The famous journalist’s church on Fleet Street also contains a museum of over 2,000 years of London history in its crypt.
There has been a church on this location for at least 1,000 years, with the first stone building probably built around 600AD. The later medieval church was utterly destroyed by the Great Fire of London, and then rebuilt by Sir Christopher Wren, who also later designed the famous steeple.
It’s claimed, if unproven, that a local baker seeking to impress his future father-in-law looked up at the steeple, and inspired, invented the stacked wedding cake that is still popular today.
The Wren church carried on pretty much as you might expect, although the crypt that churches tend to have was sealed in 1854 and then largely forgotten.
It was much later that German bombs were to unexpectedly uncover the church’s ancient history as the church was gutted by bombing and it was post-war rebuilding that rediscovered the ancient walls of the church.
It was during the rebuilding that the crypt was opened up as a second prayer space, and a museum.
Even before you go into the museum there’s something worth looking at as you head down the stairs, a huge old photograph of the area showing the long-since demolished Holborn Viaduct and Ludgate Hill railway stations.
Down here in the crypt though is terrifically atmospheric, all narrow doors and stone walls.
A long corridor leads past many gravestones, and down here at the end a rare object – an iron coffin. At a time when people feared being dug up by the body snatchers for sale people might consider burial in an iron coffin for protection. The churches objected as it took long for the body to decompose so they couldn’t reuse the grave so charged extra for funerals. That was even less popular than the body snatchers so the coffins were a short-lived fad.
Your correspondent came down here when the area was first being cleared a few decades back, and as the door was open, we wandered into the dark space as it was at the time. Cigarette lighter held high it was pure exploration to wander along the corridor, touching nothing but just soaking up a very exciting atmosphere. Then the cigarette lighter got too hot, the top exploded and I was in darkness surrounded by the dead — and fortunately, friends in the distance glimmering in their own tiny lamps.
Today it’s better lit — and that’s in part because there’s a lovely small chapel at the far end of the corridor. Very simple and yet exceptionally stylish, almost a modernist chapel in the bowels of the ancient building. The Medieval crypt was discovered in the excavations during the 1950s’ rebuilding. Wren built two heavy stone arches to take the weight of the north-east wall above it to preserve it. The chapel was restored in 2002.
The main crypt is rather less atmospheric, looking more like a 1970s community hall. That said, the crypt walls are still the original ancient walls, and are marked with notes of what era they belong to – Roman, Saxon, Tudor, and so on.
When you think about it, those walls are remarkable. There can be few places in London with so many different centuries of stonework on display in just one modest-sized room.
One half of the museum is given over to the fragments of heritage found when the church was rebuilt after the war. Do take a moment to look at the altar, or more specifically, what it stands on – a weathered but still impressive ledger stone.
Two Roman pavements behind the altar are hidden behind medieval stone walls, so they’ve put up mirrors to show what’s hidden from view.
The rest of the museum is given over to the local trade – newspapers and publishing, for this is famously the journalist’s church. Even now that Fleet Street no long hums with the machinery of newspaper production, the church retains its links with the trade. Upstairs, all the pews have signs noting support or memory of a journalist or newspaper. There are also memorials to those who died or were killed seeking to report the truth.
You’ve still not seen everything, as about a third of the old crypt spaces are behind a locked door, but there is a plan to open them up as well in the future – including a huge charnel house packed full of thousands of bones.
It’s candidly not a museum to visit to see lots of old relics, but a wonderful museum to visit to soak in the ancient history of the stone walls that line the crypt and chappel rooms. It’s also not that well advertised, so the perfect place to take friends on a detour when walking around the area to show off your knowledge of little known patches of the City.
The church itself upstairs is also quite stunning.
St Brides Church is open every day and entry to the crypt museum is free, with a donation box on the staircase.