I returned to work on a dismal Tuesday morning, emerging from the main entrance of London, Fenchurch Street, railway station under opaque grey skies. During my extended absence, the shopfronts of the old city had been divested of their brightly-coloured festive decorations. Gone was the red tinsel foil and shiny burgundy-coloured baubles garnishing the window display of Charlie Davies’ Tailory in Leadenhall, where a fortnight before they had rekindled the glare of the spotlights in the warm emulsified tones of a log fire, dimly reflecting in the contents of a wine glass. Absent this brightening influence, the winter streets, and the overcast faces of those who paraded up and down the cold grainy pavements, appeared to have been permeated with the stark greyness of a new year that was yet to form an identity of its own.
I walked the full length of Eastcheap, easily matching my pace with that of a large truck that crawled along beside the curb. Men dressed in florescent jackets were hauling dessicated Christmas trees from the lobbies of office buildings and pitching them into the bin that occupied the back of the lorry, where they piled-up haphazardly, like a small, densely-wooded hill.
The working day was marred by the sounds of a demolition that was underway in the churchyard of St Mary’s, across the road from my place of business. Every so often, a chorus of men’s shouts, emanating from the site, would build to a collective heave, heralding the imminent crashing of one of several large, and already fractured, panels of glass, as they were dropped into the yawning mouth of a skip. The sound grew more jarring on the nerves as the day wore on, and elicited alarmed inquiries from clients on the other end of the phone, who assumed that it had originated in our office.
The object of the ground clearance was a glass-walled building which had briefly occupied a disused corner of the churchyard, before collapsing suddenly during the early hours of Christmas Eve. In the short time that it stood, it had vaguely resembled a small chapel with a sharply-peaked, spired roof that incorporated a slight twist a few feet below the tip. The modernity of the design made it an incongruous neighbour to the medieval place of worship that it shared common ground with, which was a square-towered, 14th century stone church, belted around the midriff with a dark band of knapped flint.
The purpose of the new structure was altogether less sacred. During its fleeting existence it had housed a small shop, the purpose of which was to raise funds for the church. Space had also been made on the premises for three pop-up retail units that were intended for rental. Prior the collapse of the building, these had accommodated a stall selling resin-cast snowman-shaped lamps, another specialising in cushions embroidered with expressions of seasonal goodwill, and a refreshment stand, peddling Christmas cake and a non-alcoholic mulled beverage that was ladled from a large cauldron.
As a further addition, some narrow wooden sheds had been erected temporarily along a new fixed-gravel path, leading from the gate to churchyard, up to the entrance to the chapel. These were occupied by Christmas-themed shops and were liberally decorated with blue fairy lights.
When the weather is good, I will sometimes eat my lunch on a south-facing bench in the churchyard. A few months after the demolition of the glass chapel, I happened to make conversation there with one of the volunteers who help to manage the grounds; a man named Gordon Booth. Before his retirement, he had worked as a stockbroker in the city.
It was early March and I recall that clumps of daffodils had sprung up against the walls of the old church. Booth sat down next to me and made an appreciative remark about a large tree close-by, with a broad spread of branches that were speckled with emerging bright-green foliage.
“William Blake claims to have seen angels roosting in the boughs,” he said. “There is a short walk called the Angel Path that you can take through this part of the city, that visits all of the places where he witnessed the heavenly host watching over London. We have a pamphlet on it in the church foyer if you are interested. Occasionally, on the weekends, one of us will provide a guided tour for small groups. The next one is on the fourteenth. If you would like to come, I could add your name to the list.”
I passed some comment about avoiding London at the weekends. This seemed to ruffle his feathers a bit. I attempted to mollify him by asking whether he had ever laid eyes upon any angels during his comings and goings at the church.
“Ha! It was Dickens, wasn’t it, who described London as a city of devils. But I have seen some strange things,” he said.
I steered the conversation towards the glass chapel. The business around it seemed to be of interest to him and he became a great deal more animated.
“That whole enterprise had the air of money lenders in the temple. It upset a lot of the established congregation, myself included. A handful of people who had worshipped here for years left in protest and haven’t returned.”
He leaned forward and fixed me with a milky blue-eyed stare.
“The problem is that we do need the dosh.”
I asked him whether the cause of the collapse had been identified.
“It was very odd. Nobody knows quite what to make of it.”
After I pressed him for further information, he furnished me with a recent history of the church. The area of the grounds where the glass chapel stood had not been a part of the original churchyard. The plot had been expanded, during the 1860s, to incorporate adjacent land to the south. The additional space was required to accommodate human remains disinterred from nearby churchyards, that had been cleared to make room for the Midland railway.
The newly acquired land had previously been occupied by illegally-constructed dwellings that were in a dilapidated and tumbledown state. After the slum housing was cleared and the ground had been reseeded with grass, all but a small part of it was consecrated by the Bishop of London. The exception was an area in the southern-eastern corner. It seems that, following the removal of the old buildings, an excavation had uncovered elements of an unholy altar; something ancient and pre-Christian. A man from the British Museum examined some carvings on one side of it and passed on his report to the church authorities. Evidently what was written down in this document was sufficient for that part of the site to be deemed an unsuitable spot for Christian burials. It was instead designated as a place of final rest for those who had been executed at Newgate Prison. These unfortunates were buried in unmarked graves and any record of who they had been in life was withheld from the parish ledgers.
“Murderers I suspect. Wicked men,” surmised Booth.
He reached into the pocket of his jacket and removed a package of sandwiches, so tightly-wrapped in cling-film that they had been rendered oddly shapeless. He carefully opened it on his lap.
“When we eventually managed to wrangle planning permission for the new shop, one of the conditions was that it be located a fair distance from the church – I forget the exact figure, but it effectively banished the building to the sinners’ corner.
“Well, all of the marked graves in that part of the yard were cleared after the war so that wasn’t a problem, but nobody had ever investigated the Newgate plot. We hadn’t the faintest idea of what was down there.
“The church commissioned an archaeological survey. They uncovered twelve bodies in total, all adult males, all apparently buried without coffins. Given these circumstances, there was some interest as to how their skeletons had remained intact and had not been scattered throughout the soil.
“We re-interred the bones in a single grave on the north side of the yard and marked the spot with a simple memorial. The reverend Cowcher said a few words over it. Something about restoring long lost souls to the sight of God.”
He took a thoughtful bite from one of his sandwiches.
Construction had commenced on the glass chapel in July. I remember watching from my first-floor window across the street, as small protests assembled on the pavement adjacent to the church railings. Placards bearing bible quotations jostled for prominence, and occasional choruses of My Faith is like an Oaken Staff and Onward Christian Soldiers would rise above the background traffic noise, commencing with great fervour before gradually thinning out, only to recover some of their earlier strength in the final verse, at the behest of whoever was leading the group.
“Things started to go funny after that,” said Booth. “Not ha-ha funny. Just unusual.”
When he was not immediately forthcoming I prompted him:
“What kind of things exactly?”
“It was small at first. One of the ladies who helps to clean the interior of the church tripped on something in the yard and cracked her skull on a headstone. She said, as she fell, she thought she saw something like a blanched tree root protruding from the soil. We had a good look around, but we never found anything.
“Then there was the elderly gentlemen who jogs in the area every morning and used the churchyard as a shortcut between King William Street and Woodengate. On one particularly foggy day he swore blind that something that felt like a set of bony fingers had gained a tight hold on his ankle. He said that it spread a chill up his entire leg. When he reached down to free himself, there was nothing there. He still goes out for his morning run, but he goes around the churchyard now.
“The worst of it was one of the pupils from the convent school. She arrived at the school gates one morning, quite beside herself. Something in the graveyard had absolutely terrified her. They could never get from her exactly what it was. The police were summoned and the entire area was searched without any success. In the aftermath, we held an emergency meeting to discuss whether criminal background checks should be made on the builders who were working on the chapel, and how best to broach the topic with the contractors. In the end there was a lot of dithering and nothing was done.
“While all of this was going on, the churchyard was undergoing subsidence. The first we knew of it was when one of the old stone vaults tilted a full six inches on one corner, apparently overnight. This continued until, after a few weeks, it looked as if some large creature had rampaged across the yard on a diagonal course, starting from the north side and heading towards the chapel, knocking the grave markers askew as it went . We contacted the council and asked them for details of any underground works that were in progress. Of course there were none. We had a man come to survey for foxes or badgers. He found no surface evidence of any animal activity but suspected some form of tunnelling.
“A few days before the glass chapel collapsed, the ground under one of the temporary sheds abruptly sunk down a few inches and the whole thing toppled over. It pulled half of the fairy lights down with it. I suspected that the chapel was listing slightly, the day before it fell, but I didn’t say anything. Thankfully it happened at half past one in the morning when nobody was inside.”
“It seems to me that your resident angels have been remarkably lax in keeping unquiet spirits at bay,” I said.
“Well that’s the thing. In January we had some surveyors visit from the insurance company. With them came a few of the people who had worked on the original survey. They dug down around what remained of the chapel. A few feet beneath the turf they began to uncover the skeletal remains of twelve adult men. If that wasn’t a chilling discovery in and of itself, it was their positioning that was truly strange. They were standing upright, crowded together, with their arms stretched out and raised above their heads. The bones of their hands were pressing under against the underside of the concrete foundation. One of the archaeologists recognised a distinctive in crack in one of the skulls. She swore that it was identical to an injury on one of the skulls that she had helped to exhume the previous Summer, and then witnessed being re-interred on the opposite side of the churchyard. There was some very reluctant talk of unsealing the new vault where we had buried those remains. In the end we called a vote on it. Everyone was in agreement that it was best to leave things as they were.”
In the wake of this revelation a stillness seemed to fall across the churchyard.
“Anyway,” said Booth after a long pause. “It seems that the occupants of the old plot, whoever they may have been, were rather attached to their quite corner of the churchyard away from the sight of god, where the soil was steeped in their own wickedness. They resented their eviction from it and wanted it back. They clawed their way across the graveyard and came up underneath the chapel like sharks intent on capsizing a small boat. Old Cowcher has taken to referring to them as the jury; twelve angry men, unanimous in their judgement.
“I have to visit that part of the yard every so often to clear away the weeds. I always feel distinctly unwelcome there, as if there are multiple presences lurking just outside my field of vision, glowering at me with barely-restrained malice. I do not linger any longer than I have to. There is something very strange about the way the shadows fall there. Some have no physical counterparts while others seem to be portmanteaus of objects that, as far as I can ascertain, do not exist.”
His gaze settled on the stiffly swaying boughs of the large tree ahead of us, where the poet, William Blake, had once borne witness to a gathering of the heavenly host.
St Mary’s church has returned to drawing revenue from more restrained fund-raising activities. No attempt has been made to reinstate the glass chapel. The corner of the yard where it stood is a gloomy, unattended quarter, cast into permanent shadow by the surrounding buildings. Since hearing Booth’s tale I have given the area closer scrutiny and have noticed that very few people set foot there.
By Mark Sadler