I’ve often been past this church but it’s never been open, and so when I heard the bells chiming out one Sunday morning I thought that I’d take the opportunity to have a quick look around before the service started.
The bells were ringing out “Oranges and Lemons say the bells of St Clements” – although St Clement Eastcheap also has a claim to be the church referred to in the well known nursery rhyme.
The first church here did have a connection to Denmark, when Danish settlers married English women in the 9th century and dedicated their church to St Clement.
It was re-built twice before the Great Fire of London, but although the church was spared, it had fallen into a poor state of repair and Sir Christopher Wren was asked to re-design it. It was built between 1680 and 1682 with a spire being added in 1719 by James Gibb.
William Webb Ellis, the man attributed with inventing rugby football, was rector of St Clements in 1823.
On 10th May 1941 the church took a direct hit from an incendiary bomb and the interior was gutted. All that remained were the outer walls and the tower, and was neglected for another decade before it was decided to re-build it once again.
The church that was almost destroyed by bombs was consecrated in 1958 as the Central Church of the Royal Air Force, and when a statue to Arthur Harris was unveiled in 1992 it wasn’t a universally popular decision.
‘Bomber Harris’, as he became known, was responsible for the bombing campaigns on German cities, such as Dresden and Hamburg which killed thousands of German people.
There’s nothing controversial about the inside of the church. The restoration is marvellous and closely follows Wren’s original design, but it’s also a living memorial to those who died whilst serving in the Royal Air Force.
As you walk into the church there’s a ‘rosette’ of Commonwealth Air Force badges set into the floor and there’s also a memorial in the North Aisle to the Polish squadrons who flew with the RAF during WWII.
The whole church floor though is covered with some 900 squadron and unit badges made of Welsh slate.
The memorial books that contain thousands of names, is a poignant reminder, should we ever need one, that the sacrifice these people made have enabled us to live our lives the way we to today.
This point was brought home to me even more when I realised that the impending service was to commemorate the anniversary of the Battle of Britain.
I hadn’t intended to stay for the service, but I found a pew at the back of the church and decided to sit here for a while.
I’m not ashamed to admit that I felt a bit emotional when the choir started to sing ‘Taste and See’ as the Royal Air Force Ensign was paraded down the aisle.
I’m neither religious nor a great supporter of the royal family, but I can’t deny I’m patriotic, and I found myself singing the National Anthem with a certain amount of pride.
I wasn’t able to stop for longer or else I might well have done, but I was glad that those ‘Bells of St Clements’ finally allowed me the opportunity to come in and see this quite remarkable church at long last.