Wednesday, 4 May 2016

St Bride's

I woke up this morning to the news that Leicester City had won the Premiership. It made me think a few things. Firstly, that my Dad, a life-long Leicester City fan, will be over the moon, and secondly, that footballers are paid far too much money. I assume that the Leicester City players are some of the least expensive in the Premiership, and that their success can be put down to the fact that they simply played well as a team. Football is, after all, a team game. It's always stuck me that these preening, prancing, goal-hanging, ludicrously expensive "top flight" players, are often in it for their own self-glory. The England side are routinely thrashed in the World Cup by teams which, on paper, oughtn't to be able to hold a candle to us. I have long thought that our pitiful record on a national level was due to "star" players lazily resting on their puffed-up laurels. Create an English team out of second division players, make them train together three times a week and I bet the strategies they'd develop would thrash our "A" team in seconds.

But, I'm no football pundit. I used to run in the opposite direction when the sweaters were thrown down on the school field - unless, of course, they were being used as rounders posts. I was always accused of toe-punting (whatever that means) and stupidly amused by the kids shouting "handball" because I thought they were referencing Hamble, the ugly doll off of Play School! The girls had way more fun at playtime. Their games were far more imaginative. They plaited hair and span in circles to see how far their dresses billowed out...

This afternoon I visited two churches where I'm hoping to create a little installation in September. I'm not going to say too much about the idea at this point for fear of jinxing it, but it involves television screens and a crypt!

The highlight of my day was undoubtedly a tour around St Bride's Church, which has to be one of the most fascinating churches I've ever visited. I was greeted by the vicar and an administrator, both absolutely charming women, the latter of whom had been in the choruses of the Raymond Gubbay operas I worked on at the Albert Hall in the late 90s. We had a good laugh exchanging stories. The Aïda was a particularly bizarre production, one which seemed to engender slightly odd behaviour from those who had the misfortune of being involved. On the last night of the show, for example, a fair number of the female chorus were thrown into the onstage pond as the lights went down. I still remember the piercing operatic screams echoing in the darkness!

Anyway, St Bride's is the church where Pepys was baptised. In fact, he was born in a building right next to the place. His brother was buried there, as were a number of his siblings who died in infancy. The church burned down in the Great Fire of London and was bombed out in the Blitz. There's a little museum in the crypt which has some charred wooden remains from 1666 alongside a little pile of warped and semi-melted pieces of stained glass.

St Bride's is on Fleet Street, and is known as the cathedral of the newspaper industry. Its famous, gleaming white, "tiered" spire was the inspiration for the first ever wedding cake. And that's a fact!

The crypt has a tiled Roman pavement running through it and all sorts of foundation walls from various periods. There's been some kind of church on the site since the 6th century. The original church was probably founded by nuns. We know this, apparently, because of its name.

I was taken through a locked door and introduced to the charnel house, which was incredibly eerie. I didn't actually know what a charnel house was, but it turns out it's essentially a storeroom for human remains which are removed from crypts when they become over-crowded. The coffins which take up most of the room in these scenarios (particularly when they're made of metal and lead to ward off body snatchers), are disposed of, and the larger human bones, mostly femurs and skulls, are neatly stacked in the charnel. The bones I was looking at today were medieval. It was an incredibly thought-provoking experience. All of those people had relatives and friends that grieved their passing, and yet we have no way of ever knowing who they were. Some 7000 bodies were buried on the site throughout history, a particularly obscene number of those during the cholera epidemic.

St Bride's is most unusual, however, in the fact that all 227 people who were buried under the nave, and whose bodies were disturbed when the church was bombed in the war, have been carefully catalogued and stored in boxes in the crypt for research purposes. You take a box from a shelf which, for example, might be labelled "skull," open a little book and find out that said skull belonged to a bloke called John something or other who lived at such and such address and drowned in the Thames at the age of 27. It's a remarkable resource. And what makes it even better is that the vicar understands the importance of her church, not just spiritually but socially and historically. She's a live wire who's so into historical research that she says she finds it a little odd to work in a church with no parish records to speak of. The two catastrophic fires destroyed anything of that nature. In her previous church she had great fun digging out records - particularly before weddings - so she could tell the happy couple about those who'd shared their wedding anniversary in the distant past. Christmas Day, I believe, was a very popular day on which to get married in those days. Pepys was thrilled on Christmas Day 1665 that a couple were getting married in his parish because it indicated that the long, dark days of the plague were well-and-truly over:

"To church in the morning, and there saw a wedding, which I have not seen many a day; and the young people so merry one with another, and strange to see what delight we married people have to see these poor fools decoyed into our condition, every man and woman gazing and smiling at them."

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