I absolutely love, love, LOVE St Bartholomew the Great church in Smithfield. It’s the kind of place that I take friends and family when they visit London; it’s almost as old as the Tower (what’s a hundred years between friends?) and more beautiful than Buckingham Palace, but doesn’t have the crowds or selfie-sticks of either. And it’s got a fascinating backstory.
So, why do I love this little corner of London? Let me count the ways…
900 years of history
Like much of West Smithfield, St Bartholomew the Great is really old. It was built around 1123 and, while several parts of it were destroyed throughout the years, it survived Henry VIII’s reformation, the Great Fire of London, and The Blitz largely intact. In this sense, it is unlike other churches in the City of London (including Christ Church Greyfriars and St Dunstan in the East).
Step through the huge doors and the sounds of West Smithfield and Farringdon slowly drift away. Once inside, you enter another world: one without any visible sign of modern life, where time has stood still for hundreds of years, and where the dead live forever in rows of memorials and eerily beautiful tombs.
The age of this cavernous building gives the air an unmistakable thickness: it exudes the kind of atmosphere that only exists in places that seem to have soaked up 900-years’ worth of lives that have passed through.
A Tudor face
The Tudor gatehouse at the entrance to the church grounds has a fascinating history of its own.
St Bartholomew’s Gatehouse stands where the original nave of the church would have stood, before the nave was destroyed in the reformation in around 1539. It was built in 1595 as a two-storey residence and incorporates the arch (built in 1240) that would have been the original doorway to the church’s southern aisle before the reformation.
The connection with the church is referenced in both the name of the gatehouse and the figure of St Bartholomew that stands in the front between the first and second floors.
Luckily, the gatehouse’s location saved it from damage from the Great Fire in 1666 (the fire only spread as far as the corner of Giltspur Street and Cock Lane, where The Golden Boy of Pye Corner now stands) and it was covered over by a Georgian facade sometime in the 1700s before being used as a shop.
The next phase of the Tudor gatehouse’s life reads very differently to that of many buildings in the area. Instead of being destroyed by bombs in the early 20th-century, it was uncovered by them; in 1917, the Georgian facade was damaged by a German Zeppelin raid and the Tudor gatehouse was revealed. It was fully restored in the 1930s (as well as the exterior, there is still Tudor panelling in the attic) and later used as a rectory for the church and then a school for 8 pupils.
Filming location for great films
The list of films and history TV shows that St Bartholomew the Great has been featured in reads like a schedule for an all-time great movie marathon: Four Weddings and a Funeral, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, Sherlock Holmes, and Elizabeth: The Golden Age all featured scenes filmed in the church.
Often it’s used as a stand-in for other big churches: for example, in Sherlock Holmes it was used as the crypt of St Paul’s Cathedral.
A Damien Hirst artwork
Legend has it that St Bartholomew brought Christianity to Armenia, where he was flayed alive and crucified head-down. The most recent addition to the church is an unmistakable nod to this story in the form of Damien Hirst’s Exquisite Pain statue, gilded and holding a pair of scissors in a reference to his links to medicine and surgery, and also influenced by Edward Scissorhands.
Exquisite Pain will be at St Bartholomew the Great for a few years; Hirst’s exhibition at the Tate Modern was big news back in 2012, so this is a great opportunity to see one of his more traditional pieces in a much more peaceful setting.
Nearest Tube: St Paul’s / Farringdon
Opening times: Monday to Friday, 8:30am-5pm (until 4pm during autumn/winter); Saturday, 10:30am-4pm; Sunday, 8:30am-8pm (check the website for details about opening during services)
More information: Great St Barts website
Other quiet places in Smithfield…
- St Bart’s Hospital Museum: A hidden gem with a 900-year story to tell
- Christ Church Greyfriars: A brief history of plague, fire, war, and reformation