St Bride's Church. Wells,Wren, wedding cakes and... lightning conductors?
The famous wedding cake steeple of St Bride's Church.
Hidden away on the South side of Fleet Street stands one of London's loveliest churches. This is St Bride's known throughout the the media world as the journalists church. The whole area is synonymous with the newspaper and print trade since the superbly named, Wynkyn de Worde first set up his printing press nearby in 1500. St Bride's is perhaps Sir Christopher Wren's most distinctive if not most lovely church. And this is largely because of the magnificent 226 feet tall steeple known to all Londoners as the wedding cake.
The story goes that one William Rich, an apprentice baker, working around the corner in Ludgate Hill was smitten by his bosses beautiful daughter. In order to impress perhaps his future bride and father in law, he baked a multi-tiered cake inspired by Wren's steeple. It's a lovely story and seems to me to be perfectly plausible and wholly appropriate that the idea of having tiered cakes for weddings should have its origins with St Bride's.
What we can say with more certainty is that there has been a church on the site for a very long time. It's possible there was a ritually important, pre Christian building here that appeared shortly after the arrival of the Romans in 43 AD. St Bride is a corruption of St Bridget and there was an early Christian Irish Saint of that name. However, it's likely that the name Bridget was also close to that of a much older pagan deity who among other attributes was associated with wells and springs. Immediately adjacent to St Bride's is the area known as the Bridewell, once a palace owned by Henry VIII and later converted to a house of correction later to become synonymous with the word for prison. For centuries there was a well, now lost, located somewhere within the churchyard. And the Romans built a structure here, the remains of which, astonishingly, can still be seen in the crypt of the church.
The current best guess is that there have been at least eight churches on the same site. Sadly the current church was, with the exception of the steeple, almost completely destroyed during the blitz. It was beautifully restored during the 1950s and it was at his time that the crypt was properly excavated and evidence for previous churches on the site came to light. There is a superb exhibition and timeline in the crypt which is usually open to the public.
One of the lesser known St Bride's stories concerns it's association with American founding father, Benjamin Franklin. In addition to assisting with drafting the United States Declaration of Independence, Franklin was a scientist who came up with ideas and inventions. Bifocal glasses and lightning conductors to name but two. Franklin spent a significant amount of time in London and his house in Craven Street near Trafalgar Square still exists and is well worth a visit.
Franklin had been admitted as a member of the Royal Society following his invention of the lightning conductor. St Brides had been struck by lightning in 1764 when about eight feet of the steeple was destroyed. King George III was fascinated by science and entered into a civilised, but public debate, with Franklin over whether the uppermost point of the conductor should be blunt or pointed. In the event the church went with Franklin's pointed "lightning rod", and so St Bride's remained protected until ironically, it was destroyed by enemy action during the blitz.
Copyright, Richard Ing. Photography by Richard Ing.