A walk in the City of 6 km to find the churches dedicated to St Nicholas and St Olave – of which only 2 of the original 7 remain. St Nicholas of Myna (now modern day Demne in Turkey) was the patron saint of sailors and merchants. His habit of giving unexpected gifts made him the model for Santa Claus – from the Dutch “Sinterklaas” – a shortened form of “Sint-Nicolass”.
St Olave was King Olaf II of Norway (995-1030AD) who was canonised by Pope Alexander III. He fought alongside the Anglo-Saxon King Ethelred the Unready against the Danes in the Battle of London Bridge in 1014. So it is appropriate that this walk starts at London Bridge Station. opposite what is now St Olaf House – the site of the lost church of St Olave Southwark, built on the battle site.
You are standing in Tooley street -which is a corruption of “St Olaf’s” (sounds like “t’oolus). The church of St Olave Southwark was demolished in 1926 having stood there for almost a thousand years. The Art Deco building you see in front of you was built in its place.
Now it’s time to cross over London Bridge and take the steps down to the right along the Thames Path. Keep walking along in front of the the Old Billingsgate fish market and the Customs House and turn left up Water Lane . You might want to pop down the steps here before going up Water Lane to find an unusual parish boundary market cut into the stones of the embankment wall. This shows the line between the parishes of St Dunstan in the East and All Hallows by the Tower shown below.
Now go up Water Lane to Byword Street to find the church of All Hallows by the Tower. I have included this church because they have a great display of my Lost London Churches cards and books near the door at the north west corner of the church. You can also buy the book at the gift shop here. This church deserves a visit all on its own as there are a lot of interesting things in the crypt which is open to the public – a piece of Roman pavement and a great model of Roman London, for example. But for this walk you need to leave by the northwest door and head up Seething Lane to the church of St Olave Hart Street. This is one of the very few churches that escaped the Great Fire of London in 1666 and so gives a good idea of what the medieval churches of the City looked like. Note how much higher the street level is today – you have to go down several steps to get to the medieval floor of the church. Today’s streets are higher due to the detritus of the ages – archaeology is all about digging down to earlier levels.
The gate to the church which is topped with skulls (shown here) was described by Dickens as the “Ghastly Grim Gate” and the stone parts of the church date back to 1450, but a church was recorded on this site – probably a wooden one – at least 200 years before that. There are two parish boundary markers to discover for St Olave Hart St. The first is right outside the church on the modern building opposite the north door of the church. For the other you must walk up Hart Street underneath the railway bridge and up Northumberland Alley. Here are two markers showing the boundary between St Olave Hart and St Katharine Kree which is in nearby Leadenhall Street .
Continue up Northumberland Alley to get to Fenchurch Street and walk west until you get to Mark Street. Go south down this street to find the remaining tower of All Hallows Staining. This served as the church for the parishioners of St Olave Hart Street when the WW2 damage to the latter was being repaired between 1948 and 1954. Now walk past the car barrier and the modern pink granite building to Mincing Lane and then back up to Fenchurch Street. Continue west, walking past the plaque to the lost church of St Gabriel Fenchurch at 30 Fenchurch Street which stood in the centre of the road.
At the end of Fenchurch Street, cross over Gracechurch into Lombard street and continue west until you come to Nicholas Lane on the left. A little way down this lane you will find a collection of boundary markers on the right for St Nicholas Acons and St Mary Abchurch. St Nicholas Acons, named after a medieval benefactor, was first recorded in 1084 but was destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666 and not rebuilt. The parish was combined with St Edmund King & Martyr. A blue plaque on the wall commemorates Equitable Life, the world’s oldest mutual insurer, which started business in 1762 in the parsonage of St Nicholas Acons in Nicholas Lane. It pioneered scientific life assurance by basing premiums on age and mortality rates. This part of the City is still a centre for insurance and Lloyds original coffee shop was just around the corner
Now duck down Nicholas Passage and onto King William Street. head up towards Bank and then down Poultry until you come to Old Jewry. Go up this street until you come to a narrow passageway called St Olave Court. This will bring you out at St Olave Old Jewry which has now been converted into an office building. The watercolour from 1840 below shows it as a church. Excavations in 1985 discovered Saxon foundation for this church built from Kentish ragstone and recycled Roman bricks. its first recorded mention is in 1130 but it was destroyed in the Great Fire and rebuilt by Wren in 1679. The body of the church was demolished in 1887 under the Union of Benefices Act and the conversion of the tower into an office building took place in 1986
Now head up Ironmonger Lane to Gresham Street and go west until you get to Wood Street . Halfway up Wood Street you will find the remaining tower of the church of St Alban Wood St which was destroyed by bombs in WW2. It features in the 2009 film called St Trinian’s II: the Legend of Frittons Gold
Keep walking up Wood Street until you get to London Wall and turn left. You will get to the corner of Noble Street and find the site of St Olave’s Silver Street. You will see a stone plaque engraved with a skull and crossbones at the entrance. You may just be able to make out the lettering with says:
This was the Parish Church
of St Olave Silver Street
destroyed in the dreadful
fire in the year 1666
The church was first recorded in the 12th Century and was described by John Stow in 1598 as “a small thing, without any noteworthy monuments”. It was not rebuilt after the fire and the parish was combined with St Alban Wood Street whose remaining tower you have just passed.
Walking down Noble street you will come across some impressive remains of the old Roman Wall that encircled the City until 1760. Continue down Foster Lane past the church of St Vedast (there is a Roman mosaic in its Churchyard if you want a small detour- go through the blue doors). Continue on down New Change, past the remaining tower of St Augustine Watling Street. This will bring you to Distaff lane at the bottom of which you will find the church of St Nicholas Cole Abbey.
The first mention of the church of St Nicholas is in a letter of Pope Lucius II in 1144. It was never an abbey – “Cole Abbey” is a corruption of “cold harbour” meaning a shelter from the cold for travellers. It was destroyed in the Great Fire and rebuilt by Wren in 1678. In the 19th Century, passing traffic had blackened the exterior so much that the church became known as “St Nicholas Cole Hole Abbey”. It was badly damaged in WW2 and not restored until 1962.
Now it only remains to go to the location of the last church – named, not coincidentally, St Nicholas Olave – which combines the names of the two saints we are following on this walk. If you walk a little way up Queen Victoria Street you will come to a steel pergola over some raised flower beds with wooden bench seating outside a building called Senator House. This is the site of the lost church of St Nicholas Olave which was formed when two other parishes – one dedicated to St Nicholas and one to St Olave Broad Street – were combined when Henry III bequeathed land to the Austin Friars. The map below shows the site of this lost church and we know what it looked like from the Copperplate Map of 1553.
When this area was obliterated in the Blitz in WW2, the remains of a Roman bathhouse were found in what is now Cleary Garden just next door to the lost church of St Nicholas Olave. A reminder that the history of London stretches far back in time beyond these medieval churches. From here make your own way back to London Bridge – I have marked on the Google map the most scenic route – and enjoy some well earned refreshment in Borough Market. A market as old as the churches you have been discovering.