The first of an occasional series exploring parts of 18th Century London familiar to John Wesley, the founder of Methodism.
Every Friday (my day off) Mary Ann and I try to get out and about, usually exploring part of the wonderful city in which we live. Although London has a reputation for being an expensive place, there are plenty of attractions which are absolutely free: beautiful churches, markets, parks, gardens and most museums and galleries.
Last Friday we visited a part of the City of London which I know fairly well, though Mary Ann less so. We started off at St Paul’s Cathedral, where we sat in the gardens of St Paul’s Churchyard and ate our sandwiches. Entertainment was provided by a group of about twenty people posing for photographs. A wedding party? Possibly – but it seemed to me to be some other sort of family gathering. We walked round the north side of the cathedral, pausing by the statue of John Wesley on the way, and went inside. Not that we wanted to tour the cathedral, but to spend a few minutes in prayer in the side chapel set aside for the purpose.
The area around St Paul’s was busy with tourists and city workers enjoying their lunch break, so we headed north through Paternoster Square. This development, with its piazza, is a huge improvement over the 1960s shops and offices it replaced, and I particularly enjoy Temple Bar, the old gateway to the city designed by Christopher Wren, which had languished in a field on the outskirts of London for over a century before being painstakingly removed and restored in its new home. How appropriate that it now faces Wren’s masterpiece, St Paul’s.
Crossing over Newgate Street, we passed the ruins of Christ Church Greyfriars. Another of Wren’s creations, the church was destroyed in an air raid in 1940. Today only the tower and part of the north wall remain, although a garden laid out within the ruins ingeniously marks out the plan of the original building. Making our way up Edwards Street, the statue of Rowland Hill (inventor of the postage stamp) outside the offices of Merrill Lynch is a reminder that this building was formerly the General Post Office.
The Post Office is also commemorated by Postman’s Park, one of the few green spaces in the City of London. Just across the street from the former GPO, the park was previously a burial ground. Mary Ann enjoyed sitting on a bench by the circular flower beds planted with tulips and narcissi (she is a great lover of tulips), while I paid homage at the remarkable Memorial to Heroic Self Sacrifice, a very Victorian tribute to ordinary people who gave their lives saving others. Their names are recorded on beautiful art nouveau tiles. Although there are spaces for 120 tiles, only 53 are occupied. The last was installed in 1931 – that is until the 2009 memorial to Leigh Pitt – a gap of 78 years. I was really pleased to see this new addition and hope that it won’t be the last.
Walking through Postman’s Park, we passed the church of St Botolph Aldersgate. This church has a stained glass window of John Wesley (his father Samuel had been curate here, although that was an earlier buiulding than the present church). In fact this whole area is steeped in Methodist history: nearby is John Bray’s House in Little Britain, where Charles Wesley had his Pentecost Day ‘conversion’; Aldersgate, the name familiar to Methodists worldwide as the place of John Wesley’s own experience of a “heart strangely warmed”; and beyond that the Charterhouse, where John had gone to school.
Modern day Aldersgate would be completely strange to John Wesley; the area suffered considerable damage during the war and was completely rebuilt as part of the Barbican development. The site of the building where Wesley met with the Aldersgate Street society is now covered by the Museum of London. The museum is accessed via a walkway that crosses over London Wall.
Over the years I have probably visited the Museum of London more than any other London museum and it has been interesting to see how the exhibitions have changed over the years. The nine galleries are arranged over two floors. The ground floor galleries cover the period from prehistoric times to the Great Fire of 1666. I couldn’t resist the audio-visual presentation of the Great Fire, which incorporates a model of the burning city complete with fiery orange lighting effects. This must have been there since I was a boy, although the audio-visual presentation has been completely updated.
The lower floor galleries cover the years since 1666 and are collectively known as the Galleries of Modern London. These have been refurbished and it was the first time I had been round these galleries since they reopened last May. The new galleries are far more interactive and imaginatively laid out than before. We were fascinated by the recreated 18th century pleasure garden – a reminder of fashionable life in the London known to the Wesleys. One survivor of the refurbishment is the arcade of Victorian shops, which seemed to be very popular with the visiting tourists. One of the most impressive exhibits is a little more recent – the elegant bronze lifts (US: elevators) from Selfridges, dating from 1928.
Next to the entrance to the museum is the Aldersgate memorial, in the shape of a flame inscribed with the words of John Wesley’s journal entry for 24th May 1738. We persuaded a passer by to take a photograph of the two of us sitting on the wall in front of the memorial – just as we had for a similar photo taken over 20 years ago. By then we were getting a little tired, so we decided to call it a day, cutting through Smithfield en route to Farringdon Street and the 17 bus back home to Holloway.
For more photos visit this gallery.