Best Rides: Hawksmoor churches

Between Greenwich and Bloomsbury there are six stunning examples of church architect Nicholas Hawksmoor's craft. Our ride visits each church and looks at some of the cultural myths attached to these famous buildings.

Click here for a downloadable map

Distance: 6.8 miles
Time: 3-4 hours

This ride will appeal to those who love beautiful locations, as well as anyone with an interest in the macabre. Architect Nicholas Hawksmoor (1660-1736) designed six of the most impressive Anglican churches in the whole of London and this seven-miler links them all up. Together they offer a fascinating insight into the relationship between architecture, religion and politics, as well as allowing you to cycle in the footsteps of Jack the Ripper and Charles Dickens.

In chronological order, Hawksmoor’s churches run from east to west and that’s how the ride is presented here. However, there’s a permanent Hawksmoor and Bloomsbury exhibition in the undercroft of St George’s in Bloomsbury, which provides a multimedia glimpse into the architect and the area. The church and exhibition are open most afternoons, but these are staffed by volunteers, so check before you visit at stgeorgesbloomsbury.org.uk.

St Alfege’s, Greenwich

Hawksmoor began his career as assistant surveyor to Christopher Wren at Greenwich Hospital, at a time when the town was not yet a suburb of London. St Alfege’s (also known as St Alphege’s) is named after an Archbishop of Canterbury killed by Viking raiders in 1012, and is one of the two churches built for existing parishes.

The church, designed by Hawksmoor after the original collapsed in a storm in 1710, holds the grave of General James Wolfe. Best known for defeating the French in Canada, Wolfe also helped defeat the Jacobite army 
at Culloden. A foot-tunnel now links Greenwich to the Isle of Dogs, which in the early 18th century was still the sheep-grazed marshland of Stepney parish.

St Anne’s, Limehouse

Riverside development had reached Limehouse by 1710 and St Anne’s was established for the new parish; the generous grounds reflect its suburban character. 
The church might have been named in honour of Queen Anne – who, like St Alfege, also met with tragedy: of Anne’s 18 pregnancies only one survived past infancy, then died aged 11. In later years, she became severely overweight and was so obese when she died of gout that she was buried in an almost square coffin in Westminster Abbey.

The purpose of the small pyramid in the graveyard of St Anne’s is a mystery, though it’s well known that the stonemasons of the time constituted the craft elite and their traditions were one element in the development of freemasonry, along with its occultist associations. Nicholas Hawksmoor was a freemason, and it has been suggested this influenced his work.

St George in the East, Shadwell

St George in the East is noted for its ‘pepper-pot’ towers, with grounds that were laid out as public space in 1886. As with St Alfege’s, the church suffered substantial WW2 bomb damage but, uniquely, has been partially rebuilt to include flats on the western nave. Cyclists travelling from St George’s, Shadwell to Christ Church on a Sunday morning can visit the markets in and around Brick Lane. Take extra care and be sure to dismount when crossing areas heavy with pedestrian traffic.  

Christ Church, Spitalfields

London in the early Georgian period was a sausage-shaped city, hugging the north bank of the Thames. Hawksmoor’s churches in the Thames-side parishes were designed as landmarks for river traffic, and anyone leaving the City from Brushfield Street cannot miss the imposing presence of the portico, tower and spire, of Christ Church. 

All of Hawksmoor’s churches were constructed in an age when ‘masters’ and workmen lived close by. In the Victorian era, the East End saw great social deprivation and by the 1970s Christ Church had fallen into disrepair, with demolition seriously considered. However, The Friends of Christ Church 
was established in 1976 and over £10 million has been spent on restoring the church and grounds and surrounding area. It is open on Sunday afternoons from 1pm.

St Mary’s, Woolnoth

Georgian Londoners would recognise the vibrancy and diversity of the current East End street markets, but be astonished by the absence of inhabitants in the City of London. Following the Great Fire of 1666, the City churches were rebuilt, notably to the designs of Christopher Wren. 
St Mary’s was not completely destroyed, however, and for a few decades was simply patched up. By 1710 a new building was required, allowing Hawksmoor to design his only City church. The buildings that hemmed in the modest church were later demolished, giving 
St Mary’s a prominent presence. 

Around 1900, there was an outcry when the station’s development threatened demolition of the church. The railway company eventually agreed to acquire only the crypt, reburying the bodies in Ilford.

St George’s, Bloomsbury

St George’s parish was formed from the ancient parish of St Giles-in-the-Fields to serve the fashionable area of Bloomsbury. Home to a notorious slum called the ‘Rookery’, it is an early example of social division in Anglican parishes; the land was already too valuable for a generous-sized graveyard, so rich parishioners were interned in the crypt. The church holds a statue – funded by William Hucks, a royal brewer – of George I, dressed in a Roman toga, to show the authority of the Hanoverian regime in an age when Jacobite sentiment was strong.

The church has been substantially altered over time. Major works to restore it to the original design began in 2002. The interior is a perfect cube, with a proportion and elegance that makes it a diamond among the Hawksmoor jewels.

Hawksmoor and popular culture
• Thriller, ghost story 
and metaphysical tract, Peter Ackroyd’s Whitbread award-winning novel Hawksmoor features a series of gruesome murders in 21st-century London. To solve these, a detective must delve deep into 
17th-century history, including the satanic practices of Nicholas Dyer, an architect based on Nicholas Hawksmoor.

• Artists Alan Moore 
and Eddie Campbell created the graphic novel From Hell. Set in Victorian London, this finely crafted book sees Jack the Ripper using Hawksmoor’s churches to perform human sacrifices. The book was made into a film of the same name in 2001, starring Johnny Depp and Heather Graham.

• St Mary’s, Woolnoth, 
is mentioned in TS Eliot’s poem The Wasteland. London poet Iain Sinclair also wrote about Hawksmoor in his 1975 collecton Lud Heat.

Original ride courtesy of Waltham Forest Cycling Campaign


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