diamond geezer

 Sunday, October 14, 2007

Nonconformist London

John Bunyan's final resting placeLondon's well known as a place for difference, dissent and refusal to conform. For more than three centuries the city's been home to many famous religious Noncomformists (that's Protestants who aren't Anglicans, such as Methodists and Quakers and Baptists and Puritans). Even on a very short walk across the north of the City of London, it's amazing how many you can find.

Bunhill Fields: Just off the City Road, in a secluded park beneath a canopy of trees, lie the buried remains of 123,000 Londoners. The first bones belonged to plague victims, unceremoniously dumped here in 1665, and the last belonged to a lady called Elizabeth, interred in 1854. The site was never attached to a church, never consecrated, and so became the burial plot of choice for London's Nonconformists. And there are some right famous ones if you know where to look. Pick up a free leaflet from the groundsman's hut and you can spot them yourself. Just don't expect to get right up close, because most of the cemetery lies out of bounds behind locked-off iron railings.

William Blake's tombstoneThe grandest memorial in Bunhill Fields belongs to John Bunyan. He may have been born in Bedford, but he died of a fever in London, and this pilgrim progressed no further. Look further beyond the iron railings and you might also spot the tomb of Richard Cromwell. He ruled Britain for eight months back in 1658, following in the footsteps of his rather more famous (and considerably more successful) father Oliver. Behind you stands a tall white obelisk, erected in memory of the great author Daniel Defoe. He was one of Britain's first novelists, and many a 1970s childhood would have been emptier without Robinson Crusoe on the telly every summer. And in Defoe's shadow, surrounded by fallen brown leaves, is a rather too modern gravestone etched with the name of William Blake. He was the visionary poet and artist who wrote Jerusalem, much beloved by Last Night of the Prommers and the ladies of the Women's Institute. But Blake's tombstone is actually a fake, because his real grave has long lain unmarked in the grass nearby. Earlier this year a little detective work using burial plot coordinates paid off, and his final resting place (on the edge of a muddy lawn) has now been uncovered. There's no memorial yet, but let's hope there will be.

Wesley's ChapelWesley's Chapel: Immediately opposite Bunhill Fields, on the other side of City Road, stands one of the largest Methodist chapels in the country. And with good reason. It's nextdoor to the Georgian townhouse where John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, lived out the last decade of his life. His house is open to the public, as is the grand chapel itself. Step in through the glass partition and admire the marble columns, stained glass and raised altar. If you're lucky, there might even be someone twiddling on the impressive organ. But there's another attraction, just along the corridor (past the nice lady pouring cups of tea) and down into the crypt. Yes, it's the Museum of Methodism (you knew there had to be one somewhere). Here you can find Wesley's original pulpit, and the odd bust, and some relevant ceramics, and several information boards telling the story of the Methodist religion from the 18th century to the present day. At the moment there's also a mini exhibition in one corner comemmorating the tercentenary of Charles Wesley, John's brother, and the hymn writer responsible for Love Divine and Hark The Herald. It's all very homely and understated, as one might expect. And I wonder if I've finally been to a London museum that none of you have.

The Aldersgate Flame: And finally, half a mile away through the Barbican estate, to the spot where Methodism began. John Wesley was attending a prayer meeting one Wednesday evening, just off Aldersgate Street, when he felt his heart "strangely warmed". It was this single experience that transformed his ministry, and started him off on a lifelong tour preaching all around the country. No sign of the house in Old Nettleton Court remains, but a rather large memorial now stands on a walkway immediately above the spot, right next to the front entrance to the Museum of London. It's a tall metal flame, inscribed with words from Wesley's own journal from 24th May 1738. Today it seems an odd location for religious conversion, surrounded by City offices and a concrete roundabout, but millions of Methodists across the world give thanks for its strangely warming properties.

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