The Holy Smoke Run 1

The parks of North London are fuller than ever in lockdown 3. Perhaps because daylight hours are so limited, or maybe everyone is trying to avoid the creeping sense of spread middles. Maybe if I were more spritely I’d welcome the opportunity to jump over dog leads and round maniac scooting toddlers but I’d rather just avoid them.

Using Stephen Millar’s “London’s City Churches” book as a guide I’ve come up with a plan to visit a different City church on my jog each day, about 56 altogether, which should see me through to a time when an end to this may be in sight. It will provide me with the endorphins and routine essential for keeping my head together, and with my new Christmas trainers the 3-6 mile round trips seem doable enough.

RUN 1: All Hallows by the Tower

The first and oldest in the book, this church stands on ground which has been used for worship since the 7th century. It skulks shrugging away from what would normally be heavy traffic on a busy junction, a short walk from the Thames river and boxed inland by a large new glassy building which provides seats for the lunch bunch. Bits of tuna and crisps could well be dropping on the site of the old church yard which was once used for storing explosives and headless corpses from the neighbouring Tower of London, and the final resting place for lost Knights Templar.

The church’s tower (pictured above), which survived the Blitz but only just, is the same one which Samuel Pepys climbed to report on the devastation of the city during the great fire of 1666. As he stood watching the “saddest sight of desolation” somewhere below local resident and former much derided colleague Sir William Penn (a “false knave”) was organising his navel workers to demolish buildings near the church to make a fire break, which succeeded in saving All Hallows’, the same (newly scorch-marked) church which 22 years earlier witnessed the baptism of his son William. It was also the year that Penn junior, while in Ireland avoiding the plague, converted to Quakerism, his fervent dedication to which saw him back in site of All Hallows’ as a prisoner at the Tower of London two years later.

As Sir Penn’s health failed he wrote to the future King to secure protection for his son, who’s convictions grew stronger the more he and the Quakers were persecuted. This was granted and with a combination of the King’s good will and a £16,000 outstanding debt to his father, Penn junior was able to bargain an entire states’ worth of America to take his Quaker beliefs and people to. He was argued out of calling it “New Wales” (by the Welsh), then “Sylvania” (latin for woods) as Charles II insisted the new colony’s name should honour his father. Pennsylvania was created and for a while became a beacon of civil rights, drawing in the dispossessed of Europe with trials by jury for all, religious and voting freedom, a fair education system, an amendable constitution and even a “generous” agreement with the resident Lenape people that they could carry on living and hunting where they pleased on their land. Sadly Penn was not able to extend his egalitarian principles to the slaves he owned and used. But the name stuck, through war and revolution, and now it springs to mind for being a pivotal state in the great nail-biting election in the terrible year of 2020.

Back to All Hallows’, still – in normal times – a busy church with it’s own museum, running club, organ recitals and traditions (the Knollys Rose ceremony is particularly quaint). Running back along the crowded Thames I needed to mask up given the narrow paths. Just past St Paul’s, I was stopped by a couple of Spanish dudes who were still on their night out from yesterday in search of Liverpool Street Station (by the looks of them they had been searching for some time). Despite social distancing and masks they still wanted to fist bump on parting (er… “no, I’m good” I waved) which gave me nostalgia. Suddenly the old “normal” felt like it happened in the 90s. Coming past a cafe at the end of our street which sells The Best Coffee there were crowds of millennials queuing and huddling for warmth in a way which would make health professionals cry. Overall the feeling round town this Saturday morning was 5am Glastonbury, with all the music stopped, only a few takeaways open to the most hardened revellers, always inadequately dressed for the morning chill. So it felt right to visit the first of this City’s holy monuments today, just as in another lifetime I would have gravitated to one of the standing stones on a hill in Somerset to watch the sun rise and shiver.

Lombard Street this morning, as the suspended tsunami of modern architecture looms…

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