Face to face with St Giles
I've been out and about in London again scouting routes and locations that I hope will keep the geography of my novel accurate (which based on latest evidence is going to be tricky). What started out as a plan to follow the route one of my characters would take from lodgings to work turned into a full-on walkabout that ended up around the Barbican.
It’s a funny old part of town. Totally devastated during the Blitz, the area was redeveloped in the 1970s and is now home to 4,000 people and the largest performing arts venue in Europe. According to its website, it is also one of London’s best examples of Brutalist architecture.
Brutal is the word. Glass office towers loom over boxy red flats, and the high concrete walkways remind me of a pedestrian version of a motorway cross-section. Obviously, it represents a specific period of architectural history – hence the Grade II listing – but I find it rather desolate. At 3.30pm on a Saturday afternoon I saw two other people, neither of whom actually lived there (I know this because one was taking photos and the other asked me how he got over to the other side of the water feature in the middle of the complex).
But what is fascinating about this part of London is the way that ancient and modern knock up against each other. All around the complex lie small preserved sections of the original London Wall first built by the Romans. Then there’s this little beauty:
This is St Giles Cripplegate. It is one of the last few remaining mediaeval churches in London – one of those rare links between modern Londoners and their Norman, Elizabethan, Georgian and Victorian ancestors. It escaped the Great Fire of London in 1666, but was badly burned in 1897. It was hit twice during the Blitz.
The first strike occurred about two weeks before the Blitz ‘proper’ began, when German bombers accidentally dropped their bombs on built up areas of London rather than oil storage facilities around the docks. The poet John Milton (or at least his stoney representative) was knocked off his plinth and part of the building was damaged. It was hit again in December, when even the cement caught fire because so many incendiary bombs were dropped. Everything was destroyed bar the arcade in the chancel, the outside walls and the tower. A few valuables were saved, including the church registers that date from 1561. The present building was reconstructed using plans dating back to 1545.
By the end of the Blitz, St Paul’s Cathedral had become the totem for London's resilience – if Wren’s masterpiece could ‘take it’ then so too could Londoners. St Paul’s is one of my favourite London landmarks, but round the corner St Giles stands just as proud and I think deserves as much respect. Like St Paul’s it connects us to our past and serves as a symbol of a determination.