Treasures of London – The Steeple of St George’s Bloomsbury…

Adorned with giant beasts and topped with a statue of King George I, the steeple of this 18th century Nicholas Hawksmoor-designed English Baroque church is a sight to behold.

The unusual spire, which has topped the church since it was completed in 1731, is stepped like a pyramid and was apparently inspired by Pliny’s description of the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus (one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World).

At its base can be seen four heraldic creatures – two 10 foot tall lions and two similarly-sized unicorns. They’re actually recreations of the originals by sculptor Tim Crawley based on drawings by Hawksmoor. The originals were removed – and subsequently lost – in 1870 amid fears they were about to topple off.

It’s suggested that lions and unicorns – which look as if they are in conflict over the crown in the middle – symbolise the tussle for the Crown as seen in the several Jacobite risings which took place in the late 17th and early 18th centuries.

The statue on top has King George I dressed in Roman attire and standing on an altar as a symbol of St George – as clear a PR exercise as you’ll find on a steeple. It even featured in a verse by Horace Walpole:

“When Henry VIII left the Pope in the lurch,
The Protestants made him the head of the church,
But George’s good subjects, the Bloomsbury people
Instead of the church, made him head of the steeple.”

The steeple did prove controversial when it was completed – the church commissioners initially refused to pay Hawksmoor, apparently deeming the spire too frivolous for such a serious building. But it was soon recognised as an important part of the landscape – it can be seen in the background of William Hogarth’s 1751 engraving Gin Lane.

In the mid-Noughties, the church and steeple, which had fallen into a state of dishevelment and was apparently on the verge of closure, underwent a major renovation. Funded by American Paul Mellon and the Heritage Lottery Fund, it saw the long-lost (albeit recreated) beasts returned to their place on the steeple (the project was recorded in detail by Harris Digital).

PICTURE: Right – Amanda Slater (licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 – image cropped and straightened); Below – Londres Avanzado (licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 – image cropped and lightened).


Wren’s London – 2. St Bride’s

While St Paul’s Cathedral is certainly his best-known work, Sir Christopher Wren designed 50 other churches in London in the wake of the Great Fire of 1666. Rather than look at each individually, we’ll just highlight a couple with the first being the “wedding cake” church, St Bride’s.

The site of St Bride’s has been home to at least eight churches, the first of which is believed to have been founded in the Dark Ages. Dedicated to the sixth century Irish nun St Bride – or St Bridget, the church – thanks to its location on Fleet Street – has had a long association with printers and later newspapers and journalists and, despite the fact most news organisations have long since departed the area, is still regarded as “the journalist’s church”.

The medieval St Bride’s was completely consumed in the Great Fire but a new church was opened in 1675 after works were carried out to Wren’s design (among his assistants on the job was Nicholas Hawksmoor who became a celebrated architect in his own right).

Despite the return of worshippers, however, the building remained unfinished and Wren was approached in the early 1680s about constructing the steeple. This was completed in 1703 and has become a London landmark with many believing its tiered design was the basis for the modern “wedding cake” design.

The steeple – at 226 feet or almost 70 metres, the tallest in London – was one of few things which survived after a firebomb destroyed much of the building during the Blitz in 1940. The church was subsequently restored according to Wren’s original designs (albeit with a shorter steeple than Wren’s original – eight feet or 2.4 metres were knocked off when it was struck by lightning in 1764.)

As well as its association with the printing industry and the press, these days St Bride’s is also notable for its US connections – the first American child of English descent, Virginia Dare, was the daughter of two former St Bride’s parishioners (there is a bust of Virgina above the font). The parents of Edward Winslow, three-time Governor of Plymouth in Massachusetts, were also married in St Bride’s.

The crypt contains remains dating back to Roman times.

WHERE: Fleet Street (nearest tube St Paul’s); WHEN: 8am to 6pm Monday to Friday, 11am to 3pm Saturday, 10am to 1pm and 5pm to 7.30pm Sunday; COST: Entry is free but guided tours are available on Tuesday afternoons at 3pm for £5 a person; WEBSITE: