If ever a church was built on superlatives, it is this one. One architectural historian, Sir John Summerson, described it as “the pride of English architecture”. Another, Nikolaus Pevsner, listed it as one of the ten most important buildings in England. And the great Italian sculptor Antonio Canova, creator of The Three Graces, apparently told English architect Lord Burlington, “We have nothing like this in Rome.”
The man who built the church took particular care, because it was in his parish. He lived in the same street, just yards away at 15 Walbrook. He also used it as a dry run for a much bigger project he was working on at the time – St Paul’s Cathedral.
The masterpiece that is St Stephen Walbrook is well-loved by devotees of Christopher Wren but surprisingly little-known to Londoners at large. It is hidden behind the Mansion House and a shade unprepossessing from the outside apart from its spire, which was probably added by Nicholas Hawksmoor.
However, once you negotiate the steps, put there because the church had to be protected from the waters of the River Walbrook – which still runs underneath the pedestrianised street outside, past Cannon Street Station to the Thames at Dowgate – you are in for a surprise.
The domed splendour of the interior has a near-mesmerising effect, and Henry Moore’s sculpted stone altar of travertine marble (below), framed by Patrick Heron’s colourful kneelers, brings a subtle note of modernism into this historic setting.
That is no surprise. St Stephen and its antecedents have always moved with the times. An earlier church was built on the other side of the Walbrook at least as far back as the late 11th Century on the ruins of the Roman Temple of Mithras. This was in keeping with a custom of the times – an attempt to smother the site’s heathen heritage.
In 1428 a new and bigger church was built 20 metres away on the other side of the river where Wren’s St Stephen stands. Past one end of it ran Bearbinder Lane, the source of the Great Plague of 1665. There is a plague inside the present church honouring Nathaniel Hodges, the only doctor in the area who stayed with his patients during the pestilence. The following year the 15th Century church was completely destroyed by the Great Fire of London. The only benefit of that terrible tragedy was that Wren designed its successor.
A more recent move with the times occurred in 1953 when Chad Varah, the church’s Anglican rector, founded The Samaritans, the world’s first crisis helpline for those in suicidal distress. The bakelite phone used when the service started is kept in a glass case at the back of the church.
The church’s most recent innovation came in 2006 when the London London Internet Church, a global community that meets online, was founded there. Although an integral part of the Diocese of London, it is based at St Stephen. Before that, the church allowed a branch of Starbuck’s to be attached to it. This is not unique – there is another one adjoining Hawksmoor’s St Mary Woolnoth a few hundred yards away – but it is certainly unusual.
The decision was taken by Varah, who died in 2007, because he needed the money to finance the expansion of The Samaritans. Who can argue with that? It was a controversial move at the time, but turned out to be a marriage made in Heaven. The Samaritans have collected lots of stars and the church has brought in bucks.
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