St. Stephen Walbrook is considered one of Wren’s finest churches in London, and was where he practised the designs and techniques he would later use in St. Paul’s Cathedral. It is also the original home of The Samaritans, the listening service which has saved so many lives. Easy to miss from the outside, it is impressive and unique on the inside, with a stunning domed ceiling, as Kate discovered it by chance on a recent visit to London.
St. Stephen Walbrook is easy to miss amongst the urban sprawl. Photograph © Google Street View
With pale, mismatched stone, and flanked on all sides by towering modern buildings, St. Stephen looks entirely unprepossessing from the outside, and it would be easy to miss as you walk past. A Starbucks is jammed right up to the side of it with tables and chairs spilling out onto the pavement, making the church fade into insignificance against this modern onslaught. Yet this church is considered to be one of Wren’s finest churches, where he experimented with designs for his masterpiece, St. Paul’s Cathedral.
The building may be muted on the outside, but as you step inside after climbing the steps, a completely unexpected delight awaits you and I couldn’t believe I had never heard about this church before. The brightness and light of the Baroque interior makes you realise that you have discovered one of London’s unknown joys.
The Henry Moore altar in the centre caused much controversy when it was installed in the 1980s.
The first recorded history of this church is a Saxon building in 1090, which was built over the remains of a Roman Mithraic temple. By 1482 the church and graveyard were too small for the parish and a larger church was built; one of a hundred churches in just the square mile of the City of London.
As with so much of London, St Stephen Walbrook burnt to the ground within 24 hours during the devastating Great Fire of 1666, and nothing is left of those early years. In 1669, Dr Christopher Wren was appointed as the King’s Surveyor and was commissioned with the rebuilding of 16 of London’s churches, as well as St Paul’s Cathedral.
St Stephen Walbrook was Wren’s own parish church (he lived at 15 Walbrook) and it is likely that he paid particular attention to this project even while he was designing St Paul’s, experimenting with geometric form and structure, and particularly on the admission of light into a dark building. This church is regarded as Wren’s best, the dome being a prototype for the magnificent circular masterpiece of St Paul’s that, amazingly, defied the Blitz and stands proudly over London today.
This magnificent dome was where Wren tried out his ideas which he would later use to such great effect in St. Paul’s Cathedral.
In St Stephen Walbrook you go symbolically from darkness to light as you emerge from the sheltered doorway and relatively gloomy short nave into the chancel where all is bright and radiant. Wren’s churches were intended to be inclusive: auditories in which everyone in the congregation could see, hear and take part in the services without any obstruction, and the modern interpretation of the layout adheres strictly to that concept. The dome above, glorious in its own right, and the eight clear windows immediately below it, allow the maximum possible light to flood into the chancel.
The Hill Organ was placed in the western apse 100 years after the church was completed. Wren had intended a doorway to open northwards from here, but it was blocked up due to the stench coming from the Stocks Market, now the Mansion House residence of the Lord Mayor of London.
During the Blitz the area was heavily bombed and 160 people died. The dome was badly damaged but enough survived for it to be rebuilt and for the church to be restored to its former glory. Today the congregation sit “in the round” on light-coloured pews and kneelers designed by the artist Patrick Heron, famous for his exploration and use of colour and light. In the centre is the Henry Moore altar, a huge sculpted stone block made from travertine marble and cut from the quarry used for many of Michelangelo’s works. This altar was placed in the church in 1987 amid much controversy, which involved two court cases, not just because it was stone instead of wood, but because it was centrally located and not at the east end of the church, where Wren had originally located it. It was deliberately designed for people to gather as a community around the altar, and it makes the church unique.
The original pulpit with a domed hood stands out against the white walls.
Traditional features of Christianity over the centuries remain, such as an elaborately carved wooden pulpit high up on steps with a domed hood, a small font with a detailed cover, a reredos at the east end with the Ten Commandments inscribed in wood, but the focus of this building is not on tradition but on its role in the modern world at the heart of the City which surrounds it.
This is the original telephone used by Chad Varah when he set up The Samaritans in 1953.
This church is also famous for being the base from which Chad Varah, then the vicar of the parish, launched the Samaritan service in 1953. He was made Rector of this church in that year, and was finally able to start his listening service that he had long harboured thoughts about. In 1935, he was an assistant Curate at his first funeral for a 14 year old girl who had committed suicide because she had started menstruation and believed it was a sexually transmitted disease. He vowed at that time to encourage sex education as well as to help people who were contemplating suicide and had nowhere to turn.
He founded The Samaritans in the Rector’s study in November 1953, the world’s first hotline for suicidal people. The black bakelite telephone stands in the nave to commemorate and honour this remarkable achievement, a listening service still heavily in demand today.
Visiting St. Stephen Walbrook
Monday, Tuesday, Thursday: 10h00 – 16h00
Wednesday: 11h00 – 15h00
Friday: 10h00 – 15h30
There are free organ recitals on Fridays 12h30 – 13h30
The church holds regular events and festivals. See their website for details.