One of the oldest churches in the City of London has secured a new life, by serving up coffees and sarnies to hungry city workers.
And we’re not talking WI style coffee in polystyrene cups and biscuits from a tin – but actual proper coffee and doorstop sized sandwiches.
The church is St Mary Aldermary, and while the current building is a rare example of a gothic design by Sir Christopher Wren, there’s been a church on the site for over 900 years. Its name is usually taken to mean that it is the oldest of the City churches dedicated to the Virgin Mary.
Like most city churches, it lost most of its local congregation from the 1860s onwards as railways and later motor cars made commuting possible, and in the post-war years rebuilding of the city, few homes were built – mainly offices. So it became a “guild church”, and no longer has a local parish in the conventional sense. It seemed to carry on like all the other churches, little used, underfunded, struggling a bit.
Then in 2012, the Bishop and Archdeacon of London had an idea, and invited a newly formed group in the monastic tradition to make their home in the church, for prayer and meditation — and to make some money, a cafe.
And it’s wonderful on so many levels.
Yes, in one sense, it’s a cafe in a church, so a chance to sit for a coffee in very grand surroundings, which if that was all it was, would be good.
But it’s also a way of bringing a lot of life into a building, that as a regular photographer of churches are so often almost totally empty. Here it is busy, with chatter, people meeting, people tapping on laptops, people enjoying lunch.
Oh, and the food is good. I ordered a goats cheese, honey and walnut sandwich, and a few minutes later, came this huge sandwich with the cheese slowly melting out of the hot bread. The cheese and honey blended nicely, and the walnuts gave the necessary chunkiness of texture to the mix. It’s a wonderful combination of flavours and textures.
The sandwich was £4, and the coffee came in at £2.50.
You can also bring your own lunch if you prefer just a coffee.
It’s really nice to see a church so actively used and by so many people, who frankly if it wasn’t a cafe probably wouldn’t have thought to step foot inside.
For the religious sorts, the front of the church is kept free from food and drink for those who prefer to pray. For the rest of use, coffee in a pew?
The Host Cafe is open 7.30 am – 4.30 pm | Monday to Friday
The cafe also means that this church is an ever rarer thing – a church with toilets the public can use.
Like many people I saw, I stopped to take a few photos.
Most of the windows are post-ww2 replacements, but the late 17th century gothic interior is pretty much the original, after some restorations. One quirk is that at the altar end, the wall is offset, giving the appearance that it’s not quite correct, almost an optical illusion at work.
Normally, I try to take photos of churches that are empty, as I prefer them, and photographing people in prayer seems, wrong. But this was a church were I wanted to capture the people, how busy it is, as that’s its attraction.
Where else in London can you enjoy a coffee in the interior of a Grade I-listed functioning church?