St Alfege’s Church

This elegant, if rather sombre Hawksmoor church is typical of its architect in that there is something ever so slightly sinister about it. I fail to actually put my finger on it – perhaps it’s merely that much of it seems to fall in shadow most of the day – and that the entrance is not on the street but at the back on a rather sweet, if car-infested, green.

Maybe some of its creepy quality is owed to the unfortunate St Alfege himself who was the Archbishop of Canterbury in the Dark Ages. He is actually a Greenwich Saint (yes – a local saint for local people …) The poor bloke was captured by Vikings who’d moored their longboats at Greenwich and held for a fat ransom – 3,000 marks. Alfege refused to have a ransom paid for him so he had to languish in irons in a dark, dank cell with only frogs for company.

In a sturdy act of defiance, Alfege escaped – and fell straight into a bog. His Recaptured Holiness was put in more irons and a meeting feast was held to decide his fate. As the Vikings got more and more plastered, the drunken oafs started throwing food and ox-bones at him. Some say he died from the wounds, but others tell the no-less-cheery tale that he converted some of his captors who kindly cleaved his head open with an axe as an act of mercy.

King Canute ordered his bones to be taken back to Canterbury, a request apparently more successful than when he commanded the waves to retreat.

There’s been a church here ever since, but the Hawksmoor version has only stood since 1712 – after the previous one was demolished in a storm and the religious folk of Greenwich petitioned for a new one. John Evelyn and Sam Pepys were both worshippers at one time.

It’s in generally pretty good nick (apart from the poor cherubs outside whose faces have been worn away by years of pollution.) Like all churches of the neo-classical design, it’s quite simple, and rather lovely in that simplicity. There’s a gallery around the edge, which is a good vantage point if you go to one of the concerts they hold there on a regular basis. I’m particularly fond of the various wooden plaques commemorating charitable deeds for the poor done by various wealthy parishioners (who presumably didn’t like to talk about it.)

Thomas Tallis (of Spem in Alium fame) is buried here – but don’t look for him in the graveyard, which is what I once spent a good half-hour doing. He’s in the crypt below – as is General Wolfe, whose statue must have the best position in London, high on Observatory Hill in the park. If you’re into Tallis, the Thomas Tallis Society choir sings there on a regular basis. Last year they actually performed Spem in Alium – as well as another hitherto undiscovered 16th Century 40-part motet, which it’s thought could have been Tallis’s inspiration.

The church seems to be open at random times (though I’m sure there is a timetable) so my best suggestion for visiting if you don’t want to actually attend a service would be to go to one of the concerts and enjoy the architecture at the same time. You might even get to see inside the wonderfully typical Great British Church Hall opposite the entrance, which has a minute stage for amateur theatricals and smells comfortingly of tea-urns and selection-pack biscuits. Delightful.

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