This week’s entry onto my London Shoes website also had a little touch of nostalgia in it for me – for not only was the subject matter a place that I’ve always wanted to visit and learn more about – the venue also enabled me to recollect and catch-up with 2 aspects from my past.
My topic this week is London’s iconic architectural structure that is “St. Martin-in-the-Fields” church.
Turning firstly to the history of this famous landmark – records show that there was a church situated on its current site, way back as far as the 13th century – a time when the area was quite a distance ‘outside’ of the City walls, and was literally all fields and meadows.
The church takes its name from ‘Saint Martin of Tours’ who had been a soldier in the Roman army before entering the Christian Church, and eventually becoming the ‘Bishop of Tours’ – He was known for his continual acts of generosity – especially towards the less fortunate such as beggars etc – and that is why he got his saint’hood.
In 1542, King Henry VIII commissioned a new church be built on the site, as he was getting fed-up of continually seeing the dead bodies of plague victims being dragged past his front door – just a little way down the road at Whitehall Palace.
He also ordered that a ‘Whipping Post’ be erected directly outside the church as a deterrent, in terms of keeping the ‘peasants’ under control.
St. Martin-in-the Fields survived the Great Fire of London of 1666, but even so, was rebuilt again in 1726, and it is this structure that stands today.
It was designed by a James Gibbs, who was heavily influenced by the work of Sir Christopher Wren.
London had now expanded rapidly and space was limited, so a decision was made to use the church’s graveyard space to build the redesigned church on. As a result, the majority of the graves at St. Martin’s were re-located elsewhere – but a large number of the gravestones and other memorials, were retained and kept in the St. Martin’s crypt.
The design and structure of St. Martin’s soon became very much admired throughout the world – to the extent that even today, there are a number of churches throughout the USA whose design is based directly on St. Martin’s.
Many famous people have been buried at St. Martin-in-the-Field’s throughout the centuries, including the likes of:-
>Thomas Chippendale – the famous furniture maker
>Robert Boyle – the scientist noted for ‘Boyles Law’
>Jack Shepherd – one of London’s most notorious highwaymen
>Henry Croft – London’s very first ‘Pearly King’
>Nell Gwyn – ‘friend’ of the Royal’s
In fact, St. Martin-in-the-Fields is the official parish church of Buckingham Palace and St James’s Palace – and there are a number of references to royal connection scattered around the church including the Royal Coat-of-Arms of the UK on the ceiling.
Following the example set by its patron Saint – the church is renowned for being “the church of the ever open door” with any faith or religion being welcomed to pray together there.
But it is its care for the disadvantaged and homeless that the work of St. Martin-in-the-Fields is best known – and this is where my association with the church begins.
For the past 15 years I have voluntarily worked for the homeless charity ‘The Passage’ based in Westminster – where my role has been that of a ‘mentor’ – which basically involves meeting up with homeless individuals, to encourage them to want to get off the streets and back into main stream society.
Not so much in the last year and a half since I retired, but whilst I was working, I would regularly hold weekly one-to-one, face-to-face meetings with my nominated ‘clients’- and the location of these meetings would often be in the magnificent ‘crypt’ of St. Martin-in-the-Fields.
The crypt has been redeveloped considerably since I first started visiting the place – and today it is probably the best ‘underground’ café/restaurant in London, and such a unique venue to either have a cuppa, a beer, a snack or even a full meal.
On the floors of the crypt at St. Martin’s are loads of old headstones and memorials that were either once part of the church’s graveyard or stored away in its vaults.
What is great about the Crypt is that it regularly hosts well attended ‘jazz’ concerts where all profits go to support the church.
So – upon revisiting the crypt, it was only right that I grab a quick cuppa and reminisce on all the homeless ‘clients’ that I had met up with down there and had the great privilege of getting to know over the years.
The other reason I was pleased to visit St. Martin-in-the-Fields on this particular day, was that I had the opportunity to watch an old friend ‘perform’ in the church.
Back in the late 1990’s when I was the manager of Barclays Bank in Mare Street, Hackney E8, I had the pleasure of getting to know one of our customers, namely ‘gentleman’ George Double.
Young George (as he was then) was a professional drummer and drum teacher. Now, I play guitar and had played in bands and as a solo act, in my youth – but I had always wanted to play the drums – and so I took up lessons with George as my tutor, which were conducted in the cramped music room of his then flat in Hackney.
I was certainly no Gene Krupa or Buddy Rich (I was more like ‘Animal’ from the Muppets) but I thoroughly enjoyed learning the rudiments of drumming from George – and I look back on those times very fondly.
During that time, George and his accomplices would on occasions, provide ‘live’ music for branch social events that we would run – the most memorable being a ‘Stars-in-their Eyes’ night that we held in a hotel in Buckhurst Hill – an event that is still talked about to this very day, some 18 years later, by all those who attended.
Today, George Double is a renowned and much respected drummer whose books and arrangements are published by Trinity and Faber Music, for whom he has run seminars and workshops all over the world. His recording credits include American singer Jack Jones – Marc Almond, Shirley Bassey – and his West End and touring theatre work includes stints on Wicked, Guys and Dolls, Avenue Q, Sinatra and Anything Goes.
He is a ‘face’ on the British jazz scene, and regularly appears at venues such as the famous Ronnie Scott’s club in Soho, and he is also curator of the Hadleigh and Southwold Jazz Clubs.
On the day of my visit to St. Martin-in-the Fields, my old acquaintance George Double, and the ensemble he was with, were playing a lunch-time gig in the actual church itself, where they treated a packed audience to an excellent set of their music.
Although George was obviously a busy man, we did have the opportunity to have a quick catch-up before and after the gig – to reminisce about the old Hackney days – and it was very pleasing to meet up with him again.
So – before trotting off back home, I ventured into ‘The Salisbury’ pub in St. Martins Lane, Covent Garden, for the customary ‘cheeky’ beer or two.
This 6 storey Grade II listed building dates back to 1890, and is named after Robert Cecil (Lord Salisbury) who held the office of Prime Minister on 3 occasions throughout the late 1800’s and early 1900’s – and whose family coat-of-arms are displayed over the main entrance door.
Historically, from the late 1800’s right up until the 1980’s, The Salisbury was a well-known drinking den of London’s gay community – and a favourite haunt of one Oscar Wilde.
The pub used to be called the ‘Salisbury Stores’ and the “SS” inscriptions can still be seen on the original and ornate etched glass in the bar area, along with many other of the original fixtures and fittings – and it serves up a nice little pint. Definitely a pub worth visiting.
So – St. Martin-in-the-Fields – a good day of interest and entertainment for me – and as one of London’s most famous landmarks, it is certainly well worth a visit.
Hope you enjoy the accompanying photos.
Looking up at the architectural splendor of the entrance to St. Martin-in-the-Field’s church