London, by Trafalgar Square
Clearly no longer in-the-fields, St. Martin’s Church bustles with the energy of London. It sits just at the edge of Trafalgar Square, one of the busiest spots in a busy city.
You’ll know Trafalgar Square from photos: Admiral Nelson’s column anchors its center, surrounded by those fierce lions, and the National Gallery sits to its back, while traffic circles all around. It is a manically busy spot, but also a fabulous place to catch the heart of London. If you look from the National Gallery to Nelson’s
Column, you see Big Ben in the distance. Then, if you walk to your right, you walk through the Marble Arch and down toward Buckingham Palace. The other direction, you’ll find the Strand (with its West End theaters) and St. Martin-in-the-fields.
The beautiful stone church seems to have embraced its new “not at all in the fields, but at the heart of the crowd” identity very well. It is well known for its continued ministering to the city, and in so many ways. It has, historically, had a strong mission for working with the homeless. It’s also popular for its concert series. In fact, music is at the heart of much of St. Martin’s reputation– it’s Cafe in the Crypt is a hot spot for jazz lovers. The Cafe (open the week through for diners) has Jazz Nights on
Wednesdays. If you like Swing, Dixieland, or R&B, this is the spot for you. I can’t vouch for the food, having not eaten there, but I can tell you that many of these “crypt cafes” in British churches are quite good. We’ve frequented dozens of them over the years, a few underwhelming and a few really spectacular. They are always worth a try–especially if a jazz night is thrown into the mix!
Earliest references to St. Martin-in-the-fields are traced back to records from 1222, but excavations have uncovered gravesites from about 400 A.D, when there was a Roman settlement in present day London. (At which point, this area would certainly have been “in the fields” and far from the small town’s city limits.) The church has undergone many changes through the centuries–some dramatic.
As the fields turned to city sprawl, Henry VIII extended the parish of St. Martin’s and made changes to the structure. The church survived the Great Fire of London (1666, I think), which was no small feat. Still, the old facade was pulled down in 1721 and the new marble structure was put into place. I’m a fan of the “new” neo-classical church, but it still seems a shame to me that a church could survive the fire that leveled so much of the city, just to be pulled down a few years later. But there were reasons for that–structural decay chief among them . . . and who can argue with that?
For us, St. Martin-in-the-fields was a great find as we meandered from Trafalgar Square toward the Strand and Covent Garden. We didn’t take the time to learn much history or eat in the crypt. We didn’t stumble into a service in progress (which would have been nice), but we knew the name and were curious to just have a look inside. And what we found made us curious to know more. We opened the doors of the old church, expecting to see what we usually see, but were greeted, instead, with a uniquely bright take on church windows. The East Window, sat directly behind the altar area, and the visual centerpiece of the church, looks like this:
It’s modern, but traditional at the same time. It’s so spare, but still manages to look like a cross. And the light it lends to the space is fantastic. You see something like this in London, and you immediately think the windows must have been bombed out in WWII, and apparently that was the case. And then you think, this window almost looks like it’s being hit with a shock–of sound or schrapnel– something that bends its fibers. And yet, it’s beautiful.
And then, if you are a slightly nerdy English major, like me, you hear the poetry of Yeats: “Things fall apart/The centre cannot hold.” The window appears to have a gapping hole at its center, and Yeats’s post WWI poem conjured the same image. But here, in St. Martin’s, the fantastic ovoid center holds. An entire world war later, and the center holds. With the bustle of this great city, and the enduring attacks that humans perpetuate on each other, and the center holds. In a community of faith, in a busy corner of tourism, in a jazz hot spot, with all of the sacred and profane met in this one thriving building, and the center holds, despite the evidence of warping and instability on its edges.
And this is why I love St. Martin-in-the-fields. Her facade has withstood fires, only to decay and be rebuilt and stand still. Her fields have given way to asphalt and traffic, but still a sort of urban beauty. Her focal point, so often anchored by predictable images in stained glass windows, has warbled, has warped, has shed its coloring, but let in more light, and, yes, it has held.
Oh how I love this church.