Back when London was Londinium we had the greatest wall ever, a sort of reverse Brexit wall, where the Romans managed to stimulate the city’s economy for centuries by keeping the marauding Picts out, even though they had managed to scale Hadrian’s not-so-great wall. Over the centuries many inferior walls have succumbed to fire or bombing raids but this one is still going strong, running along its self-titled road, providing lunch spots and education and architectural reference for the Barbican centres’s western perimeter.
Even more impressively, it still functions as an actual wall, and without it All Hallows-on-the-wall would fall down as it forms the foundation for it’s north side (to the left in photo above). In fact without it the 11th century carnation of All Hallows-on-the-wall would have been destroyed along with the 90 other City churches in the great fire of 1666. Through the Middle Ages the church had been known for it’s hermits and anchorites who were housed in a cell built into the roman wall of the church. While little is recorded of them, it is possible some would have been employed as gatekeepers, as was the case with others given the church’s proximity to Bishopsgate. However the last anchorite to occupy the cell, a priest named Simon Appulby (or “Symon the Anker”), used his calling to write a successful book of prayers and meditations called The Fruyte of Redempcyon, printed with wood cuts (see below) by the wonderfully named Wynkyn de Worde, a pioneering printer of Fleet Street.
Appulby was generous to the church and when he died in 1537 he ordered a feast for his funeral and arranged to be laid to rest in a tomb within his anchorage cell – which I’d like to think was the reason he found no successor – but it probably had more to do with the Dissolution of the Monasteries (1535-38) bringing the tradition to an end. Despite surviving the Great Fire the church floundered and was rebuilt by the son of City architect George Dance, George Dance Junior. It was his first project which he took on at the tender age of 24 after returning from studying classical buildings in Rome, and his inspiration from the Temple of Venus and Rome can be seen in the interior. His enthusiasm for classical design might be the reason he forgot to incorporate a pulpit at the front, so it was squished into the north side of the church and in order to access it the vicar had to leave the building and re-enter it through the London wall, which, had it still been the Middle Ages, meant he would have had to leave the city to preach. Even in the 18th century, when the bounds of the city had expanded beyond the wall, being outside it was termed “without” and inside “within”. So at the very least the vicar would have to do the hokey-cokey. I like the fact that the still intact Roman wall, possibly replete with an entombed anchorite, has been be reunited with its cultural roots and incorporated into the foundations of the church we see today.
It is a shame that the old building was lost along with so much of medieval London (here is a list of the few buildings survived). But the role of the church in peoples lives in the Middle Ages was pretty grim, riddled with corruption and exploitation. I’m not sure how I’d feel baptising a child in a font once used to drown suspected criminals in order to prove their innocence.
The memory of the dark ages would have been so much fresher to the city dwellers of the 18th century, and Dance’s debut masterpiece houses a wonderful church that became the most popular in the city at the beginning of the 20th century. It provided early morning shelter for low paid workers, typically domestic servants, who had to come to the city early to avoid peak train fairs. The vicar at the time set up tents for refreshments in its church yard, like an Edwardian Pret’s, and seized the opportunity to do even more good by building an educational institute round the back open to those who sought refuge.
Having sustained bomb damage in both WWII and the 1993 Bishopsgate bomb it now is the headquarters for an urban youth charity, houses devotional choirs and provides space for art exhibitions and performances.
The silence in the city is foreboding. Just as a fire cleared the district of domestic buildings in 1666, will the pandemic of 2020 do away with it’s workers too? The rats and mice are moving back in, or have become emboldened, as sightings by the unlucky few left at their desks have doubled. The reluctance of those who have found happiness working at home to return to their desks reminds me of the hermits and anchorites, walled up with their devotions, receiving all their worldly needs through small windows just as we receive ours through screens. Maybe it will come full cycle as offices clear out and residential opportunities emerge, because not everyone wants a cat and a garden. Perhaps it’s time for Barbican II.
As I ran down the middle of the road on the way home it was reassuring to see the trickle of people turn into a stream, and then a torrent of Sunday strollers. Hats off to the man down Packington Street who was freewheeling his mobility scooter as his dog pulled it along, a genius way to wear your dog out when you can’t get to the park (and the dog was loving it). The Best Coffee shop’s queue had subsided a little but the The Best Croissant Shop was heaving, and it was time for church.
A woodcut from The Fruyte of Redempcyon by Symon the Anker, 1513.
Those pesky Romans get everywhere.