Travel Story The great spires of London

The beautiful dome of the Temple Church in London.
Picture: Ronan O'Connell

British architect Sir Christopher Wren’s legacy is clear to see

You may not realise, but his works are everywhere you turn in central London, adding grandeur to this historic city. Widely regarded as one of the greatest British architects of all time, Sir Christopher Wren designed more than 50 churches in central London. 

Few people in history have had a greater impact on the cityscape of the English capital. So I set out on foot to visit and explore almost a dozen of his churches, along the way learning about Sir Christopher’s lofty place in British history and how he shaped London’s appearance.

Born in England in 1632 he was a Renaissance Man — an astronomer, designer, geometrician and the pre-eminent British architect of his era. At the age of 30 he abandoned his astronomy career and took up architecture. Sir Christopher’s first major project was helping to design the Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford in 1662. Yet it was a major disaster which truly launched his career.

In 1666 the Great Fire of London destroyed more than 13,000 homes as well as 87 parish churches. Wren soon designed a plan for the rebuilding of the city which was presented to King Charles II and rejected. But Wren’s architectural firm was later tasked with designing and building or reconstructing more than 50 new churches in London, including the massive St Paul’s Cathedral. Here are four of his finest works.

St Paul’s Cathedral

Dating back to the 11th century, this enormous cathedral was destroyed in the Great Fire of London before Wren was asked to lead its reconstruction.

 Topped by an enormous dome and measuring 111m in height, the cathedral was the tallest building in London from its completion in 1710 until the 1960s. It was designed in Wren’s trademark English baroque style of architecture, which avoided wood, favouring slate and limestone for exteriors, and granite for interiors. Wren is buried in the cathedral’s crypt.

Temple Church

A key setting in the blockbuster novel and film The Da Vinci Code, this 12th century church was built by the Knights Templar, an order of crusading monks. 

This round church was later extended into a far bigger structure, with the original circular-shaped building remaining a focal point thanks to its ornate dome and gorgeous stained-glass windows.

 Sir Christopher greatly changed its interior in the 1670s, introducing a giant organ and splendid altar screens.

St Bride’s Church

One of the oldest churches in the UK, St Bride’s dates back some 1400 years. After being renovated several times over its history it was razed in the Great Fire and Wren rebuilt it in a different style. 

Big and intricate, this new Church of England structure took seven years to build, opening in 1675. Its 70m-high spire makes it the second-tallest church Wren built, after St Paul’s. The feature which most stood out, however, was its almost hypnotic black-and- white stone floor, which contrasts beautifully with its dark wood interior.

Church of St Martin Within Ludgate

A more intimate space than the previous three churches, it also had to be rebuilt by Wren after the fire. Though he chose to keep its interior quite small, it still towers over many surrounding buildings  thanks to its 48m-tall spire.

 Those lucky enough to be able to access the lookout point near the top of the spire can enjoy rare views of nearby St Paul’s.

 The other key feature of this church installed by Wren is the big Bernard Schmidt organ which looms over the main hall.

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