If you have a good head for heights, there’s now a chance to climb up to the top of a church steeple and walk around the narrow space at the top. This is the church of St Mary the Virgin in the centre of Islington, and the local tour guides have now started offering steeple tours.
So expect a long narrow winding staircase, a need to wear a headlamp because there are few lights on the stairs, sign an injury waiver, and stand on a narrow walkway a hundred feet in the air. Excepting for a few trials last year, and a peculiar moment in the 1780s, this is the first time that people have been routinely able to climb up to the top and see the very wide-ranging views it offers.
There’s been a church on this spot since at least pre-Norman times, and there’s evidence of a Norman era stone church being built on the site — evidence that’s visible in the crypt.
That Norman era church was replaced with a Tudor church and tower, which fell into disrepair and was deemed to be in danger of collapsing in the 1750s. However, it seems they may have overestimated its state of decay as it took a huge amount of effort to demolish the tower. A classic Georgian church was built, but in September 1940, the main church was hit by a bomb and totally destroyed, leaving just the tower standing.
So today, there’s a large bright post-war church sitting behind a Georgian steeple.
After some work to make it safe for the public, the Clerkenwell and Islington Guides have permission to run regular tours of the church, and the steeple.
As with most churches, the steeple wasn’t designed as a tourist attraction, and the stairs up are for occasional access by staff than for regular use by the public, so expect a very narrow spiral staircase with no handrails or lights to get up the tower.
There’s a chance to stop for a moment in the bell-ringing room for a look around, but then it’s back to the spiral stairs, slowly winding their way up to the top. Do stop if you can to peer through a small slot in the walls to see the bells, then carry on spiralling your way up.
Being a very tight staircase, you’re basically following up behind someone else’s bum all the way, so it’s quite an intimate climb.
But finally, the spiral is replaced with a small wooden set of stairs, bend down, clamber through, and then bend down further to squeeze out of the door and onto a very narrow ledge.
You’re a the top, and oh my, what a view.
Thanks to Islington being on a hill and surrounded mostly by low rise buildings, and the church steeple being very tall, you get almost uninterrupted views right the way around the tower.
The tours are just a handful of people, as there’s little space at the top for any more, and you can slowly shuffle your way around the ledge, taking all the photos you want.
Although the ledge is narrow, it’s protected by a decently tall and reassuringly solid looking stone parapet, so although I was leaning back against the stone wall of the steeple to feel more reassured, it’s not that scary to be up here. On my visit it was perishingly cold, resulting in my being more worried about numb fingers dropping my phone than anything else.
There’s only one moment that’s different and you have to duck down to get under a metal pole that’s holding one of the stone finials in place.
About 15 minutes is spent at the top of the steeple, which is ample to take in the views, and then spiralling all the way back down to the ground again. And realising as you step back into the main church that you’re now very dizzy.
As a tour, it ticks a lot of boxes.
A tour of the main church itself, down into the crypt to see a fragment of Norman church, and of course, the slightly terrifying ascent to the top of the tower that’s richly rewarded with the views and the undeniable sense of achievement for having completed the climb.
Now that tours have started, they’re going to be a regular event.
At the time of writing, tours are going to be available on Friday evenings at 6pm and Saturday afternoons at 2pm.
The tours and steeple climb cost £15 and can be booked from here.
The tours take around 90 minutes.
When offered to leave any bags you have in a locked room – do so. Even my small shoulder satchel would have been a nuisance, and I am pleased that unusually for me, I decided to drop it off.
When coming down the stairs, it’s far easier to walk down if you hold onto the central wooden column with both hands and use that to steady yourself than trying to grip the wall.
You’ll feel more comfortable if you wear decently solid shoes — certainly no heels or loose fitting slip-ons, and clothes should be of the sort unlikely to snag on anything.
There’s quite a long list of T&Cs on the booking form.