Last updated on August 23rd, 2023 at 11:54 am
Constantly keep your eyes open when wandering round the old City of London. Behind the steel and glass and beneath your feet are about two thousand years of history. Reminders of the past are everywhere – some obvious, others not; and some are real hidden gems. One of the finest of those hidden gems is St Dunstan in the East. It sits at the junction of St Dunstan’s Hill and Idol Lane (originally Idle Lane), an easy 5-10 minute walk from either Monument or Tower Hill, and is one of more than a hundred churches that used to occupy medieval London. As you approach, it would be easy to think that something is wrong; the building is overgrown, hidden like something from a legend, with climbing plants festooning themselves dramatically through the tracery of Gothic windows. You then see that only the tower and steeple of the church are unbroken; the remainder of the church is a ruined shell inside a carefully tended garden.
Dunstan in the East dates from the 12th century but, like all of London’s ancient churches, it was tested by fire and aerial bombardment. Severely damaged in the Great Fire of 1666, it was repaired and Christopher Wren gave it a new tower and steeple. It then fell into decline and, apart from Wren’s tower and steeple, was rebuilt between 1817 and 1821. In 1941, during London’s Blitz, Dunstan in the East was destroyed by German bombs, and after the war the decision was taken not to rebuild. In 1967, the City of London undertook to open it as a garden, which it did in 1970. And now it provides a tranquil spot for City workers to munch their lunchtime sandwiches; they could probably sell seats – but it’s quieter at weekends. When I was there, it had been taken over by a young lad conducting a tour. He was quite good, and I hope he makes a decent living; but he does need to remember it’s a public place and be more succinct in future.
I know you’re busting to ask whether there is a St Dunstan in the West: there is; it is in Fleet Street. You might also read that Dunstan in the East has Saxon origins. I could find no reliable reference to this and suspect that people get confused with the church of St Dunstan and All Saints in Stepney, which dates from at least the 10th century and is said to have been rebuilt by St Dunstan himself.
St Dunstan was once one of England’s most popular saints and an interesting chap, a polymath described on the British Library’s blog as “a kind of Anglo-Saxon Renaissance man.” He was born in the early 10th century, possibly in the tiny village of Baltonsborough in Somerset, and went on to become Abbot of Glastonbury, Bishop of Worcester, Bishop of London, Archbishop of Canterbury and advisor to kings. A scholar, artist, musician, jeweller, metal smith and all-round craftsman, he is reputed to have tweaked the Devil’s nose with a pair of hot blacksmiths’ tongs. The story I particularly like about Dunstan is that he is said to have found King Eadwig (or Edwy) in bed with an attractive young lady, when he was supposed to be at his own coronation. Be fair; it must have been a difficult choice for the young monarch to make.
Dunstan in the East would once have been at the heart of a thriving community. Situated just by the river, I’m guessing it would have had some links with traders and, on Historic England’s website, there is a fascinating photograph of porters from nearby Billingsgate fish market giving presents of fish sometime in the 1930s. Standing in what would have been the nave, where benches and flowers have replaced pews and pulpit, it’s difficult to picture what it must have been like, with graceful arches, beautiful hanging lamps, light streaming in through the stained glass, memorials on the walls to the great and good of the parish; and that musty church smell. Presumably, some of the hundreds who must have been baptised, married and buried here over the centuries are still there, in the garden. Incidentally, one of the plants, according to the City of London’s website, is winter’s bark, or winter cinnamon, Drimys winteri, allegedly named after an Elizabethan sea-captain, John Winter. A native of South America, it has various medicinal properties and its leaves or bark (not sure which) were once eaten to help prevent scurvy.
So, visit Dunstan in the East: go on – off you go. It is special, and an oasis (you know how I love clichés) amidst the hustle and bustle of the City. Check before making a special trip, however, because it is hired out for events and still used for the occasional service.