Christ Church, Spitalfields

25 October 2009

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Looming like an uncomfortably angular white wedding cake over the ramshackle stained Victorian buildings that surround it, Christ Church in Spitalfields looks utterly incongruous.

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It is hard to describe the unsettling atmosphere that surrounds it produced partially by its location at the very heart of the Ripper murders of 1888 but also by the oddly unbalanced appearance when you peer up at it.

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Fans of Peter Ackroyd will of course remember it from his masterpiece (in my opinion) Hawksmoor, in which history is subverted and a modern day policeman Nicholas Hawksmoor is on the trail of a series of murders with links to the works of the seventeent century architect Nicholas Dyer,who is a fictional reworking of the real architect of Christ Church, Nicholas Hawksmoor. Still with me? It’s as confusing as hell but well worth a read.

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Hawksmoor is the architect of six London churches, dubbed by me ‘The Creepy Churches’ because they all share the same overly orderly approach to geometric design and the same brooding sense of menace. They were commissioned in 1711 as part of the Act of Parliament ‘Commission for Building Fifty New Churches’, of which only twelve churches in total were ever fully realised.

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The Commission was quite forward thinking – it was an attempt to replace the churches lost in the Great Fire and also to provide a spiritual focus for the several new communities that were springing up around the historic city as it expanded and consumed the surrounding villages and towns. Christ Church was designed to provide a church for the huge Huguenot (French protestants that had been hounded out of their own country) community that had settled in the Whitechapel area and made it a centre for the production of the Spitalfields Silk so beloved on the continent.

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Christ Church was built between 1714 and 1724 and its startling plainess and austerity must have come as a huge cultural shock to a generation who were more used to the Baroque excesses that were so prevalent in contemporary architecture, although it also marks a turning point in taste as the Baroque gave way to the Palladian influenced style of buildings like Marble Hill House in Twickenham.

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From Hell fans will of course recognise it as the church that looms forbidding and temple like over the churning, debauched streets of 1888 Whitechapel with the Ten Bells next door, tramps and whores sleeping in the once orderly churchyard and a warren of foul alleyways running around it.

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Nowadays, it has had the benefit of a sympathetic restoration programme and is now open again for worship and as a venue for hire. The Ten Bells is still next door but is now an overly noisy, faintly bohemian East End boozer with a bad reputation, just like so many others. The alleyways are no longer frightening but instead are a useful means of getting to the curry heaven that is Brick Lane that lies behind.

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Ah, I miss Whitechapel. My family come from the East End of London – my great grandfather was a manager at Truman’s on Brick Lane and took part in the Battle of Cable Street in October 1936 and my grandmother was always very proud of the fact that she and the rest of her family had been born within the all important range of the Bow bells (like most East End families we undoubtedly come from hot headed immigrant stock, either Irish or Italian) and I feel like on many levels it is my spiritual home. Maybe one day I will get to move back again but in the meantime I can plan more gin fuelled, cackling nights out on Commercial Street.

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