Take a Walk Through Catholic London

Here the Faith was planted in Roman times, and churches still fill with new generations

Canaletto, “The Thames and the City of London from Richmond House”, 1747
Canaletto, “The Thames and the City of London from Richmond House”, 1747 (photo: Public Domain)

On spring and summer evenings the sun turns the rippling surface of the Thames to beaten silver. Along by London Bridge The Shard soars skyward, dwarfing the spires of churches, and on the opposite bank the hideous “Walkie Talkie,” the ill-designed office block that has wrecked the London skyline, leers shamefully.

These new monster buildings may or may not stand the test of time. I’m writing this as the season begins for the new round of Catholic History Walks. Pacing along by the river, checking the route for forthcoming walks, I stopped to enjoy the evening light from a vantage point by the Samuel Pepys pub, and paused again to enjoy Sir Christopher Wren’s St. Paul’s with that glorious dome, and to contrast it with a nearby engraving of its gothic predecessor that perished following the Great Fire in 1666. Heading for my train, I crossed to the opposite bank near the rebuilt Globe Theatre. Nearby stands the house where Wren lived while designing the new St. Paul’s – it’s the same house where Catherine of Aragon first stayed when she arrived by boat to marry young Prince Arthur, eldest son of Henry VII two centuries earlier…

When Americans come to London of course they want to see famous things, but often don’t quite know where to start. May I suggest that, for Catholics, a stroll with a Catholic group might be of interest? The Catholic History Walks are run by volunteers: we charge a modest fee to cover our expenses (website, leaflets, etc) and anyone and everyone is welcome.

You can check out the different Walks on our website: catholichistorywalks.com. We offer a range of routes, covering various districts. Some are in the afternoon, some in the evening. There is no need to book: simply turn up at one of the Catholic landmarks we use, and pace with us the paths that tell the story of London, and of London’s faith.

Some visitors from America are unaware of London’s size. It’s not actually feasible to take in everything in one day! There are two main cities, London and Westminster – the latter centred on the great Abbey or Minster built by St. Edward the Confessor, our last Saxon king, on the marshy Thorney Island to the west of London itself. Of course, all is now merged into one great metropolis, along with the hamlets along by the Tower (the borough is called, in the local accent, Tar ‘Amlits) and outlying once-rural areas such as Chelsea and Kensington.

The London of my early childhood still had bomb sites and scars from the Blitz, and lots of men wore bowler hats and city suits. Some Americans vaguely think it might still be like that. It isn’t. London and Londoners today are utterly different from the way they were in the middle of the last century. Young people wear rings through their noses and are tattooed. There is a massive Muslim presence, with large new mosques attended by large numbers of people. You will hear many different languages spoken. The majority of babies born in London last year were to foreign-born mothers.

Be prepared for the weather! We walk in rain or in sunshine. Wear comfortable shoes. Be ready to hear a lot of history: London was already old when William the Conqueror started reorganizing its ecclesiastical administration in the 11th century following the Battle of Hastings. It was even older when Thomas More was martyred on Tower Hill in 1535. It was ancient when Cardinal Manning’s funeral procession wound its way through the city streets in Queen Victoria’s reign.

And the story continues: as the first decade of the 21st century drew to its close, Pope Benedict XVI led silent adoration of the Blessed Sacrament with a vast crowd in Hyde Park, just yards away from where St. Edmund Campion and other Catholic martyrs had suffered four centuries before. On Good Friday every year huge numbers of people pack out Trafalgar Square and its surrounding area for a powerful Passion Play. Every summer Blessed Sacrament processions wind their way through various parts of London: these have notably grown in numbers in recent years, an interesting development.

So if London is on your holiday route this year, come and join us to discover the Catholic story rippling through the centuries. Every Catholic History Walk is in its own way a contribution to the next chapter of the Church’s story in this extraordinary city which is both old and new. Here the Faith was planted in Roman times, flourished anew following the evangelization of the Saxons, created a city of spires in the Middle Ages, and still fills churches with new generations. Come and be part of it!