An occasional saunter through the churches of the Square Mile                                
        An occasional saunter through the churches of the Square Mile

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St Bartholomew the Great

          high altar

This is my favourite part of the City, I think. Here we are, barely ten minutes walk from St Paul's. You've left the corporate monoliths and the multi-nationals behind. The Barbican and London Wall are close by, but they are out of sight to the east, and you can ignore them. Instead, you wander up into the entirely unexpected intimacy of Little Britain and Cloth Fair, the charming houses still largely residential. If I was the kind of person who did the Euromillions lottery, and I won, you can jolly well bet I'd be buying one of them. Betjeman lived here for a while before the charms of the English upper classes (or at least one member of them) side-tracked him to Chelsea.

And then the road opens out into the provincial domesticity of Smithfield, with central London's last wholesale provisions market on one side, and St Barts hospital on the other, the dressing-gowned inmates looking down from the long balconies.

Smithfield is poised keenly on the edge of Holborn and Finsbury, but it is still as much a part of the City as the Lloyds Building or the Bank of England. International money cannot allow places like this to survive of course, not so close to the more obscene markets of Bishopsgate and Leadenhall Street, so Smithfield Market will soon go the way of Billingsgate and Covent Garden. The hospital will survive it seems, at least for now, a wilful snook-cocking to those who judge the meaning and imagination of a place by the price of a square metre of its territory. And just beside the hospital is the entrance to St Bartholomew the Great, looking a little like an Oxbridge gatehouse set among the tall terraces.

And just as this is my favourite part of the City, so St Bartholomew the Great is also my favourite City Church. It is also the biggest church in the City, but it was once one of the biggest churches in England. Incredibly, what we have here is merely the choir and lady chapel of what was once a vast Augustinian Priory church, the nave extending westwards over much of the ground described already in this article.

The foundation was in 1123, and the hospital was a part of it. The church was 280 feet long, a little more than half the length of the original St Paul's Cathedral. In the pious years of the early 14th Century a long lady chapel was added to the end of the apsed chancel. Cloisters were added in the 15th Century. Come the Reformation, the parishioners were allowed to buy the chancel from the new owners into whose well-feathered laps it had fallen, and the nave was demolished - all except, intriguingly, the western doorway into the south aisle of the nave, which survives as part of the current gatehouse. The lady chapel was sold off for use as housing and workshops, one of the chancel aisles became a school, and so on. A tower was added in the early 17th Century to the new west wall of the former chancel. The church was too far north for the Great Fire to affect it.

The 19th Restoration took place in several waves, The last and most important by Sir Aston Webb who was working here until the 1920s. Simon Bradley in the revised Pevsner notes the archaeological nature of Webb's restoration, so it is always easy to distinguish restored elements from the original - as he observes, it is an intelligent honest solution, though not always an immediately appealing one. The lady chapel was brought back into use, the chancel aisles cleared. St Bartholomew the Great survived the Blitz pretty much intact.

No City church has the wow factor on entering as much as St Barts does. Indeed, few churches in England do, especially on a winter afternoon. As the cliche goes, the years roll away. The layered Norman arches, tier on tier, unfold before you towards the east. An oriel window peeps bizarrely into the church from the south triforium. It is all of a piece, and yet somehow so much more than a piece. If you are lucky enough to hear the choir rehearsing, especially if it is something old and English, you will be transported. Around the chancel aisles are post-Reformation memorials to the Great and Good, but nothing intrudes, for it would be hard for anything to intrude here in this wholly majestic and serious space. To the east is the lady chapel, simpler, full of light and colour. What survives of the cloisters is now home to a rather good café.

St Barts is one of just two City of London churches you have to pay to get into, which in some ways is a shame as I used to enjoy just popping in for a few minutes while on my way from somewhere to somewhere else. But admittance is only four pounds, less than the price of a pint in this part of London and easily better value in terms of refreshment and intoxication. If you want to take photographs you'll need to pay an extra pound - think of it as a take-out.

Simon Knott, December 2015

location: West Smithfield EC1A 7JQ - 1/012
status: parish church
access: open seven days a week. 8.30am-5pm Monday to Friday, 10am to 4pm Saturday, 8.30am to 8pm Sunday. Admission £4, photography permit £1.

St Bartholomew the Great gatehouse and former south aisle doorway former doorway to south aisle St Bartholomew the Great north transept altar Lady altar St Bartholomew the Great St Bartholomew the Great ambulatory looking east from north transept St Bartholomew the Great ikon St Bartholomew the Great big six St Bartholomew the Great looking west towards the crossing crossing lady chapel St Bartholomew the Great Thomas Roycroft war memorial St Bartholomew the Great behowlde youre selves by us sutche once were we as you St Bartholomew the Great internal oriel window St Bartholomew the Great St Bartholomew the Great cloisters St Bartholomew the Great St Bartholomew the Great William Henry David Boyle Boer War memorial blessed sacrament altar Elizabeth Freshwater one of the Secondaryes in the Office of the Kings Majesties Remembrancer within this hollow haven here unsluce your briny floods Rahere

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An occasional saunter through the churches of the Square Mile
        An occasional saunter through the churches of the Square Mile