Hawksmoor

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Nicholas Hawksmoor was an English architect who lived in London during the late 17th and early 18th century. He is responsible for 6 of the most prominent churches in modern London lying mostly throughout the traditionally poorer eastern part of the city. They have a occult mythology surrounding them stemming from their strange structure and Mason symbolism and also the proximity of some of the more horrible chapters of British serial murders: Mary Jane Kelly, the (canonically) last and most severely mutilated of the Jack the Ripper victims was killed less than a block from Christ Church Spitalfields; the Ratcliff Highway murders happened near St George-in-the-East and the victims were all buried in its churchyard. The murderer hanged himself in jail and his body was dragged through the streets and dumped into a hole at the crossroads of Cable Street and Cannon Street Road next to the church with a stake driven through the heart (the better to stop a vampire from rising).Now if you’re a skeptic you may think, sure, more violent crime is bound to happen in an economically impoverished area, that makes sociological sense. Psychogeographers in London, such as my man Iain Sinclair, will disagree. They’d tell you that the churches are on power points in a grid of ley lines throughout London and that Hawksmoor either consciously or unconsciously tapped into these power points by the positioning and designs of his churches. They’d also say that churches map out a representation of the Eye of Horus. I’m bound to agree with the skeptical, but the indestructible little romantic inside me loves the idea of mystical grids and occult conspiracies. I liked Foucault’s Pendulum a little too much (and those of you who’ve read The Da Vinci Code but not Foucault’s Pendulum, Bad people! Bad! Get yourself a copy already). So I decided I would walk these supposed ley lines and visit all six of these churches in one day.

I left early Saturday, and by early I mean 12:30 pm or so. I took the Docklands Light Railway down to Greenwich and walked over to St Alfege, church number one on my Hawksmoor tour.

I had been to the church the last time I was in Greenwich . Like many of the Hawksmoor churches the first thing you see is the towering steeple above the surrounding trees and buildings: with the exception of St Mary Woolnoth and St George Bloomsbury (it was dark by the time I got to those two) I didn’t need a map once I was in the general area of each church. The steeples guided the way.

St Alfege was the only one inside which I could walk around as all the others were closed to the public while I was there. A smiling older woman was at an information desk in the vestibule as I entered. “Are you Canadian?” she asked me.

“No, American,” I said, puzzled.

“Oh, OK. Canadians often come here because James Wolfe is buried here.”

Indeed beneath the northwest corner of the church is buried one General James Wolfe, a British military officer who defeated the French in Canada during the French and Indian War in the late 18th century. (Fun fact: like how the Civil War is often referred to as the War of Northern Aggression by those in the American south, so the French Canadians call this war the War of the Conquest.)

“I’m actually visiting of all the Hawksmoor churches in London today,” I told her.

Her face lit up. “That’s wonderful!” she said. She handed me a plastic paddle enclosing directions for a self guided tour for church visitors and brought me to the altar where four lit candles formed a square around a plaque. “This is where Saint Alfege was martyred. Give or take a few meters.” Her voice dropped to a whisper. “Or more than a few. Really, who knows? But this is where the shrine is.”

St Alfege, it says in the church, was the 29th Archbishop of Canterbury. In 1012 he was martyred by Danish pirates who were holding him for £3,000 ransom. Knowing his people were already hurting and that £3,000 would be a terrible blow, he refused to let them pay and told the pirates to kill him instead. And they did, blugeoning him with ox bones and the shafts of their axes until one pirate, out of mercy, struck him a killing blow to the head.

The woman began to set up for a concert later that evening as I took my walking tour around the church. Like many places in London it had been gutted during the Blitz in 1941 but was rebuilt according to Hawksmoor’s original designs. It’s beautiful now. Walking around London you truly get a sense of how much was destroyed during World War II. It’s easy to develop a profound respect for the British–not only were they able to stand against the Germans but they’ve completely rebuilt and rebounded.

Next: It’s a really long walk to Limehouse. A reeeaaalllyy long walk…

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~ by kellly333 on February 21, 2007.

One Response to “Hawksmoor”

  1. Hi Kelly. Thank you for leaving us with your psychogeographical tour of Hawksmoor’s London. I, too, have my Hawksmoor story: as so many of our kind do. Many moons ago, a long time before I knew about any of this, I worked in Hanbury Street in East London. (You may know it as one of Jack the Ripper’s murder sites.) Every morning I got off the tube- though I forget where- and straight out into the imposing frontage of Christ Church. I have never forgotten that church though little else from those drab days remains.

    More recently I have fallen into the terrible habit of haunting some of Limehouse’s least salubrious dives. Every weekend, when my parole terms allow, sees me cutting up Commercial Road in my 4×4 in search of God knows what. Every time I pass St Anne’s something registers.

    Until a few days ago I didn’t know the connection between these two places of worship… but a series of strange events has placed the completed puzzle before me. Iain Sinclair, Alan Moore, Peter Ackroyd, the London Psychogeographical Association, Canary Wharf, 2012. Now I look with new eyes upon an illuminated landscape, ever more uneasy by the hour.

    Pray furnish us with more of your diurnal wanderings, o rose of Sharon… Adieu.

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