A discovered gem

Bishopsgate and St Helen's
Bishopsgate and St Helen’s

Today must have been my lucky day, photographically speaking. I mentioned earlier how I had bought a new Seagate drive from Maplin. The branch I chose was in Camomile Street, off Bishopsgate (you can see its location on the map), because we often go there on the way home from work. On leaving Maplin I set off down Bishopsgate on foot, to see what there was to see. What I did see came as a complete surprise.

I turned left down a road cluttered with building work and was amazed to see the wall of what was obviously a very old and venerable building. It turned out to be St Helen’s Church. I had no idea that it was there, or even that it existed, hidden among the towering modern structures, and was quite amazed to see it.

St Helen's graveyard
St Helen’s graveyard

You know I am an atheist and have no truck with religion but I still find old churches interesting because of their historical and aesthetic value.

From Bishopsgate, you arrive at the church here, at what must have once been the graveyard but now contains only two tombs and one gravestone. The board tells us that there was a church on this site from the 12th century. The present Jacobean building was damaged twice in the 1990s by terrorist bombs but has now been restored.

One of the two tombs

At this point, my plan was simply to walk around the building, photographing features of interest, and then go on my way, perhaps looking up the church later on the Web. In any case, I wanted to get on down to Borough to pick up Tigger from work.

And there were certainly features to see, including the wonderful old stonework and, not least, the carved doors.

Laus Deo door
Laus Deo door

I went around the side and was photographing this wonderful example of the doormaker’s art, when someone came out from the brick extension where the church office is situated. “Would you like to come in?” enquired a voice.

Well, yes, I would, actually. If it’s this good on the outside it must be really something on the inside. So in we went. (Yes, I did remember to take my hat off!)

My guide took me through the office area into the church. I stopped. I was already gawping at the church interior and all the furnishings. My guide, however, continued across the church and I thought I had better follow.


He led me to this cabinet which is obviously very ancient though I can say no more about it than that. He produced a slender book and proposed that I could “borrow or buy it”. It seemed only right and proper to consider buying it. So I did, for the modest sum of £3. It contains a concise history of the church (which started as a “nunnery”) and a description of the major items it contains. Well worth the modest price.

I asked if I might take photos and received enthusiastic permission to do so. So, of course, I did. Or rather, I tried. There is so much to see in the church that you would need at least a day, getting to know what is there and deciding the best way to photograph it. And I had just half an hour or so… I can only give a glimpse of what there is to see.

Sir William Pickering's tomb
Sir William Pickering’s tomb
Sir William Pickering
Sir William Pickering
Reredos detail
Reredos detail

When in church, you should always remember to look upwards. Not because you expect to see God or angels but because there might be an interesting ceiling. There is such an interesting ceiling in the south transept, though it is probably a Victorian replacement of the original.

South transept ceiling
South transept ceiling

While there is a wealth of formal structures and monuments there are also touching little details such as these small dogs at the feet of Lady Crosby (one decapitated, alas) or this charming sculpture on the tomb of Sir John Spencer and his wife of their daughter at prayer.

Lady Crosby's dogs
Lady Crosby’s dogs
Sir John Spencer's daughter
Sir John Spencer’s daughter

Perhaps unusually, most of the windows in this church are unstained. Only two or three have any colour in them at all. This gorgeous exemplar of the glass stainer’s art however makes up for the lack. It dates from 1884 and represents William Shakespeare who lived in the parish for a time.

William Shakespeare window
William Shakespeare window

On this neat link between the religious and secular worlds, I took my leave. As I passed the office and thanked them for letting me visit, they invited me to return again. I think I may well do so as it will take time and attention to exhaust all the interest that the church holds.

About SilverTiger

I live in Islington with my partner, "Tigger". I blog about our life and our travels, using my own photos for illustration.
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4 Responses to A discovered gem

  1. Judith in Ky says:

    I live far away from beautiful oldchurches of days gone by. I envy that in you. I live in a small town with onlytwo theaters bt several movie houses. what a loss! I loved seeing your pictures. It must be a lovely place.

    • SilverTiger says:

      London has such a long and eventful history behind it (and is so big, of course) that many intriguing and beautiful remnants of the past remain. Sometimes it’s just a detail on a building, sometimes an entire building but, yes, we are very lucky to live among it all.

  2. As you say, “it’s amazing what you discover once you start digging”! I have a site dedicated to the Pickerings and have dug out that Sir William Pickering belonged to the Oswaldkirk branch. He had an illustrious career and was considered a potential suitor to Elizabeth I (https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Pickering,_William_%281516-1575%29_%28DNB00%29)! With your permission, I would like to use your photos to illustrate the webpage where I’ll be posting the Oswaldkirk Pickerings’ tree. Do you have a higher resolution version of the photo which displays the coat of arms? I’d be interested in seeing the detail.
    Thanks in advance, Hazel

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