diamond geezer

 Sunday, January 18, 2004

...say the bells of St Clements

Two churches in London claim to be the St Clements named in the nursery rhyme. St Clement's church in Eastcheap is generally thought to be the correct one, not least because the second church in the rhyme is only 100 yards away. There's been a church on this site in the City since the 11th century, originally named after the patron saint of seamen. It's not far from here down to the Thames, and the river was even closer in days gone by. Legend has it that merchants used to unload citrus fruits at the nearby wharves and that the bells of St Clements rang out whenever a new shipment was delivered.

St Clement's is a small church down a very narrow lane close to Monument station, crammed into an unfeasibly tiny gap between office buildings. It's one of 50-odd City churches rebuilt by Sir Christopher Wren after the Great Fire of London. I was expecting something rather more impressive, but the building is disappointingly plain and seriously overshadowed. There's a claustrophic courtyard round the back complete with a handful of well-tended gravestones, but not much else. The church has only one service a week, on a Wednesday not a Sunday, which sounds odd until you realise that most of the City is a ghost town at the weekend.

The other church with a claim to be the St Clements in the nursery rhyme is the much larger (and much more impressive) St Clement Danes, one mile to the west in the Strand. This is an even older church, established in the 10th century and reputedly frequented by William the Conqueror. St Clement Danes later became the only Wren-built church outside the City of London, but was mostly destroyed during the Blitz. The church was then rebuilt yet again, dedicated to the Royal Air Force in 1958, and now sits on a giant traffic island close to Aldwych.

St Clement Danes may not actually be the church featured in the rhyme but its carillion bells still play out the familiar tune four times a day. Also every year, somewhere around Easter, the church holds an 'Oranges and Lemons' service in which fruit is handed out to local schoolchildren. And, mistaken or not, it's an old engraving of St Clement Danes church in the book 1984 that brings Winston Smith's long-buried memories of London past back to life.

"The half-remembered rhyme kept running through Winston's head. It was curious, but when you said it to yourself you had the illusion of actually hearing bells, the bells of a lost London that still existed somewhere or other, disguised and forgotten... yet so far as he could remember he had never in real life heard church bells ringing."


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