Walking in the City on a Sunday can be quite a melancholy experience – the streets are empty, the bars and cafes closed, the office blocks deserted. Last Sunday was a joyous exception. Wandering from Blackfriars towards Liverpool Street, the Gentleman Caller and I rounded St Mary-le-Bow, Wren’s lovely City church, to discover the annual Costermongers’ Harvest Festival service, in full swing.
Our curious glances at the church door were met by encouraging beckons, and we arrived in time to hear Mr Harry Mayhead, Pearly King of Bow Bells, Cheapside and Blackfriars, launch into a fascinating reading about the history of the church. St Mary-le-Bow is an ancient site (founded in the 9th century, and the original headquarters of the Archbishops of Canterbury), that’s been through more than its fair share of trouble. The original church collapsed three times, before being completely finished off by the Great Fire of 1666. Christopher Wren replaced it, but fire struck again when incendiary bombs hit it during the Blitz. It’s restoration in the 1960s has left it looking gorgeous and elegant again – and with the famous big Bow Bell sounding again.
Gorgeous and elegant summed up many of the church-goers. The Costermongers were represented by a cavalcade of Pearly Kings and Queens from all over London. Mayors, aldermen, sheriffs and Chelsea pensioners joined the throng. The costumes were amazing and the atmosphere jolly. We joined in heartily with All Things Bright and Beautiful, that favourite harvest song. Afterwards, we nipped out in time to take photos of the Pearlies leaving the church – and to hear one of the Chelsea pensioners confide to another: ‘Right, we’re off down the Butcher’s Hook to get sozzled.’