Saturday 23 June 2012

A Trip to St Bride's

Today I was lucky enough to go to St Bride’s Church on Fleet Street as part of the ‘Celebrate the City’ events being held in London Town.

Saint Bride’s is known by several sobriquets including, ‘The Cathedral of Fleet Street’ and ‘The Printer’s Church’. There has been a building on the site since the Roman settlement of Londinium (then just down the road) and there have been Saxon, Norman and later medieval churches on the site. St Bride’s was reputedly founded by the Irish saint, Brigid, who reputedly came and formed a well and a church. 
Incidentally, Brigid is one of my favourite saints, obviously an Irish saint, she is one of the patron saint of beers and one of her miracles was turning dirty bathwater into beer. A prayer attributed to her begins, ‘I wish I had a great lake of ale for the King of kings, and the family of heaven to drink it through time eternal.’ 

The tour started with music, written by Henry Purcell for the church. Looking around, the light dances around the building and everything is light and airy. The fixtures and fittings are principally from the 1950s, rebuilt after it was reduced to a husk during the Blitz. The shell of the building is from the 1670s, rebuilt after it was reduced to smouldering ash after burning down after the Great Fire of London. There is a display in the crypt of remnants of two charred bells from the two disasters.
In the corner of the church is a small chapel dedicated to members of news companies captured or killed, while gathering news stories. In this chapel they are prayed for and vigils are sometimes held. Another feature of the church that shows its links with the newspaper culture of Fleet Street is the dedications on the benches, not just dedications to journalists but also benches sponsored by papers and magazines. My favourite being the OK bench.
St Bride’s association with printing goes back to the time Caxton’s successor Wynkyn de Worde moved the Caxton press from Westminster to just outside the church, so he could sell his works to the many monks monking around the area. The guilds of stationers and printers grew out of the guild of the church, linking the two for over 500 years. 
Parishioners of the church include Milton and Dryden and Pepys, who was baptised there and buried his brother there (after bribing the warden to nudge other bodies out the way). The crypt was exposed after the bombing, allowing historians to date the church much further back then originally thought and also exposing all the coffins and also a charnel house.
The tour takes us through a basement, where there is a little kitchen, a box of steeleye span cd’s, that the light-fingered muse calls me to steal (I resist) and behind a little wooden door is a pit with bones laid out a criss-cross shape and pretty skulls laid in a row, row, row. It looked pretend, like something created for a cheap horror attraction (of the sort I once worked). It was strange to stand there, looking into the blank sockets of a previously alive human. Momento Mori indeed.

Stranger still was the ossuary. During the rebuild, most of the coffins were cleared away and buried in other places, but 250 of them were marked by having lead plaques on the coffins, allowing the bodies to be identified in the records. These bodies were removed from there coffins, studied and then placed in a little office, the heads stacked tidily on the shelves and the corresponding bodies stacked in boxes nearby. This is where the next part of the tour took us, into a strange office lined in buff boxes, labelled with things like ‘skull and mandibles with hair’ and ‘skull fragments’. Under a desk, with an old IBM on it, are a pile of lead plates with people’s names on.

One of the names is of a man who in his career as master of the Stationer’s Guild and a key eighteenth century novelist, combines many of the aspects of St Bride’s. The man is non other than Clarissa author, Samuel Richardson. I would have given his skull a piece of my mind, but I didn’t know which one it was.

Also buried in the church, but not distinguished enough for a lead plate was Robert Levet, physician to the poor and the subject of one of my favourite poems ever.
On The Death Of Mr. Robert Levet, A Practiser In Physic
CONDEMN'D to Hope's delusive mine,
As on we toil from day to day,
By sudden blasts or slow decline
Our social comforts drop away.

Well tried through many a varying year,
See Levet to the grave descend,
Officious, innocent, sincere,
Of every friendless name the friend.

Yet still he fills affection's eye,
Obscurely wise and coarsely kind;
Nor, letter'd Arrogance, deny
Thy praise to merit unrefined.

When fainting nature call'd for aid,
And hov'ring death prepared the blow,
His vig'rous remedy display'd
The power of art without the show.

In Misery's darkest cavern known,
His useful care was ever nigh,
Where hopeless Anguish pour'd his groan,
And lonely Want retired to die.

No summons mock'd by chill delay,
No petty gain disdained by pride;
The modest wants of every day
The toil of every day supplied.

His virtues walk'd their narrow round,
Nor made a pause, nor left a void;
And sure th' Eternal Master found
The single talent well employ'd.

The busy day, the peaceful night,
Unfelt, uncounted, glided by;
His frame was firm--his powers were bright,
Though now his eightieth year was nigh.

Then with no fiery throbbing pain,
No cold gradations of decay,
Death broke at once the vital chain,
And freed his soul the nearest way. 
If anyone does decide to come to St Bride’s, I completely recommend it.
All yours

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