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Travelogue G12

December 24, 2015

Not far from St. Alban’s another distinct iteration in the ruined church series presented itself in the form of the St. Mary Aldermanbury open space. Like those before it, St. Mary’s history began well before the Fire, but its lineage nonetheless failed to secure its escape from the flames. Again like the others, this church’s rebuilding was entrusted to Wren, whose Portland stone structure remained a fixture in the city until the days and nights of the Blitz. As with others, the church lost not just roof and nave, but parishioners.

As late as 1966, the passerby could catch sight of the walls from nearby carparks and gaze in through the open roof from any of the neighboring office buildings. Rather than shore up the remaining structures, the city authorities saw another way out: at the request of Westminster College and the inhabitants of Fulton, Missouri, the belfry, walls and portal were transferred into their custody. This small university, in north-central Missouri, envisioned the rebuilt structure as the center of their National Churchill Museum and requisitioned the necessary funds to ship the remains, clean the stone, refurbish the interior and raise a new roof.

From what photographs I could find of that interior, I might never have guessed that the church in question had its beginnings a thousand years before across the sea. The polished pews and Corinthian columns, smooth white coating and restored moldings lent an air of long standing which, if anything, might provide the slightest hint that structures’ origins lay elsewhere. Before the building stands a span of Berlin Wall, perhaps seven or eight sections, as befits the institution having hosted Churchill’s 1946 speech on the Iron Curtain. If this stretch of painted concrete did dispel something of the church’s attempts to mask its origins, I nonetheless deemed the juxtaposition an appropriate one.

For, just as the curators of the grounds had connected geographically distinct structures, they had also joined temporally distinct but causally interrelated places. I took some pleasure in the mental exercise of following each link of that obscure, or perhaps imagined, chain leading from the founding of a medieval church and its ruin twice over to the establishment of a concrete divide between the two Berlins. Here, at last unearthed by the historian, that chain had come to light in their presentation one before the other so as to minimize the lengths to which the onlooker need go to find their striking connection.

As to the garden in London where I found myself that August day, the city authorities had left nought but the church’s footprint. Even now, the nearest I had come to the church was a stop in a rail station in central Missouri some years before. That footprint had they replanted with bushes and trees and monuments of different kinds, ranging from a memorial plaque from Westminster College to a stone pedestal topped by a Shakespeare bust and fronted with an open book to commemorate the life and death of two collaborators in the St. Mary Aldermanbury parish. From the text on the pedestal, it was difficult to determine whether the bodies of said collaborators had remained in the churchyard turned public garden.

In so many ways had I seen London churches, churchyards and parishes transformed: ruined and converted; ruined and leveled and near forgotten; ruined and reduced and privatized; ruined and transferred. Still, it fell upon me to ask what else might church ruins become, so I pressed on.

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