I first heard of this church from one of my oldest and dearest friends who’s parents were married there in the 1960s. In my mind it was in Narnia, behind a simple wooden door in a diesel-stained London backstreet leading to a scene of flowers and luminescence around a beautiful young couple on the threshold of eternity. I also wondered what St Andrew was doing in the wardrobe.
Despite this impossible standard, even in the rain in lockdown this handsome red-brick Wren didn’t disappoint. Surprisingly it was open, and as I went through the front door I saw a sign which told me not to use it, but to head round the back. So I followed the arrows and found myself coming through a door exactly opposite the one I’d just been through a minute ago. Pandemic protocol sometimes makes me feel like I’m a bad actor in a confusing play directed by a really bossy printer.
Only the narthex and the chapel were open, which was a shame because I wanted to see the Road to Damascus stain glass window (the picture on the cover of my city church guide book) and there was an intriguing-looking library on the balcony. The interior is wood panelled, with guild flags hanging down and looked ready for a medieval banquet. There is a 15th century bell at the back of the church which has the inscription: “I have the name Gabriel, sent from heaven” although it was actually sent down to earth by the Luftwaffe in 1940 along with two others which had to be recast.
As the refurbished church bells rang the Angelus (3, 3, 3, then 9… or maybe it was 18 o’clock in Narnia?) I found a basket of blessed chalk and a leaflet about the religious significant of Chalking the Door, the christian custom of writing “20 ✝ C ✝ M ✝ B ✝ 21″ on their front doors on Twelfth Night, the feast of epiphany. The numbers represent the outgoing and incoming year; the letters the initials of the three kings Casper, Malchior, and Balthazar (and also Christus mansionem benedicat, or Christ bless this house). The leaflet explained its significance was to be as welcoming to others in our homes as the Magi were to Jesus. I heaved a melancholy sigh remembering the days when guests weren’t a public health risk. I took a piece of the chalk anyway, because it made me feel lucky.
So about the wardrobe. If you’ve read my other entries you’ll know City churches are named very literally: St Andrew’s Undershaft, All Hallows on the Wall etc. and this is no different, except rather than your standard Klepstad from IKEA (or even a carved apple tree…) it was a neighbouring building which from the 14th century to its destruction and subsequent relocation in 1666 housed the Royal Wardrobe, where the King stored his ceremonial clothes, weapons and sometimes accounts. At this time St Andrew’s was in the heart of medieval London, part of the long lost Thames fronted Baynard Castle (see pictures below), next to Blackfriars priory, both of which were also destroyed by the fire.
These buildings would have been heaving with life, having housed various royals including King Henrys VIII’s wives and Shakespeare’s theatre company, the King’s Men. Shakespeare also owned a house in Ireland Yard right next to St Andrew’s, which apparently shared a basement with today’s Cockpit Pub. He rehearsed and performed with the King’s Men in the great hall leased from Blackfriar’s priory, and it was there that The Tempest was first performed – the plays long musical interludes are supposedly so that the candles around the hall could be re-light without interrupting the performance. There is nothing left of these two buildings now, just a really ugly brutalist office block and a bypass, but if you go to the Thames Path at Blackfriars at low tide you can walk down to the beach and pick up bits of clay pipes which may well have been heaved out of the wealthy windows of Baynard’s Castle or discarded by one of Shakespeare’s players having a crafty between-the-scene smoke.
I continued my journey along the arrows to the door-of-no-entry. Just before it, on the left, there was a small, bland chapel dedicated to St Anne’s, a neighbouring church which hadn’t made it through the great fire. And there, as if it had been waiting patiently for me, was a gorgeous stained glass window depicting a beautiful, luminous young couple, taking their vows on the threshold of eternity. I smiled, helped myself to hand sanitiser, and exited stage left.