St. Stephen’s Walbrook is built in the shadow of Saint Paul’s Cathedral, rather hidden away down the narrow street which gives it its name. After the Great Fire of London in 1666, Sir Christopher Wren designed no fewer than 51 churches to replace those that had been lost in the four-day conflagration. Saint Stephen’s was his first, and the one where he tried out ideas later realised on a grander scale in the cathedral.
I visited it while I was in London the other week. This was Wren’s own parish church – he lived at Number 15, Walbrook. It’s the very first English church to have a domed ceiling in the Baroque style, such as Wren had seen in churches he’d visited in France and Italy, and it enhances the feeling of airiness and space.
I liked this church immediately. On a grey, cheerless day, light poured in through the immense arched windows, glazed with translucent glass as in Wren’s day. Back in those early days, he’d had oak box pews installed, and the Victorians had later replaced the plain glass with richly coloured stained glass windows, which limited the light entering the building and was contrary to Wren’s own wish to have a classical, rather than a Gothic-inspired church. Fine woodwork dates from Wren’s day. Here is the pulpit and its magnificent tester.
Then came World War II. A bomb plummeted through the roof. The church was saved from destruction because the bomb didn’t explode. But the interior was ravaged, the glass shattered. Restoration of the church proved controversial. Wren’s own desire to have plain glazing was respected, but his box pews are no more. Light-coloured wooden seating now surrounds a monumental white polished marble altar, the work of Henry Moore. It has been placed in the centre of the church, immediately beneath the dome.
This must now be a magnificent, as well as an intimate space in which to worship, or listen to a concert. Yet the congregation had to battle for several years against diehards who tried to vandalise both windows and altar, objecting to what they saw as a desecration of a historic church.
I got chatting to the verger, who was sweeping the floor as I arrived. He told me about the topsy-turvy lives of City of London churches. Almost nobody lives in the city these days, so Thursday is the new Sunday, with worshippers consisting of the working population, and retired folk from the suburbs who return to support the church they’d loved in earlier years.
He told me that Samaritans, the 24 hour telephone support service for the depressed, those contemplating suicide, began here when its founder Chad Varah, was minister here.
I’d popped in originally as I was exploring the part of the city my grandfather would have called home in his childhood. His house is no more – everything in his street was destroyed in the Blitz. This church is near enough to his home that he may have visited it from time to time, though his family’s own church is likely to have been All Hallows by the Tower, the oldest church in London. That will be my next port of call in search of his roots, next time I am in the city.