My bed and breakfast was just a couple of blocks from the Victoria and Albert Museum. After a few hours there, I noticed a church next door. This church, Brompton Oratory, completely wowed me, priming me for visits to other churches I had planned to see. Many of them were designed or rebuilt after the Great Fire of 1666 by Sir Christopher Wren, England’s godsend of an architect, when he was only 33 years old. (Numerologists may love the fact that this creator of dozens of London’s churches received this massive commission for the rebirth of God’s houses at the same age as Jesus was at His death). These are my favorites.
#1 St. Paul’s Cathedral
Perhaps the most famous photograph of St. Paul’s Cathedral, St. Paul’s Survives was taken at the worst moment, during the Blitz in 1940. Photographer Herbert Mason captured the cathedral’s dome — one of the top five domes in the world — surrounded by smoke billowing from the burning buildings all around it. It’s a striking image that not only documents the massive destruction caused by the Nazi bombings but also the resilience of the cathedral (and, by extension, England) in the face of several direct hits. The cathedral did not succumb to the flames, maybe because it rose from them nearly three centuries earlier, when the original St. Paul’s was completely gutted during the Great Fire of 1666. Sir Christopher Wren was the architect behind the new building, along with 50 other churches. St. Paul’s, completed in 1710, is his masterpiece — a magnificent house of worship of ashlar masonry fronted by a second-story pediment, with a statue of St. Paul balanced at the peak, and by two towers, both topped by a pineapple (symbol of peace, prosperity, and hospitality) and the right tower with a clock on three sides, below the largest bell ever cast in the United Kingdom. I stepped inside, immediately impressed by its size — 574 feet long and up to 246 feet wide —and by the nave, flanked on both sides by an arcade of piers and Corinthian pilasters, in front of me. I detoured down one of the side aisles to the apse and high altar, with a beautiful baldachin and a wonderful mosaic of a very large Jesus looking down at me. Badly damaged during the war, the apse was rebuilt and dedicated in 1958 as the American Memorial Chapel, funded entirely by donations from the British people in honor of the 28,000 American soldiers killed in the war who were stationed in, or on their way to, the United Kingdom. The interior of the dome is positively striking, complete with paintings of the life of St. Paul, windows, statues, and an oculus. Feeling ambitious, I climbed the dizzying 528 mostly spiral stairs to the outdoor Golden Gallery for sweeping views of London and a better perspective of how huge this cathedral is, and how its formidability preserved it during London’s darkest hours.
#2 Westminster Abbey
More than any other sight in London, Westminster Abbey was at the top of my list of places to visit, particularly because it is where the ashes of Thomas Hardy, my favorite author, are laid, following his funeral service there in 1928. When I arrived, I realized that finding the marker indicating where his ashes lie might be a little problematic: The crowds were so intense that I could easily pass by it and never notice. Before I entered the abbey, I took a good look around this magnificent structure, a beguiling visual feast. The present church dates from around 1269, with centuries of remodeling, rebuilding, and additions following, and encompassing almost every architectural element you would expect from a grand church of its era(s). With flying buttresses, pinnacles and spires, rose and stained-glass windows, Gothic arches, statuary, and finely sculpted details, Westminster remains one of the most recognizable buildings in the United Kingdom. The front façade is nearly symmetrical, save for the clock and flagpole on the left tower, and 14 sculptures of 20th-century martyrs extend above the front doors. When I stepped inside, the full force of the abbey’s physical beauty and deep history hit me. The abbey has been the scene of every royal coronation for nearly 1,000 years (with two exceptions) and of countless burials, including those of kings Henry III, V, and VII, and Edward I, III, and VI; queens Mary I, Elizabeth I, and Mary Queen of Scots; Charles Darwin, Stephen Hawking, Sir Isaac Newton, David Livingstone, Robert Browning, Geoffrey Chaucer, Charles Dickens, Rudyard Kipling, and Laurence Olivier. Cenotaphs for other influential and illustrious figures are scattered everywhere, from the Brontë sisters to William Blake to Benjamin Disraeli — a veritable who’s who of British history. The complex interior is seductive, with so many details clamoring for attention that it almost becomes overwhelming — the ribbed vaulted ceiling over the nave, the magnificent organ, the elegant choir stalls, the stunning stained-glass windows (from a 13th-century depiction of Pentecost to the mid-20th-century Battle of Britain memorial window), the chapels and halls, the peaceful cloisters, and the 68 misericords — hinged oak seats with expertly carved figures of mermaids, dragons, David and Goliath, foliage, bears, lions, and so on. My favorite section was the Henry VII Lady Chapel, a spectacular section famous for its tombs of British royalty, nearly 100 statues of saints, a memorial chapel to World War II airmen of the Royal Air Force killed in action, stalls of the Knights of the Order of the Bath and their heraldic banners, and especially the glorious pendant fan-vaulted ceiling — a show-stopping element that will utterly captivate you and keep you staring up for a very long time. And, yes, I did find Hardy’s marker, in Poets’ Corner, in some very fine company.
#3 Southwark Cathedral
Almost immediately after crossing over the River Thames via the London Bridge, I came to my destination. Although this ancient Anglican church still holds a few fragments from its 1106 origins, Southwark Cathedral as it is today dates from 1220 to 1420 (making it London’s first Gothic church), with additions and changes made up until 1897. The cruciform plan meets under the sturdy square tower with four clock faces and pinnacles, and each arm radiates out in a fine display of Gothic windows and arches, flying buttresses, and pitched roofs. Inside, the nave, under a long ribbed ceiling, leads to the altar and the magnificent reredos, which bears two rows of 11 statues each, mixing Biblical figures such as saints Peter, Paul, and John with the likes of later saints and British kings and bishops. Stained-glass windows, many of which were added in the 1900s, include the brilliant window by La Farge over the reredos. Keep your eyes open for both the John Harvard Chapel, named for first benefactor of Harvard University, who was baptized here, and the alabaster memorial to William Shakespeare, a resident of the parish. Above the Bard’s reclining figure, quill in hand, try to figure out which of his characters from such plays as The Tempest, Hamlet, and Macbeth are depicted in the stained-glass window. A collection of medieval roof bosses are on display to test your knowledge of Christian symbolism. To get a clearer idea of exactly what this church looks like from the outside, make sure you find the wonderful scale model of the entire church.
#4 Westminster Cathedral
Westminster Cathedral, started in 1895, stands in stark contrast to the glass and concrete office buildings surrounding it, a neo-Byzantine masterpiece that remains incomplete. Everything that has been completed, however, is masterful. The striped brick and stone exterior arrested my attention and drew me closer, with its soaring bell tower reaching 273 feet in height (and containing only one bell as well as a viewing gallery at 210 feet). Then I noticed the fantastic entry, one of the world’s top 10 entryways. This beautiful portal includes arches and columns, a trio of doors (the left is topped with an alpha; the right with an omega), sculptures of saints surrounded by wreath garlands, and a wonderful mosaic above the main door with five figures: Jesus, Mary, Joseph, St. Peter…and King Edward the Confessor. Eighteen domes cap the various towers. When I stepped inside, I was surprised by how dark it was. The entire top half remains unadorned, unlit, and unfinished, but the bottom half comes alive with gorgeous mosaics, at least 126 different varieties of marble from 24 countries on five continents (more than any other building in England), and nearly one dozen chapels. The Stations of the Cross — limestone carvings in low relief — are affixed to the columns along the nave. I passed under the seemingly floating 30-foot-high Crucifix above me on my way to the altar to see the archbishop’s cathedra and the impressive baldachin, a tremendous component (31 feet wide and 38 feet tall) adorned with white and colored marbles, pearl, gold, and lapis lazuli. While Westminster Abbey gets so much attention and trampled by crowds, Westminster Cathedral remains an undervisited sight — all the better to take in its many marvels.
#5 Priory Church of St. Bartholomew the Great
London’s oldest parish church is a rarity among the city’s churches: It survived both the Great Fire of 1666 and German bombs in World War II. But that doesn’t mean it has escaped history unscathed. Founded in 1123 by Rahere, a senior member of the clergy of St. Paul’s Cathedral, the building rose as a promise he made to St. Bartholomew, to whom he prayed to cure his illness. He recovered, and St. Bartholomew appeared to him in a vision, telling Rahere where to build a church in return for his recovery. The original church included the priory and a hospital, and Rahere is buried in the church. In 1539, the church’s nave was destroyed but the rest remained standing, inadvertently becoming a home for squatters starting in the late 1600s. Restored in the late 19th century, the Priory Church of St. Bartholomew the Great‘s wonderful Romanesque architecture can now be enjoyed by all. The original south entry is through an arch under a timber-framed house, which leads to a path to the church and its adjacent graveyard. The impressive interior includes heavy columns, the lovely oriel window, an organ under a sweeping arch, a baptismal font from 1404, and a beautiful cloister with plain stained-glass windows with panels of different shades of green, blue, and teal. If it looks familiar, it’s because you’ve seen it starring in Four Weddings and a Funeral, Shakespeare in Love, The End of the Affair, Elizabeth: The Golden Age, and The Other Boleyn Girl.