diamond geezer

 Monday, August 12, 2019

Local History Month
Bow Down: St Leonard's

August is Local History Month on diamond geezer. Over the years I've explored the street I worked on, followed John Betjeman's footsteps through Metroland and climbed to the highest point in every London borough, to name but a few of my summer quests. This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Bow Flyover so I thought I'd dig back and discover what was wiped away to build it, in a series I'm calling Bow Down.

The Bow Flyover was built as part of the construction of the East Cross Route, a dual carriageway intended to form one side of a ringway box around Inner London. Elsewhere that never happened, thankfully, but the eastern edges of Poplar and Bow were decimated by a concrete ribbon slicing up the Lea Valley. In this series I intend to rediscover the terraced streets, wharves, mills and factories that were summarily destroyed, even the lost frontage of a tube station, but let's start with the parish church that traffic now thunders through.

St Mary's, Bromley St Leonard

Here we are on the busy A12 just south of the Bow Flyover where the underpass comes up for breath. The parish church of St Mary's stood right here - not to be confused with the parish church of St Mary's in Bow less than 300 metres away. This parish grew up along the River Lea in a completely separate village by the name of Bromley - not to be confused with Bromley in Kent or any other Bromleys anywhere else. It owed its existence to a Benedictine nunnery called St Leonard's Priory, first recorded in 1122 with a complement of nine nuns and a prioress. Its chief claim to fame is that Chaucer wrote about it in the Canterbury Tales, which is pretty much the medieval equivalent of celebrity status.
Ther was also a nonne, a prioresse,
That of hir smylyng was ful symple and coy;
Hire gretteste ooth was but by seinte loy;
And she was cleped madame eglentyne.
Ful weel she soong the service dyvyne,
Entuned in hir nose ful semely,
And frenssh she spak ful faire and fetisly,
After the scole of stratford atte bowe,
For frenssh of parys was to hire unknowe.
The priory was dissolved in 1536, courtesy of Henry VIII's version of Brexit, but its chapel was retained for use as a church for the local village. In the western wall was a large round-headed Norman arch, through which the nuns had originally processed, and on the roof a steeple with a well-hung belfry. A vault in the chancel contained the remains of John de Bohun, fifth Earl of Hereford, fourth Lord of Essex and Constable of England (died 1336), and various further effigies, plaques and monuments were added over the years. St Mary's had a well-appointed interior, with Norman features uncommon in these parts, but also became increasingly hard to maintain. [full history]

In 1842 the churchwardens agreed to extend the building to support the area's fast-growing population. They started by taking the roof off, then removed the south wall... at which point the Norman arch in the west wall collapsed. That also had to be entirely rebuilt, at which point it was discovered that the north wall was too weak to support the new roof so that was rebuilt too. The original east wall now looked very much out of place so a wealthy parishioner paid for that to be upgraded, and hey presto the entire church had been unintentionally replaced. They kept all the monuments and tombs, and the interior looked splendid, and what a treasurehouse it might now be if only it hadn't been destroyed.

The agent of destruction wasn't the A12, however, it was the Luftwaffe. St Mary's suffered terrible bomb damage in 1941 and its ruins were never rebuilt, so when planners came to draw the line for the new dual carriageway the route was clear. But they did spare the churchyard, which is why the road swings east on its way to Bow Bridge. It was only ever an acre of land, and very few of the graves remain intact, or even recognisable, but the dead have at least been left in peace. The only surviving structure of significance is the How Memorial Gateway, which commemorates a long-serving Victorian vicar, erected in 1894.

Today the churchyard is a nature reserve, or community garden, or some kind of recreational greenspace for the local neighbourhood. A faded peeling board beside the entrance reveals the first rebranding attempt in the 1990s - the St Leonard's Adventurous Playground - although no equipment remains, and no parent would risk their offspring playing amid the broken gravestones today. More recently the charity Trees for Cities have erected information boards detailing the site's history and hidden wildlife, although the board nearest to the entrance already looks worse for wear and will likely be illegible within a few years.

A few benches have been scattered around the perimeter, where on my last visit I found a homeless sleeper and the time before that a likely drug deal underway. More normally if you encounter somebody within the churchyard they're watching their dog defecate. Only having one entrance doesn't help feelings of security, nor the far end of the site (where the church doors were) being invisible from the road thanks to an all-obscuring hedge. Someone is keeping the undergrowth down, so basically they've tried, but this churchyard's a pretty miserable place to linger.

Next into the conservation fray are the Women's Environmental Network, in conjunction with the council, who hope to rebrand the space as St Leonard's Priory Park. They've relaid the paths, brought in gardening volunteers and run a consultation on future use, which might mean shifting the gravestones, reinstalling playground equipment and adding allotments to help combat 'gendered health inequalities'. A poster on the noticeboard invites interested parties to a Next Steps meeting on Wednesday 29th August, except that's actually last year's date so I guess the whole project's already foundered.

Poor St Leonard's - dissolved by Henry VIII, accidentally rebuilt by the Victorians, blown apart in the Blitz, buried beneath a dual carriageway and now neglected and forgotten. If you should be driving through the nave any time soon, do spare a thought for the Prioresse of Stratford-atte-Bowe.

Update: Except that's by far the most interesting building to have been demolished to make way for the flyover. Bow's medieval bridge is long gone, James I's royal palace wasn't in the line of fire, nobody wants to hear about an obscure cooperage, and essentially I don't think this feature can be completed.

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