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

Time Travel at War: Alexandra Palace and ‘The Princess’

The official website of North London’s Alexandra Palace has a timeline feature. As you scroll back and forth through the exhibition venue’s 140-year history, certain events stand out: A ‘flying bomb’ which blew out the Rose Window towards the end of World War Two; BBC transmitters jamming the navigation systems of German bombers; a devastating fire in 1980; the Palace twice being home to Belgian refugees.

But you’ll see no mention of the story that connects these strands. Maybe this is because it is, in part, a story of failure. Or perhaps it has simply been forgotten, as has so much in the history of London’s dimensional gateways.

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Winter at Alexandra Palace during WWI source | public domain

Set your mind’s timeline to the early months of World War One. The young daughter of a Muswell Hill nurse is brought by her mother to visit refugees camping in the Palace’s Great Hall. The experience will have a lasting impact on the six year old.

Now jump forward 25 years. The nurse’s daughter is back, again greeting Belgians displaced by war. This time, however, the refugees are in the Palace’s wings, being housed there largely as a front. The nurse’s daughter has no professional reason for visiting them – Mary Stratton has not taken her mother’s career path. She is at the Palace in her capacity as a foremost physicist, leading a top secret project. Behind the vast Rose Window, inside the Great Hall, a weapon is being developed that she hopes will play a decisive part in the war against Nazi Germany.

Mary Stratton is building a time machine.

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Alexandra Palace source | licence

But now we come to the 1980 fire. This event was not kind to historians of Stratton’s creation. Much of the paperwork, not to mention what remained of the machine itself, was burnt to ash along with the room it was stored in. We know that the machine had been codenamed ‘The Princess’, but the details of its workings are lost.

What does remain, thanks largely to the diligence of her sister, is a wonderful cache of Stratton’s personal letters, notes and other papers. Alongside hints of the social dynamics at work in her team, they give fascinating insight into what drove her.

“War has a habit of twisting science to the most awful destruction”, Mary wrote to her sister in 1942. “Well, I believe I am close to finding a way to turn science back upon war itself, to hasten an end to all this death without shedding a drop of blood more”.

The ideas of Albert Einstein crop up time and again. His theories on time’s illusionary nature clearly fed into Stratton’s work. And it seems his thoughts on pacifism and liberty also informed her thinking. (Mary was present in 1933 when Einstein spoke at the Albert Hall. Whether she met him in a more personal capacity during his visit to London, we can but wonder.)

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Albert Einstein source | public domain

Stratton’s papers show a wide range of influences. She drew, as Einstein had, clear links between science and literature, art and freedom.

One intriguing scrapbook has cutouts of William Whiston’s 18th Century chart of the Solar System and Gustav Dore’s depiction of Dante’s Paradise alongside a sketch of Alexandra Palace’s stained-glass Rose Window, which had awed Stratton as a child.

The visual connections inferred may give tantalising hints as to the manifestation of The Princess. A letter to Stratton’s sister certainly does. Shortly before her death, Stratton saw the 1960 film of HG Wells’ Time Machine.

“Dear Sis, their Machine! I nearly burst out laughing with recognition. Ours was a deal less pretty Victoriana and a shade more bashed-up Brewster Buccaneer – but something about the general feel of the thing didn’t half give me goosebumps”.

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HG Well’s Time Machine from the 1960 film, and a Brewster Buccaneer (the kind of weapon of war Stratton hoped to render obsolete)

But what of the aims of the time-weapon? The hypothetical murder of a young Adolf Hitler is a well known thought-experiment. We’ll keep to ourselves our thoughts as to where Stratton would have stood on the ethical element, but it may not have been relevant anyway. The physicist didn’t seem to believe such an enterprise was possible.

Somehow, a decoded transcript has made it into Stratton’s sister’s collection which discusses facets of the mission with uncharacteristic candour. It is addressed to the team’s superior military co-ordinator.

“I’m afraid the boys are getting rather carried away: travel back and we can murder everyone, travel forward and we can find superior weaponry and import it back through time. I’ve had to hose them down somewhat”.

For one thing, Stratton noted that The Princess, when completed, was likely to be ‘short range’: “We’re not talking about traversing epochs – yet”.

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William Whiston’s 18th Century chart of the solar system alongside Gustave Dore’s depiction of Dante’s vision of Paradise

More importantly, Stratton believed that any major changes to even recent history could endanger the integrity of our perceived reality.

Instead, she took inspiration from the technicians who were utilising the Palace’s BBC transmitters to disrupt German navigation systems. Crucially, this interference was clandestine, designed to lead the Germans to believe that their own systems were at fault.

Stratton thought that by dipping into the near past, agents could disrupt German operations which British code-breakers had discovered were planned for the near future. Enough disruption would render the Nazis unable to wage war, without the risk of damage to localised spacetime.

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An aerial shot of Alexandra Palace. The Great Hall, with its Rose Window, is visible at the building’s centre source | licence

But Mary Stratton’s theories would never be properly tested.

Whether there was a mole in the mission, or the Nazis own code-breakers intercepted a message, we may never know. Perhaps the bomb attack on Alexandra Palace was just coincidence. The damage was minor, but the team and their military superiors were spooked enough to discuss moving the project to a more secure location. However, they don’t seem to have got very far with this before the war in Europe came to an end.

Of course, in the Pacific, the closing of the war was hastened by a far more terrible scientific endeavour. The A-Bomb changed military thinking. Mary’s ideas fell out of favour, remaining so until the Hawkingsian renaissance of the 1980s.

Today not so much as a blue plaque stands to remind us of a woman who never accepted a vision of humanity that for a few dark years seemed poised to envelop the world.


  • Candidate: The Princess (AKA The Ally Pally Time Machine)
  • Type: Time Machine
  • Status: Uncompleted

Source and license for featured image.

Door to Nowhere: The Blackheath Vanishments

This is a short post to aggregate some of the stories concerning what locals have come to call ‘The Blackheath Triangle’. These stories, drawn mainly from local press archives, go back some time. They have an eerie similarity. All vanishments occurred within a relatively small area towards the southern point of the heath. None of the missing reappeared. In many cases witnesses were not believed, some even accused of concocting the stories to hide murder or mishap. There is little explanation for the phenomena, and – as is often the case in the absence of returnees – it is hard to categorise from a portals point of view. Still, the relevance to the catalogue should be clear.

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The southern corner of Blackheath  source | license

One night in 1712, at the height of the ‘highwayman’ era, a carriage carrying a Naval officer across Blackheath was held to ransom. (Watling Street, the present day A2, was the main route between London and Kent, and the remote heathland was a dangerous crossing). The robber pocketed a large sum of money, but before he could make his escape the carriage’s coachman managed to discharge a pistol, which spooked the highwayman’s horse to such a degree that the man was thrown to the ground. The highwayman then ran with his takings across the heath, the coachman giving chase on foot. The coachman later explained that under the full moon, and despite the shrubs and small trees which then covered the heathland, visibility on the heath was good. The highwayman was fast, but the coachman was faster. He said that when he was some six feet away from apprehending his mark, he saw the thief appear to stumble or trip, and then “(fall) somehow into vanishment”. At which point the coachman also stumbled – but stumbled “over naught but air”. When he got to his feet, the highwayman was gone. The coachman’s story was derided in the press at the time, and it seems he suffered some damage to his reputation, though he retained the confidence of the Naval officer.

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The area around the Vanbrugh gravel pits gives some indication of how most of the Heath would have looked 300 years ago  source | license

In 1887 a man leaving Sunday service at All Saints Church stopped at the door to speak with the Vicar. As he did so, he watched his wife, as she walked out from the church and across the heath – where, in bright sunlight, and in view of her husband, she vanished.

In 1956, a woman was imprisoned after failing to convince a jury that she had watched in horror as her child – running after a ball on the Heath – had vanished, some three metres from where she stood.

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All Saints Church, Blackheath  source | license

Headlines attest to a spate of dog disappearances in the late 1990s. Initially blamed on the incompetence of one professional dog-walker, the disappearances began to affect dogs out walking with many different people. Since then it is said that dogs do their best to avoid the area, becoming agitated if compelled to walk there.

Other stories of animal disappearances include one from a retired local man who reported seeing a flock of mallard ducks fly across the heath and vanish in mid air.

Two joggers vanished side-by-side in 2002.

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Blackheath from the air. All Saints Church can be seen at the top of the image source | license

The Blackheath Cricket Club became so tired of losing balls which had gone for sixes that they moved off the Heath altogether in 1886.

And during WW2 the heath was notorious among the pilots who used it for parachute training. They nicknamed it ‘The Void’ and were so terrified of ‘over-shooting’ that they often landed in the much more wooded Greenwich Park to the north.

PoL’s research into this phenomenon is ongoing. We will continue to update the list as stories come to light. Meanwhile, we hope that Blackheathians continue to warn their youngsters to be wary of the patch in question.


  • Candidate: The Blackheath Vanishment Zone
  • Type: [Unknown]
  • Status: Under observation

Source and licence for featured image