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Open Features: A Tale Of The Unexpected

...The afternoon was wonderfully autumnal, with a mild southerly wind chasing the first fall of leaves around my feet. Despite the financial gloom in The City, just a mile or so down the road, the world felt calm and full of endless possibilities....

Mary Pilfold-Allan goes hiking through history in the great city of London.

“The best things in life are unexpected – because there are no expectations,” a platitude attributed to Eli Khamarov, a man who has a lot of such sayings to his credit.

My Dad had quite a few of his own that he trotted out when the moment seemed right, including “If you don’t have any expectations then you will never be disappointed.’’ This has lead me to advocated that the ‘the glass is always half full, not half empty’ and ‘everything in life is a bonus! Having a positive outlook and relishing the unexpected, of which being spontaneous is all part and parcel, must to be good for the psyche.

I willingly let spontaneity take me by the hand the other afternoon in London. With time to spare, I decided to set out on foot from Covent Garden to The Foundling Museum, or Hospital as it was once called. This philanthropic institution opened its doors in 1741 after a long struggle to get funding for the project by Sir Thomas Coram, aided by friends like George Frideric Handel and the artist, William Hogarth. Let’s face it, with friends like that how could he not succeed?

The Hospital was eventually built on Bloomsbury Fields, now almost completely disappeared under urban sprawl. It took in orphaned or unwanted children and I had long wanted to pay a visit as it seemed to be one of those fascinating places that could have stepped straight out of Dickens.

The afternoon was wonderfully autumnal, with a mild southerly wind chasing the first fall of leaves around my feet. Despite the financial gloom in The City, just a mile or so down the road, the world felt calm and full of endless possibilities.

Before I got very far, I had to cross the busy Bloomsbury Way. It was then that I came face to face with what looked remarkably like a Roman temple, not something that you expected to see in the middle of 21st century London. With an uncanny feeling that Boudicca might come charging down the road in her chariot any minute, closely followed by the whole of her Iceni tribe seeking revenge on Gaius Suetonius Paullinus and his Legions, I couldn’t resist climbing the flight of steps and entering the door in the middle of an impressive portico. What I discovered was every bit ‘a bonus’.

St. George’s Bloomsbury was built as a result of the 1711 Act, passed at the insistence of Queen Anne to curb the increase in dissenting chapels within her capital city. The Act decreed that fifty new churches were to be built and every one was to have the classical necessity of a portico. Rather an ambitious plan as it turned out. Only twelve eventually made it to bricks and mortar and St George’s was the last to rise up to the London skyline in 1730.

It was designed by Nicholas Hawksmoor, born of yeoman stock in Nottinghamshire around 1660. Somehow Hawksmoor caught the attention of Sir Christopher Wren, who was arguably the greatest architect to have left his mark on London and made his name rebuilding many of the churches burnt out in the Great Fire of 1666, including St. Paul’s Cathedral.

By the time of the Act however, Hawksmoor was flying solo as an architect after years of serving alongside the master. He took on the commission for several of the twelve churches that were eventually completed, including St Alfege, Greenwich, Christ Church, Spitalfields, St Mary Woolnoth and finally, St George’s Bloomsbury.

My first impression of a Roman temple was not too far out. A helpful lady, who sat in the church, informed me the design was possibly a take on the Temple of Jupiter at Baalbek. She also pointed out that the only known statue of a toga clad George I topped the tower. He had originally been guarded by a set of lions and unicorns but the Victorians had objected to the rampant beasts and had them removed. They are now back in place!

If the outside of St George’s resembles a temple, the space inside opens up to reveal architectural principles based on a cube with impressive keystones topping arches that give height and grandeur. One of these keystones is curved with a sunburst and carries the Hebrew name for God.

There are so many architectural features of significant interest that I would have to write a guidebook to accommodate them all. However, it is worth noting that the novelist Anthony Trollope was baptised there in 1815 and Dickens drew on it for ‘Sketches by Boz’ (1836).

After falling into severe disrepair, the church has recently been restored to its former glory (that is before the Victorians added their touches) with the help of money from the philanthropist, Paul Mellon’s estate through the World Monuments Fund and the help of other benefactors. There is an informative exhibition in the crypt giving visitors the before and after story.

As I walked away from St George’s an hour later, with only enough time left to locate The Foundling Hospital but no time to look round it, (a treat to save up for another day), I found myself looking with more care at all the buildings along the way. London is full of Blue Plaques, decorative rooftops, mysterious lanes with strange names and quaint doorways that lead you to who knows where? Walking with an open mind to explore as the fancy takes you is far more rewarding than sticking to a rigid programme of ‘must sees’. I am sure Alice would agree with me. Had she not gone through the mysterious door in the garden wall she would never have discovered Wonderland!


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