great places to visit off the beaten path.
Located in Cheapside in the centre of the City is St. Mary le Bow – a wonderful church well worth a visit for its splendour and architecture – much of which is influenced by Christopher Wren’s rebuilding. But it is also worth a visit for its prominence in London’s history and folklore. For its bells are an essential part of the London story. It was Dick Whittington who in 1392 heard the Bow Bells calling him back to London to be Mayor. Common culture asserts that to be born within the sound of Bow Bells makes you a true Londoner and certainly a Cockney. For many centuries the boundary of the City was commonly accepted to be the areas within earshot of Bow and records dating back as far as 1469 show the bells were rung nightly at 9pm to mark a curfew – a tradition that continued until 1876. Many mile markers measuring distances from or to London were also measured from the front door of Bow Church. If you see an historic mile marker with the image of a bow and four bells on it in then you know it is a measurement from Bow Church. In the shorter version of the well known poem “Oranges and Lemons” are the lines ‘I do not know, Says the great bell of Bow’ also adding to the cultural relevance of this church in London. And during WWII the BBC World Service would broadcast a recording of Bow Bells as a symbol of hope.
History: It is claimed that an original Saxon church here was destroyed in London’s ‘Great Tornado’ of 1091. The Norman’s rebuilt the church naming it St. Mary de Arcubus, but with two great stone bowed arches. It became part of the Diocese of Canterbury and the seat of the Court of Arches, and it became known as ‘St. Mary le Bow’. While the church suffered various collapses it was completely destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666. As arguably the most important church in London (after St. Paul’s), it was one of the first rebuilt by Sir Christopher Wren, who erected his first great classical steeple here (completed in 1680). While the Blitz did damage the church, including the collapse of the belfry, it was restored and the bells were back in service fully by 1960.
The Belfry: In the 1600s bell-ringing had become fashionable and Bow was one of the most celebrated. With at least 6 bells installed prior to the Great Fire, the rebuilt tower had space for 12. Initially only 8 were cast and installed in 1677. In 1738 the Whitechapel Bellfoundry began recasting the bells for a more superior sound. By 1762 all had been recast and 2 more added. The 10 bells were first rung to celebrate George III’s 25th birthday.
In 1881 two more were added creating a full suite of 12 bells, but in 1926 they were deemed unringable and silenced. In 1933 the American businessman H Gordon Selfridge paid for the restoration and recasting of the bells, but in 1941 they were destroyed by the German blitz. The current 12 bells were cast by the Whitechapel Bellfoundry in 1956 using the metal from the old bells. While the bells are now rung regularly they are not generally rung at ‘full’ sound (as the noise is adjustable) during working hours. But hearing them in all their glory is a treat worth pursuing.
The smallest bell weighs 285kg while the largest is 2135kg! They are all named and engraved – the largest is called ‘Bow’. A ‘peal’ is when all bells are rung with at least 5000 changes made to the ringing – a process that generally takes 3 hours or longer. The first full peal was made here in 1731, but by the start of WWII only 65 peals had occurred. Since the new bells were installed over 300 peals have been made making this church the leading peal ringing tower in London.
Today: Morning and evening services generally happen each weekday – some in the church, some in the crypt chapel. Live free Chamber Music concerts take place daily (weekdays) at 1:05pm. There are also Organ Recitals that usually occur once per week. See their website for more details on all these events at http://www.stmarylebow.co.uk/# . Breakfast, lunch and coffee are available daily in the Crypt at ‘Cafe Below’ – open Mon-Fri 7:30-2:30.
Located at: Cheapside (near Bread St), London EC2.
Closest tube: Bank, Mansion House or St. Paul’s.