St Swithin's Churchyard
A short story by Jake Arnott
This short story was inspired by the painting 'St Paul's and St Mary Aldermary from St Swithin's Churchyard', by C Eliot Hodgkin.
1945 Private Collection. This painting is part of the 'Art Of The Garden Exhibition' at Tate Britain, 3 June – 30 August 2004.
One of the earliest references to the church of St Swithin's London Stone is as the last resting place of Catrin Glyndwr, wife of the rebel Edmund Mortimer and daughter of Owain Glyndwr, the legendary Welsh leader. Taken hostage when the English captured Harlech Castle in 1409, she was incarcerated in the Tower of London and died in mysterious circumstances four years later. The only record of her death is in the Exchequer documents of 1413: 'for expenses and other charges incurred for the burial of the wife of Edmund Mortimer and her daughters, buried within St Swithin's Church London ...£1'
The reason for her internment at St Swithin's is unclear but, perhaps, the long association of that church with the London Stone provides a clue. This ancient standing stone thought by many, including William Blake, to be associated with Druidism was finally incorporated into the wall of the church in 1742. It was thought that Glyndwr had powers of enchantment and could command the elements, even the English feared his supposed prowess of the occult. The annals of Henry IV report that 'he almost destroyed the King and his armies by magic'. It could be that the London Stone was held in reverence as a symbol of supernatural Celtic resistance.
Joyce could come back now that it was all over. St Swithin's, the ruins of the church a bomb site rock garden, bursting with plant life. All over the shattered city bloomed ragwort and lily of the valley. Whilst every available patch of parkland had been turned over for the cultivation of vegetables, here the wildflowers and weeds reclaimed their space amidst the rubble and dug their own victory. Planting roots in the rich soil of the churchyard below, sending delicate tendrils up through the wreckage to find the light above. Common Sowthistle, stem of Hogweed and the Broad-leaved Dock. A garden of remembrance.
It was VE Day. There would be fires tonight but they would be beacons of victory. Derelict buildings were being raided for timber and bonfires prepared, ready for lighting for when official news of the German surrender was announced. She felt no sense of celebration. It was over, she was glad of that. She had done her duty, she had served like many others.
Coltsfoot and Tufted Vetch, Scentless Mayweed and Common clover. Windborne germination scattered a delicate mantle of flora over the dereliction. A tremulous dandelion clock, a time bomb cluster of seeds ready to go airborne, ready to release its tiny parachute mines for aerial bombardment.
When the night bombing began there was no real defence against the Luftwaffe. Flak batteries assembled in Hyde Park, elevated the guns to their highest trajectory and blasted blindly away, up into the night sky with no hope of finding a target. It was for public morale, that was all. People would hear the ack-ack and feel that there was some kind of a fight being put up. But it was of no real use other than that. Although the Germans had failed to gain superiority over the RAF in daytime raids, in the darkness they had power of the air.
Joyce had joined the Women's Auxiliary Fire Service in 1940 with her best friend Kath. It had been Kath's idea, she was the reckless, adventurous one, training as a motorcycle dispatch rider whilst Joyce worked back at the control room. She had always had a deep affection for Kath, now there was a glamour about her that enchanted Joyce. She looked so bold and striking in her motorbike leathers.
And Joyce felt a burning admiration for all the risks Kath took, delivering messages during air-raids, riding through bomb damaged streets and negotiating the criss-cross of fire hoses in the black-out as the deadly bombers droned overhead. The danger of it all mocked Joyce's cautious desires, her fear of taking action. She liked to think that she would follow Kath into the fires of hell but she knew it wasn't true. And Kath seemed oblivious to her timid and dogged devotion. She was far more interested in George, a handsome fireman at their station. Joyce couldn't approve of how they flirted with each other, he was a married man after all, she reasoned. But secretly she knew it went deeper than that.
There was a party at the station on 24 December. A brief lull in the Blitz over Christmas allowed the firemen and firewoman to stand down and a couple of crates of beer were laid on. There was a drunken camaraderie that evening, the everyday threat of death from the skies and fire in the streets gave licence to the loosening of inhibitions. There was a determination to live whenever there was a chance. Everybody was set on having a good time that night. Except Joyce. She couldn't really join in, she couldn't be free and easy with her feelings, her lonely little impulses. She was the only one that noticed Kath and George slip away from the party into the strangely silent night. Out in the street she spied them in a doorway fumbling at each other with a clumsy passion, a gasp of steam in the cold air as Kath, her head thrown back in silhouette, exhaled a sharp breath of pleasure.
Joyce ran down the road full of silent curses. She cursed herself for her hopeless infatuation for Kath, her foolish, impossible love. And she cursed them too. She wished them both dead that night. And five days later they were.
The tide of the Thames was at its lowest ebb when the Luftwaffe flew their next sortie. The night of 29 December had been chosen well, the Germans knew that with the river at such a neap level when their raid began, it would be hard to pump the much needed water to protect the City from their firestorm. Many street mains had been fractured as the bombs began to fall and supplies were inadequate to control the fires that were already consuming the heart of London. Fire boats pulled as close to the banks as possible, their crews wading ashore through thick mud, desperately dragging hose lines to try to feed the land pumps with water.
The Luftwaffe chose their centre of attack, their Schwerpunkt as the old City. In just over three hours 120 tons of high explosives and 22,000 incendiaries rained down on the Square Mile. A south-westerly wind grew to gale force, fanning the flames. Sparks and burning embers floated across the narrow streets to start new blazes with an infernal pollination.
George's crew was at the corner of Cannon Street and Walbrook. They had found a street fire hydrant still operational and coupled their pump to it, praying that it might hold out at least until a water relay could arrive. Their officer decided that they would try to hold a fire spreading down from the Mansion House at St. Swithins and they ran a line of hose up to the old church. George and a fellow fireman worked their forwards, clambering over heaps of debris, shoulder to shoulder, arms linked to share the strain of the kicking branch, heads bowed to protect their faces from the blistering heat, the stinging sparks, embers and hot ash swirling about them.
In the meantime the situation around St Pauls was becoming grave. Orders came from the highest level for every available fire pump to redeploy around Cheapside in a concerted effort to save the great Cathedral. Bicycle messengers and dispatch riders were sent out. Kath gunned her motorcycle down along Cannon Street to where George's crew were and informed their officer of the new orders. George and his mate had found a vantage point in the doorway of St Swithins where they were able to strike at the heart of the approaching flames. A call went up for them to fall back and George told his comrade to retreat as he stayed awhile, holding on with all his might to keep the hose jet forward to give them cover. But as he then moved out of the entrance of the church the water pressure dropped suddenly and the fire roared up greedily. The rest of the crew were beaten back by the searing heat but Kath impulsively ran forward to where her lover was trapped. As she reached him they were both engulfed in the blaze.
It was the worst conflagration London had experience since the Great Fire of 1666 and it was hard not to see something demonic about the raid. The destruction seemed largely to be visited upon the religious and ceremonial parts of the City. Although St Pauls survived nineteen churches were destroyed that night and the Guildhall was severely damaged. But the temples of Mammon, the Stock Market, the Bank of England, the business thoroughfares of Cornhill and Lombard Street were left virtually untouched.
The bombing, however, performed a ruthless archeology on the City and symbols of its ancient power were revealed amidst the devastation. A Roman wall was uncovered at Cripplegate and a Saxon cross excavated at Tower Hill. An underground chamber paved with tiles was found beneath the altar of St Mary le Bow. And although St Swithin's church was shattered beyond repair, a fragment of the London Stone, this most primal and sacred relic, was recovered from the wreckage.
Nature rose up amidst the wasteland, sowing a physic garden to heal the broken labyrinth of the City. Flora and fauna emerged with a fecundity not witnessed in this district for centuries. It was as if fertility gods had been entreated to ensure that although the City was battered it would not be barren.
Given the random nature of aerial bombardment, superstition became part of Heath and Safety procedure during the Blitz. It is said that the Ancient Britons feared nothing but for the sky to fall on their heads. With this archaic fear realised, all kinds of banal rites and everyday lucky charms were reached for when the sirens sounded. For a long time Joyce had feared that the harsh curse she had uttered that night had invoked something dark and terrible. She felt guilty, somehow to blame for the deaths of Kath and George. It was a ridiculous thought, she knew, but one that was hard to shake off.
So she was forced to act. She retrained as a dispatch rider and forced herself to take on some of the courage of her friend. There were times that in her recklessness she felt that she was tempting the bombs to find her as a target. But with a heady exhilaration in the face of danger, she found that the less she cared for her safety, the more alive she felt.
And she could dare to be the person that she wanted to be. She realised that she hadn't just desired Kath, she had wanted to be like her. The spirit of her friend taught her to be herself. And she soon discovered that she was not alone, that the love she had felt was possible after all. It wasn't easy, but she began to relish the very toughness of it. She would never forget Kath, her inspiration like so many women of that time. She found a sense of duty in being true to herself and it became the quintessence of her life.
There's a small corporation garden on the site of St Swithin's now. In 2001 a memorial was unveiled there dedicated to Catrin Glyndwr and also to the suffering of all women in war. In Shakespeare's Henry IV Part I Owain describes her devotion and fighting spirit to Mortimer:
'My daughter weeps; she will not part with you,
She'll be a soldier too; she'll to the wars'
Copyright Jake Arnott 2004
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