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Travelogue G11

December 23, 2015

I did not leave Greyfriars immediately but, instead, I sat for a time on a low stone wall Behind the rose garden. The wall came with a story of its own, albeit brief: raised in 2001, as per the nearby ground plaque, through the joint effort of a financial institution and British Telecommunications. It marked out what had been the Wren church’s east wall. After stowing pen and paper, I rose and strode one last time through the grounds in the direction of the arch through which I had entered the grounds, at last ready to leave Greyfriars behind.

Yet the way out also led to the old churchyard, and so I found myself caught in a quiet green, bisected by a paved alley broken up by three black lamps and flaked by six dark wood benches. To the northern and western sides stood the London offices of the same financial giant which had contributed to the wall. At a glance, nothing marked it as a former burial ground, were it not the lone above-ground tombstone shunted into the southwest corner. A red bloom provided the only decoration and contrasted with the wrought-iron fence bounding the southern edge of the garden.

Such was the last visible sign of the churchyard which had only become a space open to the public in 1872. I again had difficulty pinning the precise meaning of “open space” down, as it could reasonably encompass any number of arrangements: churchyard open to the public and site of burials, churchyard open to the public and site of leisure, churchyard cleared of burials and open to the public, and so on. The full range of churchyard-garden permutations arrayed themselves before my mind’s eye, and I felt that to review an eternity’s worth of social arrangements for the living together of the dead and alive a wave of the hand would suffice.

My time in Greyfriars at an end, I pursued my project. My path led me through the grounds of St. John Zachary, swept away by fire and now become a garden. Some time later, perhaps after the Guildhall or before, I spotted a most unusual traffic island in a thoroughfare which a posted sign designated as Wood Street. As I approached, my confusion lessened, and the lone Gothic tower stood out to me more clearly than at a distance.

It seemed to me that it had formed part of a wider church complex, but I could find no confirmation of my hypothesis on the site. So, I circled about the tower a time or two in order to admire the fine spires and railing at its top and cleanly severed arches and to observe which narrow window casements had been filled with stone and which with clear panes. Only at length did I draw near the base, and this with some hesitation. For I had noticed in my circling the golden numbers, knocker and mail slot adorning the wooden doors piercing the south side.

Clearly, the tower had not simply been sealed off and left to rot; someone had made of it a residence. In search of a name, a person to whom I could attribute such a structure, I eyed the buzzer to the door’s right but hesitated a moment, suddenly afraid that, once found, I might be overcome by the need to call upon the resident to make sense of it all. Unsettled, I turned away.

Indeed, it was only after taking my leave of London that I pieced together the clues from my notebook and mobile and narrowed down from a list of possible structures the tower’s identity: St. Alban’s. From a number of websites, I was able to glean the parish’s history, which imperfectly mirrored others I had learned of. A medieval church, this time dedicated to the first English martyr, had fallen into disrepair and required demolition in the early 17th century only to come down with the Great Fire. Within two decades and under Wren’s supervision, it reemerged in the Perpendicular Gothic style, peculiar for its clean geometry, having been merged with another parish.

Yet, as I was then tempted to hazard, churches were rarely built to last, and it could come as no surprise when the nave and transepts at last burned out in the December 1940 firebombings and left a husk in their place. However familiar that story had come to seem, one element continued to turn over in my mind: why did towers better resist the fall? For, if the West did not lack for towers like St. Alban’s, I was no more able to make sense of how the highest structures remained when their supports had been brought low and gutted.

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