay between inside and out, between poles established in the mind at a tender age and between which all such play had been limited as by universal decree. There had I found a space which, by rights, should not exist.

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