In the City of London, Thursday is the new Sunday

St. Stephen's Walbrook. These days it's huddled in between buildings ancient and modern, and hard to spot. (Wikimedia Commons)
St. Stephen’s Walbrook. These days it’s huddled in between buildings ancient and modern, and hard to spot. (Wikimedia Commons)

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.

The dome and windows of St. Stephen’s Walbrook (Wikimedia Commons)

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.

The pulpit and tester of St. Stephen’s Walbrook.

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.

Henry Moore’s altar, directly below the central dome (Wikimedia Commons)

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.

You can’t really see the dome from outside. Best visit the pages of Wikipedia Commons.

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.

Not Vital

This is your introduction to YSP. ‘Pelvis’

No, it’s Not Vital to visit the Yorkshire Sculpture Park on a perfect Autumn day, when the trees are at their burnished best, flaunting their chromatic colours just before the November squalls tug down their rusty leaves.  It’s Not Vital at all.  But it’s a brilliant way to spend a Sunday.

Once, the Yorkshire Sculpture Park was a stately home – the 18th century Bretton Hall – belonging to the Wentworth family. Just after the war it became a teacher training college specialising in the arts, until it was taken over by the University of Leeds.  During those final years, The Yorkshire Sculpture Park was founded in the college parkland by Bretton Hall lecturer Peter Murray.  When the college closed, Yorkshire Sculpture Park took over the estate grounds and lakes.

Bretton Hall and its surrounding parkland.

Some exhibits – particularly by those two sculptors who grew up so near to Bretton Hall, Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth, are semi permanent.  But most artists shown there exhibit for a season or so, and you’ll find their works placed all over the extensive parkland: on the lawns, overlooking the lakes, waiting to be discovered on a woodland walk. Art appreciation combines with views across the distant Pennines, and a good healthy work-out across shady woods, formal lawns, lakes, pastureland and country bridle paths.

Henry Moore’s ‘Draped Seated Woman’ looks down over the distant wooded lake.

And I’ve been teasing you.  Not Vital is the name of one of those sculptors exhibiting at the moment. It’s his work ‘Pelvis’ that greeted us as we came into the park.

He was raised in a remote part of the Swiss Alps, and developed a strong affinity with nature.  Much of his life has been nomadic, and he engages with the artisans he meets on his travels to create works from local materials, pushing known technologies to the limits.

Here’s The Moon, a highly polished stainless steel sphere which reflects the environment it’s placed in.  Those craters are based on photos of the moon, and individually produced by Beijing craftsmen.

Not Vital: ‘The Moon’.

And here’s Hanging and Weighting, an unsettling plaster and steel construction that surely, surely is about to slide to the floor?

Not Vital: ‘Hanging and Weighting’.

I wish I’d taken more photos of his arresting and thought-provoking works – such as his self-portrait as a North Korean peasant, which is blank and faceless.

A taster of more on offer yesterday.  Here’s KAWS Small Lie, a dramatic and monumental wooden sculpture of Pinocchio.

KAWS’ ‘Small Lie’.

Here’s Richard Long’s Red Slate Line, marching us inexorably forward – into the lake….

Richard Long's 'Red Slate Line'.
Richard Long’s ‘Red Slate Line’.

….. that’s if we haven’t tripped over Hemali Bhuta’s Speed Breakers – bronze tree roots conceived to be stumbled upon as we explore the woods.

Hemali Bhuta's 'Speed Breakers'.
Hemali Bhuta’s ‘Speed Breakers’.

Come and have a virtual tour of the park.  And if you get the chance, visit the real thing.

Parkland at YSP with distant sculpture.