Wren’s Restless Sanctuary: The Church of All-Corners-Within-the-Wall

The church buildings of Medieval London have a long reach. 350 years since perishing in the Great Fire, afterimages linger. Outlines exist as small City of London gardens, or live on in the walls of the churches that Christopher Wren built after the fire – Wren’s classical forms had to fit the wayward foundations of their medieval predecessors, which is partly what makes his churches so striking.

Wren’s churches faced their share of destruction, of course. After the Blitz, some were rebuilt. Some are now gardens, too. Most still project an ancient, stone-spoken wealth, perhaps only superficially at odds with the breakneck pace of global finance as it channels through today’s City. Whatever your faith or otherwise, it can be soothing to step from the windblown, canyon-like streets of Moorgate or Bishopsgate into the deep, centuries-won calm of a City church.

We only ask that you take care before you do.

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St Michael, Crooked Lane. Demolished 1831 | public domain

Does a plaque clearly state the building’s name? Is the church marked on a map? If not you may be entering the strange, unanchored existence of an entity that has come to be known as the church of All-Corners-Within-the-Wall.

Our best account of the constantly moving church comes from a 19th Century document written by a London Corporation clerk. It is an addendum to a survey of the City’s churches, carried out after The Union of Benifices Act had been passed by parliament in 1860. The Act paved way for the demolition of a number of City churches, to account for dwindling congregations.

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St Peter Cornhill, today | photo: PoL

Here are some extracts from the addendum:

Towards evening – I will allow that I was much fatigued – I came across an example that was, remarkably, unfamiliar to me. The solemn, solid walls were of an aspect typical of Wren and his contemporaries, but I did not gain from them the Godly gladdening of heart I have come to expect. Rather, they appeared to me most desolate and inhuman… inducing in me a sudden and tenacious melancholy…

Such was the darkness within, I had need to strain my eyes. No light reached me from the row of high, round windows. Even a great tear in the roof – through which I had clear sight of the early evening sky – aided me not. Once my eyes had adjusted I saw that the interior, like the roof, was in a state of disrepair. The pews were scattered and broken, the pulpit gone completely…

I confess that the place left me in such a state of disquiet that I became quite disoriented… panic took hold of me… I cannot say how long I was trapped within the cursed stone walls…

When finally I did emerge, the streets were not – it seemed to me – the streets I had entered from… so close to the furthest reaches of the City did I find myself, that I had the distinct sense that the damned building was attempting to expel me.

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St Dunstan-in-the-East| photo: PoL

It seems little credence was given to this report by the Corporation at large. It languished, unread, for 150 years.

Until it was found by a new acquaintance of PoL.

Graham Herod is a City of London tour guide who has hopes of becoming London’s first widely recognised portologist. When we meet in his favourite wine bar, deep within the warren of alleys between Cornhill and Lombard Street, he has a folder of research with him which suggests he means it.

The folder contains a host of possible sightings of the lost church. They range from minor anomalies – bells heard at strange times of night, towers glimpsed down unexpected alleys – to more substantial accounts.

Herod is clear that the phenomenon is a temporal untethering. But from when and where exactly was the church untethered? What psychic trauma guides its endless haunting of the Square Mile’s time and space?

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The tower of St Alban, Wood Street | photo: PoL

Perhaps the answer can be found in the far from restful history we have touched upon. Churches burned, bombed, rebuilt, demolished, reused. Many pieces of destroyed churches live on elsewhere. The spire of St Antholin resides in a Forest Hill council estate. Pulpits were removed from demolished churches to be used in other parishes. An entire Wren construction has been rebuilt brick by brick in Missouri, USA.

From the troubled histories, Herod has compiled a list. He won’t be drawn into naming them, but he says he “has his favourites”.

PoL can’t help speculating. Could St Swithin, London Stone be a contender? It was damaged by bombing, and until its demolition in 1962 housed the London Stone, a mysterious lump of limestone invested with all manner of significance over the centuries. Was being wrenched from such a task enough to destabilise the church’s dimensional footing?

Herod considers this, before musing, “If that were the whole story, it would be just as likely we’d be chasing an untethered WHSmiths”.

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The London Stone (behind the grille in the wall), before being moved to its current home at the Museum of London source | license

It is time for PoL to take in the London air.

Outside on the City streets, ghostlike Wren churches are everywhere. St Peter Cornhill appears to fold in and out of the surrounding buildings. The garden inside the bombed-out remains of St Dunstan-in-the-East evokes a London reclaimed by nature. The disembodied tower of St Alban Wood Street makes for a forlorn apparition amongst post-modern office buildings.

But these churches aren’t going anywhere, just yet.

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A bomb damaged St Swithin’s, London Stone, shortly before its demolition in the 1960s. The stone is behind the grille in the wall source | license

Reaching the steps of St Paul’s, our mind wanders to those weeks, a few years ago, when a tent city of anti-capitalist activists filled the courtyard here. The memory chimes with one of Herod’s favourite accounts of an encounter with the church of All-Corners-Within-The-Wall.

In the late 1990s, a small group of protestors, part of a march against global capitalism, set out with a party planning to “free” the river Walbrook. They seem to have entered All-Corners somewhere along the route of the culverted river. Emerging, mildly traumatised, from the church, they found themselves within the heavily-secured inner courtyard of the headquarters of a trans-national financial corporation, and staged an impromptu occupation.

Why does Herod like this story so much?

“Well, I like to think it’s another clue. The church I’m looking for is political”.

For PoL, it is yet another layer to the mystery.


  • Candidate: The Church of All-Corners-Within-The-Wall
  • Type: Temporal Untethering
  • Status: Active

The featured image shows the crypt of St Paul’s Cathedral, with the tomb of Christopher Wren | public domain

Walthamstow’s Unquiet Village: Elswick-on-the-Marsh

A footballer, arriving early to Hackney Marsh one autumn Sunday League morning, sees strange lights flicker in the mist.

A conservationist, picking through trees at the edge of Walthamstow Marshes on a quiet afternoon, hears shouting and laughter from the adjacent field. When he emerges from the overgrowth, he finds the field is empty.

A commuter, on a train crossing the marshes one dark winter evening, thinks she sees a ramshackle settlement of odd-looking houses where she knows only scrubland should be. She puts a hand to the glass to block the reflection from the carriage lights, but the train moves on, and the vision fades into the night.

Most people would soon forget such moments – once an eerie, out of place feeling had passed. But for some residents of the streets surrounding North East London’s Lea River Marshes, the feeling might linger. It might nag at them, in the days and nights to follow, until finally an old tale from their school days surfaced in their memory. Then, they may wonder if they have played a small part in the strange, restless life of a most unusual portal: a temporally and geographically untethered market town named Elswick-on-the-Marsh.

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Even for the tiny number of locals who remember it, Elswick (pronounced Ezzik or Elzik, depending on who you’re speaking to) is notoriously elusive. Glimmers, glimpses in the half-light, unexplained voices, distant shadows: these are the ways in which Elswick manifests.

Unless you are one of the privileged few.

We learned about Elswick from Jessica, a teenager from Leyton. She, in her turn, had learned about the village from her Great Aunt (whom Jessica calls ‘Nan’).

“I don’t remember a time when those stories weren’t in my head”, Jessica told us. “Of people who had found Elswick and never returned. When Nan told them to me, her eyes would get this look. The way she used to talk about it, I never knew whether it was a good or a bad place. All I knew was that she was obsessed”.

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Jessica says she carries in her memory a small book’s worth of Nan’s sayings about Elswick. “She’d repeat them like prayers… ‘Elswick is a doorway’ … ‘Elswick ever moves’ … ‘Elswick shows itself for a reason'”.

Nan walked the marshes almost daily, often taking Jessica with her.

“Look for a path, Nan said. An old paved road you haven’t seen before. And – how did she used to put it? – ‘Don’t take the path unless you’ve got something to trade'”.

Now, Jessica searches for Elswick alone. Nan went missing five years ago, when Jessica was not long into secondary school.

Jessica is pretty certain she knows where her aunt went.

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Much has been written about the marshes surrounding the River Lea, a tributary to the Thames. They have been drained since Medieval times and up until the 19th century were mainly lammas (common agricultural) land, used by commoners for grazing cattle and growing wheat.

The extent of the marshes, while still impressively large and wild-seeming for an area so close to London’s centre, has diminished significantly since the industrial revolution. Railways, housing, industry, waterworks, international sporting events – the enemies of the open marshland are many, and the struggle to protect what remains is ongoing.

When it comes to Elswick, the written records are much more sketchy. In fact, we found only one concrete mention, albeit from a major source. The Domesday book records the small settlement of Elleswych, in the Hundred of Beconsfield, Essex, under Lord Peter of Velognes.

We knew it was a long shot, but with the written records less than helpful, we decided we had to visit the Marshes for ourselves. We went close to dusk, knowing that most sightings occur in the still-time between night and day.

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The path that Jessica mentioned was our starting point. We can presume that when the Domesday survey was made, Elleswych enjoyed a relative degree of stability within space and time. So on which road did it lie in the 11th Century?

There are references to a paved Roman road that crossed the marshes near Leyton, but its location, if it exists at all, is disputed. There is of course the old road which crosses the River Lea at Stratford, but there is little remaining of the marshes there. We weren’t sure where to look next.

Then we read about the Black Path.

The Black Path was a porter’s way, leading from the fields to the great market of London (Lundenburh, as it was in the late Anglo-Saxon period). It was also a route of pilgrimage. Both uses seemed to chime with what we knew about Elswick.

You can follow the Black Path’s line on modern maps – look for a straight diagonal through London Fields up to Hackney City Hall which becomes, a few lost turnings later, Porchester Road in Clapton. After the marshes you can pick it up again in Walthamstow, near St James’ Park. But the path’s way across Leyton Marsh has been lost. Some open space remains here, however, so that is where we headed.

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Could Elswick have once dwelled in the lost marshes south east of Hackney?

From here we explored east and north, along the line of the Lea and inland, into Walthamstow Marshes. As twilight deepened and shadows rose from the brambles and bullrush, from the grassland and scrub, certain lights became apparent at the marsh’s edge. Half-hidden industrial buildings, streetlamps, the headlights of a distant train. Glimpsed in the gloaming, you can see how they could be mistaken for the lost village.

Sounds, too, drift across the marshes. Unexplained noises weave with crow-caws and the rattle of the passing trains. A pylon buzzes overhead, briefly harmonising with the airborne, ever-present roar of the city.

Are the stories just phantoms? Is Elswick an unreachable will-o-the-wisp?

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On Leyton Marsh we found a transient village of hawkers and traders – just not the one we were looking for

But we remember Jessica’s fervent words.

“It’s out there somewhere, the old trading post. Nan certainly had a lot to trade. So much to give… She once said Elswick only revealed itself to those in need of it. Or those whom it needed”.

Did Nan need it?

“I don’t know. It was around the time of the Olympics that Nan disappeared. She took a lot of that whole thing badly. The loss of great chunks of the marshes. She knew friends that relied on a lot of the community stuff that was lost, the allotments and all that. But – I was only a child. I can’t believe that Nan would have left me by choice”.

We feel bad for Jessica and her unanswered questions, tied up as they are with this fickle, endlessly flittering gateway – and with the uncertain future of a unique and magical part of London.


  • Candidate: Elswick-on-the-Marsh
  • Type: Temporal Untethering
  • Status: Active [monitored]