St. Martin-in-the-Fields

London, by Trafalgar Square

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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.

Trafalgar Square images
Trafalgar Square images

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

Creative Commons image
Creative Commons image

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

Cafe in the Crypt
Cafe in the Crypt

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.

From a JT Smith print, published 1808
From a JT Smith print, published 1808

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?

St. Martin-in-the-fields as it now stands

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:

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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.

Venice: Come Hell or Acqua Alta (Part Two)

Alternately entitled:  Making a Splash in Venice

To recap from Part One:  “First, the water came up to meet us. . .

. . . and then we went down to meet the water.  Or, at least, my husband did.”


Before we traveled to Venice, we did a little research.  We knew enough to ask about the acqua alta, to ask if we should pack high boots.  Not to worry, we were told by our hotelier, this is not likely to be a problem while you are here.  And, truly, there was no problem with the acqua alta– it came, it saw, it retreated quickly without particularly hampering our plans or wetting our socks.  Our hotelier did not steer us wrong.  He wasn’t counting, however, on my particular family’s foibles.

And that is a long and perplexing list of foibles. . . so before explaining our second run in (or, dive in, as it were) with the water of Venice, let me pause to tell you about our lovely hotelier and his cozy villa.

We stayed at Locanda Ca Le Vele, a charming, small hotel in an old Villa, sat right on a canal and just 3 minutes walk from the Grand Canal.  The best of both worlds, then:  it offered quiet charm and a convenient location.

locanda ca le 1There were only six rooms/suites to the hotel, and breakfast was served in our rooms each morning.  We thoroughly enjoyed the old world charm of the Villa, and would recommend it to anyone traveling to Venice.

Now, whether our hotelier enjoyed our company as well, I can’t say.  We were, as we generally are, quiet and respectful guests.  With the exception of one incident.

One hell of an incident.

After a day of walking and boating around Venice, my son and I headed back to the hotel, while my husband and daughter decided to stop for coffee before walking home.

They weren’t far behind us, and we’d just kicked off our shoes and gotten comfortable at home when my daughter came flying through the door to our suite in a frantic, wild-eyed state.  She was bent over, gasping for breath, and trying to communicate, but the sounds she was making didn’t translate into any language known to man.  In thirty seconds time, my blood pressure went through the roof . . . until she finally spit out the words, “It was the best thing that’s ever happened to me!”  Followed by a barrage of laughter.

A few more gasps of air later, and Kate was spilling a few details– namely that her father had fallen into the canal and was standing outside of the hotel in dire need of help and in a sorry, soggy, and silty state.  Unfortunately, she left out the adjective “smelly,” because that’s what I should have prepared myself for when I went down to meet him.  The silt of centuries in the Venice canals also means the stench of centuries will cling to anyone who wallows in those canals.


The stairs to our suite.
The stairs to our suite.

But I didn’t know about the stench yet, so I left my daughter, who was still doubled over with laughter, and ran down the stairs to help my soggy husband out.

The stairs led to an open air courtyard and the front door of the Villa.  I was moving at a fast clip, so the smell didn’t hit me until I had stopped in front of my soggy, muddy husband.  (Dripping sludge from the waist down, and his face contorted in disgust, he looked less like my husband and more like the creature from the black lagoon . . .which he kind of was at this point).

My senses, and sensibilities, went into overload.  I wanted to burst out laughing too, but the smell–good Lord, the smell!  I began retching.  Violently retching.  I really expected to lose my lunch as James handed me his filthy, muddy boots.

This didn’t go over well with my husband.  After all, HE was the one covered in the stuff and HE wasn’t throwing up like me.  NOR was he doubled over with laughter, like my daughter.  (In fact, it would be some time before he saw any humor in the situation, whatsoever.)

This wasn’t an argument I cared to join (even if I’d been able to stop retching long enough to utter a word.)  So I pivoted on my heels, holding the muddy boots out at an arm’s length, and gagged my way up the stairs–passing the front desk along the way.  I’m sure the man at the desk was disheartened by the afternoon’s procession:  first, my daughter doubled over with hysteria; then me, hauling something muddy and disgusting and making all of the motions (and noises) of someone about to vomit; and then the centerpiece of the parade–my husband, wet and filthy muddy from the waist down, smelling rotten and looking not the least amused.  (You can dress us up, but you really can’t take us far before something like this happens . . . it’s inevitable.  Other than that, we’re a nice family.)

But the poor desk clerk wasn’t done with us yet.  My husband got into the shower, clothes and all.  Having no laundry facilities, he figured he’d start with the outer layers and scrub all the way down, bit by bit, sort of like a wet archeological dig down to the original surface–and he quickly realized that the mud was so bad, he’d need extra towels to scub it away. He explained this to me at high decibels, since I wouldn’t come into the bathroom with him (have I mentioned the stench?), but I would have to be the one to go get more towels while he continued the scrub down.

Jeans hanging out of our hotel window to dry.

So I went for the towels.  An easy task . . .for someone who can communicate coherently . . . which I couldn’t at this moment.  The hysteria that had taken over my daughter a few minutes before had now hit my son and me too, and we were all doubled over with laughter.

But I did my best to request more towels.  I went to the hotel desk and, between fits of laughter and gasps of breath, tried to form coherent sentences about our situation.  To a man whose English was sketchy to start with.

He probably thought we’d all taken a dive. . . into a barrel of wine.  But he did his best for us, and handed me a large stack of newspapers.

Newspapers?  Well, beggars can’t be choosers and hysterical laughter doesn’t lend itself to subtle communication–so I took the newspapers and ran.

It was something.

The scrub down continued in our room, and, eventually, we laughed just a little less and my husband fumed just a little less, and the full story came out.

They were almost back to our hotel when James decided that he wanted to see how far the water had receded from earlier in the day (when the acqua alta had spilled into the streets).  So, he explained with psuedo-scientific precision, he went to the edge of the canal behind our hotel and began counting the stairs down into the canal.  Apparently walking down them as he counted.  Great idea.

“One, two, thrrrr…,” and, oops, down he went after hitting the muddy, wet third step.  (Who would have guessed that a recently flooded canal step could be so slimy?)

He slipped entirely into the canal–waist high– while my daughter had continued to walk down the street.  Hearing some commotion behind her, she turned to see her dad flailing.  Of course, she ran to help doubled over in a frenzy of laughter, while two elderly Venetians, cigarettes dangling from their lips, pulled him out of the canal (all the while, he’s explaining loudly, “I slipped, I slipped!”–just in case they hadn’t noticed.) And there was also some detail about him trying to save the KinderEgg chocolate that had floated out of his coat pocket and was lazily drifting down the canal. Sadly, it was too far gone. (And, I’m asking you, would either of my children have eaten it with canal stench rising off of it?  No thanks.)

With my husband cleaned off, the room beginning to air out, and his pants hanging out of the elegant window of our room to dry, we gathered our wits and called home to family.  It was the American Thanksgiving holiday, and we had plenty to be thankful for.  Not least of all, that James had made such a splash in Venice and “it was the best thing that ever happened!” to my daughter.

We are easily amused.