There’s a very significant church in docklands that allowed people to climb up to see the clock mechanism at the weekend. The scariest church tower climb I have ever done.
Church towers tend to a sameness in how people get up them, namely a tall spiral stone staircase. I’m pretty used to them, having been up a good number. Most are fairly small, but this one, dear gods, who designed it?
The entrance isn’t on a level surface, but half-way up a staircase, and you have to bend down a bit to get through the tiny door. Not entirely unusual so far.
But then the stairs, long spiralizing upwards, but you can’t stand up, for the height is too low and you risk smashing your head on the stone steps above you.
And no handrail, so onwards and upwards, slowly going around ducking down all the time and pondering what fun it will be to go back down while crouching all the way.
About a third of the way up, a room to catch breaths and stretch backs into a more normal shape, for this is the bell ringing room. It was in fact the bell ringers who were arranging the open-day tours of the tower.
A door opens to show the space above the ceiling below. The original wood from the 1850s repairs, and the steel from the 1990s repairs to stop it falling down on parishioners heads below.
But onwards and upwards!
And now it got scary. We’re still in the same claustrophobic staircase, but now the steps narrowed precipitously to barely enough to walk up. Anyone carrying rucksacks cursed, and even my tiny little should bag proved a hindrance at times.
Now far above the rest of the church, the glass windows were replaced with open air vents, sending blasts of wind around the stairs and further trembling already slightly wobbling hearts.
Do stop to admire the bells through a door in the stairs, but sadly little space to stop and get the camera out to take a photo. Onwards and upwards, and what? There’s an overhang in the stone, so you have to walk on the narrow steps and lean away from the comfort of the wall to the central pillar.
Who designed this?
Eventually though, a door to pass through. And a wooden staircase to go down, then another to go up, with a handrail next to the massive window.
Up here is the goal at last – the fantastic clockwork engine that powers the massive clock-faces.
The pendulum swinging hypnotically, and the guide pointed out how the bells are run and the hours marked, with demonstrations that may have puzzled any locals wondering why the clock struck 3pm at 12:36pm.
The clock in the tower is still the highest church clock in London, had also the first illuminated clock face in the country. Its height, and early illumination was so that it could be seen by the many ships which moored in the surrounding docks, long before the skyscrapers got in the way.
The bells below are also themselves a recent addition. The church originally only had two, but a set of ten was added in 1997, with eight taken from the church of St Peter Walworth, and two cast locally in Whitechapel.
There’s one more level above, with a shaky ladder to climb to stand on the outside of the top of the tower, but the guide decided that was a bad idea as there’s no handrail on the upper level and it’s not a good idea for the crowd.
Whether a smaller group would have gone higher we’ll never know, and I doubt my legs would have acquiesced even if it were possible to up.
Having got up here, now to squeeze all the way back down. Going up was a fright, and going down no less so, especially as we now had to keep a hand above our heads to prevent smashing them on the stone steps at head height.
St Anne’s Limehouse is blessed with such a high clock tower for a special reason. When built, as part of Queen Anne’s plan for 50 new churches, its position next to the river made it a significant landmark.
As such, it’s one of just a very few churches that was until recently, also Trinity House “sea mark” on navigational charts, and it has the rare distinction of flying the White Ensign from its flagpole.
When built, it was also a place of registration used by Captains of Royal Navy ships arriving in London to record the details of any deaths, births or marriages that had occurred during their voyage. Deaths were to be expected, of course, but there were some births and occasionally even a marriage, as it was not uncommon for there to be women on board.
When HMS Ark Royal was decommissioned in 2011, the red Battle Ensign was presented to the church in recognition of its naval connections, and is on display in the back corner of the church.
Incidentally, as St Anne’s was split off from the parent parish of St. Dunstan, within Docklands, there are three churches flying the Royal Navy flags.
St. Dunstan’s wears the most senior ensign (the Red) and St. Anne’s wears the second most senior (the White) and recently, the floating church next to the Docklands Museum, St. Peter’s Barge was granted a Warrant to wear the third most senior ensign: a Blue Ensign.