London Walks: Postman's Park to St Dunstan in the East
“Harry Sisley of Kilburn. Aged 10. Drowned in attempting to save his brother after he himself had just been rescued. May 24 1878”
The words stare back at me, painted in blue roman lettering on white tiles, framed by floral embellishments on either side. Side by side, tiles tell the tales of lives long gone - lost selflessly in acts of heroism.
The memorial at Postman’s Park was the first stop on my self-guided walking tour of the area neighbouring St Paul’s Cathedral. I’d heard of it before - opening scenes of the movie Closer were filmed there - but reading the names, ages and short synopsis of these brave heroes brings their stories to life in an unexpectedly visceral way. It’s a powerful start to my tour of this small part of central London.
Before setting off, I had picked a few spots on the map to guide my walk but everything else I came across was purely by chance - that’s one of the many reasons I love London, there are so many historical surprises around every corner.
Walking out through the park’s Western exit onto King Edward street, I start toward the second point on my walking tour: St. Dunstan in the East Church Garden. Within mere metres, I’m stopped by curiosity. Christchurch Greyfriars Church Garden towers in front of me and like a puppet on strings, I’m pulled toward it.
Christchurch Greyfriars Church Garden
Manicured hedges line the footpath to a lone tower - the only remains of the 18th century church that once stood where a public garden now flourishes.
The Franciscan church of Greyfriars has a long and tragic history dating back to 1225. Of such importance was the church that four queens were buried at the site. Like many buildings of the time, it was destroyed by the Great Fire of 1666. In 1704, a new church was built on its bones by renowned English architect, Christopher Wren. Sadly, it too was doomed to a face a similarly tragic end. Bombed during WWII, not much remained in its place.
The public garden has transformed this space into a living memorial. The garden was designed to reflect the floor plan of the original building: flower beds stand in place of the original pews, while a row of trees mark the space once filled by the congregation.
I know that St Paul’s Cathedral is nearby, so I walk in its general direction. It’s not long before I see it peering out from among the surrounding buildings. Walking around to the south side, I take in the view of London’s famous Millenium bridge and Tate Modern. I spot an interesting tower and make a slight detour.
St Mary Aldermary
There has been a church on the site of St Mary Aldermary for over 900 years. The original structure was rebuilt in 1510 but it too fell victim to the Great Fire of London. It was also resurrected at the hands of Sir Christopher Wren, who gave the church its gothic style.
According to Nikolaus Pevsner, a British scholar of the history of art, it is, "the chief surviving monument of the 17th-century Gothic revival in the City”. While St Mary Aldermary also suffered damage during the London Blitz, the extent was minimal. Windows were shattered and plaster fell from the ceiling but the building itself held strong.
I wander through Waitling Street, seduced by cosy pubs and attractive facades. The narrow streets are eerily quiet. During the working week, these streets are bustling with holiday makers exploring the area and locals heading to and from work. But today, the streets are empty.
Continuing along Lower Thames Street, I stop to cross over and see The Monument to the Great Fire just behind me.
The Monument to The Great Fire of London
Constructed between 1671 and 1677, the Doric column commemorates the Great Fire of London and celebrates the rebuilding of the City of London. The column is 62 metres tall and stands 62 metres from the spot in Pudding Lane where the Great Fire started in 1666. Visitors can climb the tower’s 311 steps and enjoy panoramic views of the city.
St. Dunstan in the East Church Garden
Just a short distance from The Monument is St Dunstan in the East Church Garden. I approach it eagerly - it’s exactly as I pictured. Nature reclaims the spot. Moss colours the ruins a vibrant green while climbing vines consume entire walls, draping in and out where windows once stood. Lush ferns fill every corner.
A church was first built on the site during Saxon times. The building was restored by St Dunstan in 950AD and suffered severe damages during the Great Fire in 1666. With the assistance of London’s go-to architect, Sir Christopher Wren, the church was repaired and a steeple and tower were added to the structure. The church was largely destroyed during the The Blitz, with only the steeple and tower surviving.
Rather than rebuild the church once more, a garden was designed in its place and St. Dunstan in the East Church Garden was made a public space, which has been open since 1967.
Walking through the moss-coated arches of St Dunstan in the East for the last time, I make my way down Lower Thames Street to take in a view of Tower Bridge. London’s most iconic bridge towers ahead of me. I walk across it, taking in the enormity of the structure first opened for use in 1894. It’s the perfect end to a spontaneous walk in London.