Countries, Pilgrimage, UK

London’s shelter from the storm

You’d be forgiven for missing it, drawn by Nelson’s monument and Trafalgar Square, but for the down and out St Martin in the Fields is London’s shelter from the storm.

For all the rich history of Westminster Abbey and St Paul’s Cathedral it is St Martin that is opening its doors, not to the tourist but the needy.

My needs on a rainy afternoon in the capital, a bowl of soup and a coffee. are nothing compared to those who live on London’s streets.

But I am tempted by the sign London’s cafe in the crypt.

And lose myself for the afternoon in the St Martin’s story of befriending the most helpless Londoners, those who live on the streets.

Tales from the crypt

All that jazz: Music in the Crypt

The cafe crypt is no ordinary coffee shop.

For one it has multiple food stations for ordinary Londoners and visitors to stack their trays for lunch.

While the arches, alcoves and the names of those once buried here beneath your feet give an unmatched atmosphere.

But this is a cafe with a mission and you get a sense seeing the unkempt vagrants mingling with the old ladies who dine.

Solemn: The Dick Sheppard Chapel

And again when you visit the Dick Sheppard Chapel and see a shoeless homeless man stretched out sleeping in the front row.

I leave him in peace while for the rest I read about Rev. Dick, former esteemed vicar of this parish.

Tour de fields

Golden delight: The church

And fortuitously arrive at the church doors just in time for guide Steve to fill in the gaps.

The first record of St Martin in the Fields Steve tells us is in the 13th century.

When monks were granted permission by the high heid yins of Westminster to set up a hut in the fields.

Generations have stayed true to the example of the saint who gave his name to the church.

Martin was as so many of the church’s early pioneers were a convert.

A Roman cavalryman his Damascene moment was when he encountered an emaciated beggar.

Sing it loud: Hymns sang beautifully

Martin instinctively ripped his fancy cloak in half and gave one half to the down and out.

Of course that wasn’t the end of the story and Martin had a vision in the night when an apparition of a begging man approached him.

And thanked him for saving his life.

On closer inspection Martin noticed the image of the man was that of Jesus.

Heart of gold

Steve regales us of the history and architecture of the church.

How it inspired Queen Anne and Victoria and points out a rare plaque she had dedicated to the nanny of her children.

Anglican St Martin departed from the Catholic tradition of ornate iconography, imagery and stain-glass windows.

Its only nod to finery the rolled gold theme to symbolise Martin’s act of charity.

And the crucifix in the shape of the torn robes is a simple but strong message.

Quite what you’ll make of the South Window and its tilting oval at the centre of a number of lines is anybody’s guess.

Mine was that it was an Easter Egg while Steve suggested a common response was a pebble with ripples.

But much like the Iranian architect who came up with the idea after the windows were damaged in the Second World War the point is to stir our interest.

There is definitely a sense of possibilities in St Martin.

A mission from God

Pie and Mass: The Crypt fare

And Peter Benenson felt it when he was sat here wondering how to use his legal acumen and was inspired to found Amnesty International.

While the homeless charity Shelter started here too.

St Martin offers an outreach service to the homeless on its complex.

And will on November 9 hold a service to mark the 1,000 homeless people who have died on the streets this year.

So if you’re visiting London as a tourist then why not forego the branded cafes for the St Martin’s crypt.

The food and company are warming and like me you might learn a thing or two (and £1 of your bill will go to help the homeless).

And how it is for so many London’s shelter from the storm.


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