diamond geezer

 Sunday, March 04, 2012

St Leonard's Priory, Bromley-by-Bow
The oldest building in today's Bow is merely medieval, but the recordholder was once Norman. The parish church of St Leonard had several features dating back to William the Conqueror, at which time it had been an adjunct to the local Benedictine nunnery. And this was a nunnery of great literary repute, immortalised by Chaucer in his Canterbury Tales as home to the Prioress "of stratford atte bowe". Few London suburbs can claim such an illustrious history. But the buildings of old St Leonard's are long gone, the nunnery in the Dissolution, and the church thanks to a direct hit from a wartime bomb in 1941. What the Luftwaffe didn't destroy, the Blackwall Tunnel Approach Road did, and all that remains today is a corner of the old churchyard beside a roaring dual carriageway. It's not been well looked after. Each morning Bishop How's arch is unlocked by some unseen gatekeeper, opening up an overgrown acre to lager-swillers, staffie-walkers and general ne'erdowells. You just wouldn't, or at least you wouldn't have until very recently. The charity Trees For Cities (in conjunction with the Diocese of London) has taken control and they're replanting, repairing and restoring, and are making a damned good job of it. A new bark path has been laid around the perimeter, lined with chopped logs, only one of which the local arsonists have so far tried to burn. A covering of white gravel has brightened up some of the old tombs and gravestones (allegedly Huguenot in origin), and a few fresh benches are replacing the vandalised seats where the drunks no longer sit. Look north and there's the Olympic Stadium - a 21st century icon viewed from an 11th century memory. St Leonard's will never be parkland of choice, but it's becoming an attractive green hideaway, an urban wildlife habitat, and an asset rather than a liability.

Bow Baptist Church
Four summers ago the Baptist Church by the McDonald's by the Bow Flyover disappeared. It wasn't the loveliest of buildings, resembling a brick warehouse, so no architect would have greatly missed it. But it was only a replacement, built with austerity money in the 1950s in lieu of a bombed-out Victorian 800-seater. That must have been quite a sight with its three-sided balcony, and "Holiness becometh thy house, O Lord, forever" inscribed in twisted script high above the focal pulpit. And even that building was the third chapel on the site, with the first dating back to 1785 - the Baptist tradition has lived long and prospered here in Bow. Today the fifth Bow Baptist Church opens its doors, and it's a very different beast. From the roadside building site has risen a block of flats, not quite as tall as the tower next door, but still large enough to contain 29 housing association apartments. It's only the ground floor that's the new place of worship, in much the same way that many stacks of flats elsewhere now come with a Tesco Express underneath. Bow Baptist Church also boasts a very modern form of stained glass window - a wall of reinforced tiles with the shape of a cross picked out in vandalproof blocky squares. The congregation will be pouring back this morning for the inaugural service, in conjunction with the London Chinese Baptist Church which also has its base here. Let's hope the singing isn't so loud as to wake tenants in the flats above attempting a Sunday morning lie-in. And keep an eye out if you're coming to the Olympics (beside the fast food restaurant, alongside the flyover) for a place of worship that's much older than it looks.
» The story of Bow Baptist Church - a pamphlet written in commemoration of the 150th anniversary in 1935


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