There is something compulsively ironic about the mesmeric church of St Dunstan-in-the-East. In an increasingly secular age, people flock to it – not because it is a working church but because it isn’t.
The church originally on the site on St Dunstan’s Hill, between London Bridge and the Tower, was built in 1100. It was destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666 and rebuilt by Christopher Wren between 1695 and 1701, complete with a majestic steeple. In 1817, after the weight of the roof thrust the walls out of alignment, it was rebuilt again, by David Laing.
Then it was badly damaged during the Blitz. Its north and south walls escaped destruction and so, spectacularly, did Wren’s tower (above), which is carried on four flying buttresses. Its iconic spire still points defiantly to the skies as if about to launch a rocket to Heaven. But after the war it was decided not to rebuild St Dunstan’s yet again. Instead, the City of London Corporation turned the ruins and their surroundings into a public garden, which opened in 1970.
Grade I-listed since 1950, the remains of the church are in danger of being devoured by marauding skyscrapers, but when you visit there is still magic in the air. They offer the prospect of the out-of-world experience and sense of wellbeing that the church itself used to provide. Once inside the garden, all thoughts of the outside world are forgotten. The scene changes according to the season.
It is at its best in summer when all the flowers and foliage are revealed, but the particular allure of the church is strongest in the winter, before it becomes partially obscured by leaves. The pictures on this page were taken in the spring when the trees were starting to bloom.
The tower is, in a sense, older than it looks in that Wren incorporated bits of the medieval church into his post-fire reconstruction. During Laing’s subsequent rebuilding, archaeologists found parts of its outer walls, fragments of mullions, some of its tracery – stonework that supports the glass in a window – and gravestones that had been used in the core the tower.
The ruins also tell us something about the City – that not everything there is for Mammon. The site would be worth a small fortune to developers, but fortunately it is retained as one of over 150 green spaces nurtured by the corporation to offer contemplation for visitors and respite for traders.
St Dunstan’s, although little known to the general public, is greatly esteemed by those who have taken the trouble to find it. It is only a short walk from Tower Hill Underground station and from its sister church, All Hallows by-the-Tower, a special favourite of mine with which it sometimes shares an open air service and procession on Palm Sunday.
It is called St Dunstan-in-the-East to distinguish it from St Dunstan- in-the-West in Fleet Street, another fascinating church which, among other things, boasts the only contemporary sculpture of Queen Elizabeth I, although it hasn’t got a garden. It could be argued, though, that it has been misnamed and that the true St Dunstan-in-the-West is actually Westminster Abbey.
That is because it was the future St Dunstan himself who, in around 960 when Bishop of London, brought the first 12 fellow monks to Westminster to form a Benedictine monastery on the site where Edward the Confessor later had a new one built – completed in around 1060 – and where today’s Westminster Abbey, built through the 13th to 16th Centuries, is located.
Dunstan was canonised in 1029 and the most popular saint in Britain until overtaken by Thomas Becket nearly a century and a half later. He could not have a more dramatic memorial than the churches named after him.
This is the sixteenth article in a series of 20 by Vic Keegan about locations of historical interest in the Eastern City part of the City of London kindly supported by EC BID, which serves that area. All the previous articles are here. On London’s policy on “supported content” can be read here.