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 Giles Cripplegate                                          
St Giles has the most startling setting of perhaps any English medieval church. A foundation of the 11th Century, the church was rebuilt after a fire in 1545, that is to say right at the very end of the Medieval period, and looks what it is, a big late Perpendicular East Anglian church, the tower rebuilt in the 17th Century but otherwise looking as if it might be beside the market place in a small Norfolk or Suffolk town. This is disingenuous of course, because the reason for it is the same in both cases, fabulous wealth on the eve of the Reformation.

Historically this was for centuries the largest parish in the City, and the most populous. It was certainly the poorest. The parish was particularly badly affected by the Great Plague of 1665, losing perhaps a third of its entire population. St Giles was too far north to be burned in the Great Fire, but reaped a benefit from it because of the large number of people relocating to the parish from nearer the river. The drains were culverted, and there was plenty of money for repairs and refurbishments. In the 19th Century the church was made more Gothic than it was already with the addition of battlements along the aisles and clerestories.

Along with most of the area to the north of Cannon Street and the south of Old Street, St Giles was completely destroyed on the evening of 29th December 1940, when high winds and the lack of firewatchers due to the Christmas holidays conspired to fan the flames created by wave upon wave of German bombers. For more than ten years St Giles stood a ruin, as the City Corporation pondered what to do with the area. That St Giles would be rebuilt was not in question, but it would need to be as part of the unified whole envisaged for the area north of London Wall, the largest single bomb site in the whole of the British Isles. The usage of the area would need to be largely residential, as the Corporation was concerned about the depopulation of the City, but should also include spaces for arts, recreation and education. Cost was not a factor, there was plenty of money available.

The result was the largest single building project in England during those post-war years. The Corporation accepted the plans submitted in 1956 by its favourite architectural practice Chamberlin, Powell & Bon. The new area would be home to high-rise and low-rise residential buildings all linked together through gardens, with an arts centre at the core. Significantly, it wasn't intended that retail spaces would form a significant part of the scheme. In a brave and revolutionary gesture, the new scheme would be entirely traffic free, the road carried under the site through a tunnel. A revised plan of 1959 allowed for the walkways of the new scheme to be linked into the raised walkways planned to spread like a web throughout the City - although fortunately, apart from London Wall and Upper and Lower Thames Street, this web was never built. The new scheme took its name from the main street which had run through the site, which in turn was named for a medieval fortification to the north of the Wall. And so the Barbican began to rise from the ashes.

With the scheme underway St Giles could be restored, and it reopened in 1960 to the design of Godfrey Allen. Bearing in mind that the interior had been entirely destroyed, and considering the modernist city which was arising around it, the restoration was very conservative, the new interior replicating as far as possible what was there before, some of the furnishings coming from the demolished church of St Luke, Old Street, which had been put in storage. The east end of the chancel was new, but based on architectural details which had survived the 19th Century restoration. There is some decent post-war glass, and memorials to some of the church's worthies including John Milton.

And so it is only outside that St Giles is extraordinary. After twenty years of work the Barbican was opened in 1981, the last great post-war repair project to be completed. The church floats like a great ship in a sea of concrete, an illusion furthered by its position beside one of the Barbican waterways. Some memorials have been reset in the brick and concrete. Beyond is the Barbican Centre, and above rise the great shafts of the towers. When they were built they were the tallest residential buildings in Europe, unashamedly modernist in their concrete jaggedness. And yet there is a pleasing harmony to the whole, the contrasting tower of St Giles sticking up perpendicularly to join them. Of course, you wouldn't want every church in this kind of setting, but I think it works here. And, as in centuries past, St Giles remains the most populous parish in the City.

There was, of course, an emotional reasoning behind rescuing the City churches after the Blitz, because they had become emblematic of the 'London can take it' attitude. Wandering around the City I am struck that with the possible exception of 30 St Mary Axe, the Barbican towers are still the most refreshingly Modern buildings in the Square Mile, and they are now almost forty years old. Much of the corporate architecture along Bishopsgate is simply dire, especially the awful Heron Tower, and it is hard to remember that the NatWest Tower or whatever it is called now ever looked Modern.

Simon Knott, December 2015

location: Barbican 2/027
status: working parish church
access: open seven days a week

St Giles Cripplegate and the Barbican Towers St Giles Cripplegate St Giles Cripplegate St Giles Cripplegate St Giles Cripplegate St Giles Cripplegate St Giles Cripplegate St Giles Cripplegate St Giles Cripplegate St Giles Cripplegate winged bull of St Luke faith in the city St Luke's Church, Old Street Saints by AK Nicholson the most unparallelled public scarcity and distress were remarkably succeeded St Giles Cripplegate Edward Alleyn Francis Joseph Pahud de Vallangin MD Col Reg Med Lond John Milton St Martin Frobisher Saints by AK Nicholson that is all John Milton, author of Paradise Lost St Giles Cripplegate font John Steed, map maker St Giles Cripplegate William Fuller, vicar of St Giles Cripplegate


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