St Paul’s Cathedral and Westminster Abbey aren’t the only sights in London for people interested in churches and cathedrals.
Visitors to the main sights in London should always be aware that there is a historical church close by. These smaller churches aren’t as famous as St Paul’s Cathedral or Westminster Abbey, but you won’t have to pay to go inside and you could well be the only person there. However, these churches will give an insight into London’s unique history and bring you closer to local legends and characters. Take a moment here to gather your thoughts and to reflect upon what you have seen, before dashing off to the next sight.
The 590-foot Swiss Re building is an eye-catching structure even in a city like London. “The Gherkin”, as it’s sometimes called, sits on the site of the Baltic Exchange, which was badly damaged by an IRA bomb in 1992 and eventually demolished in 1998. The nearby church of St Ethelburga, which survived both the Great Fire and the Blitz of WWII, was destroyed in 1993 by a bomb. Today, the new church has become a centre for peace and reconciliation, which is open to visitors on Fridays. In 1607 Henry Hudson, of Hudson River fame, and the crew of the Hopewell took their final communion here before setting off to find the North-West passage to India.
In an island in the middle of The Strand near The Royal Courts of Justice and Twinings Tea Shop sits the Church of St Clement Danes. Destroyed during the Blitz, the church was given to the RAF in the 1950s and commemorates the 120,000 Air Force personnel who died during the conflict. Though not the St Clement’s church mentioned in the nursery rhyme, the church bells play “Oranges and Lemons” at various times of the day.
A further 100 yards towards the City is found the Temple Church, built by the Knights Templar. The Church is in two parts: the Round and the Chancel. The Round Church was consecrated in 1185 by the patriarch of Jerusalem. Its recent publicity in relation to the Da Vinci Code has meant more visitors to this church, but it’s still an incredible oasis of calm not fifty yards from the busy streets. A column outside the church marks the point where the Great Fire of London was finally extinguished. Atop the column is a small statue of two knights riding a horse, showing that the Templars couldn’t always afford to own a horse and had to share. Nearby is the Inner Temple Hall, where Mahatma Gandhi studied in the late 1880s.
Visitors to the Victoria and Alberta Museum or Natural History Museum in South Kensington should make sure to visit The Brompton Oratory, which is also close to Harrods. The Oratory was built in 1884 and thus became the first Catholic Church to be built in England after the Reformation. The style is Italianate Baroque and is an exact imitation of the Gesu church in Rome. Some beautiful, exported genuine Italian fittings predate the building. A colourful ceiling curves up a dome that’s 50 metres in diameter.
I headed to the Treasury to see some of the less palatable objects associated with religion, namely reliquaries containing the body parts of the apostles, Thaddeus, Peter, and Andrew. These parts are called relics and are venerated by people who visit Echmiadsin, but I have always found it hard to believe these relics can be ‘original’. As far as I am aware, St Peter never came near Armenia, as he was busy in Rome, so how did part of his arm make it here without the rest of him? St Andrew did visit Georgia on his apostolic quest to convert the peoples of Russia, but it’s hard to believe he left an important part of him behind for the Armenians to worship. However, after Andrew was crucified in Patras in Greece, there seems to have been quite a trade in his skeleton, so it’s possible a finger or toe made it to Echmiadzin.
The main church at this site was built around 650. It had three storeys and seems to have had 32 equal sides, quite a feat of engineering in itself. The whole of the cathedral precinct was destroyed in 930 by an earthquake and gradually became hidden under centuries of soil until it was re-discovered around a hundred years ago.
What remains now is an semi-circle of pillars and a vast floor along with hundreds of massive stones from the three-storeyed church. The ruins are evocative of a time earlier than the church dates from, as the pillars look as though they belong to a temple rather than a church. The problem at Zvartnots is that the architectural experts can’t agree on what the church really looked like when it was standing between 650 and 930. Some of these experts even believe the scale model in the nearby museum is inaccurate. As that’s the case, I think it’s best to leave Zvartnots as it is, in ruins, and allow visitors to use their own imagination to reconstruct the church.