I had another meeting with a family member—a different family—at 5.30 in the evening. It was in town, at Kings College, London, down on The Strand and not far from the Thames shore. I wrote up my notes of the conversation with Barney and Tim and then, at a loose end, sallied forth, a couple of hours early, to have a bit of a look around. I wasn’t sure what for; but I did know that John Platts-Mills’ old rooms at the Inner Temple were not far away from Kings; so I thought I might see if I could find them. I took the Jubilee Line from Baker Street to Westminster then changed for the District Line. At Temple, as if drawn by the ancient waters, I made my way down to the river.
Or such was my intention; but halfway across the Victoria Embankment, a motorcycle cop drew up beside me and stayed me with his gauntleted hand. I could see his steady blue eyes beneath his visor and wondered, in the instant, how I had offended. Was I jaywalking? Then I realised he was the outrider of a convey. It swept past me at speed, a dozen vehicles long: more motorcycle cops, black 4WDs with tinted windows, two big grey windowless Mercedes vans, more cops on bikes. None of the vehicles showed any insignia; there were no flags on bonnets, no royal or government crests either. In fact, there was nothing I could see which might have identified what kind of convey it was nor who was in it.
My mind spun with possibilities. Clandestine royals? A President or a Prime Minister from some foreign country who did not wish anyone to know s/he was in town? Henry Kissinger? A high level military delegation, on its way to confer with politicians at Westminster? Black ops? Or did the vans contain captured terrorists and were they en route to Wandsworth Gaol? Common criminals wouldn’t receive such lavish treatment. It was frustrating not knowing; intimidating too. I imagined how many Kings and Queens of England had taken that route in their carriages before, with mounted equerries slashing the poor folk out of the way. I seemed to hear the cries of peasants going under the wheels of antique tyrannies. There were ghosts of downpressers in the grey afternoon air.
The Thames didn’t care. The brown river slid slowly by, cleaner than when last I had seen it, immemorial in its blank acquiescence to whatever took place along its banks. I gazed down at the flow, letting my mind drift; then walked slowly along until I was opposite Middle Temple Lane, where I re-crossed the road, without incident, and wandered through the precinct. I saw a yellow building on my right which could have been where Platts-Mills had his rooms; but somehow could not summon the energy to seek it out further. I wondered about the Temple Church, where he and Janet were married in 1936: built by the Knights Templers 800 years ago, in imitation of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem; but I already knew it wasn’t open today.
The chaos and roar of traffic along Fleet Street was a subliminal shock. Then I saw, as I looked along the busy thoroughfare, protruding from the murk, the bronze statue of a dragon writhing on its plinth. It was rampant, its mouth open, its wings spread and clutched in its fore-claws a shield bearing some obscure device. While this too seemed like something out of the far past, the Temple Bar Memorial is actually less than a century and a half old: built in 1880 by Horace Jones to mark the place where one of the eight gates to the City used to stand; with the dragon on top sculpted by Charles Bell Birch. Monarchs on their way from Westminster to the Tower used to have to pause at the gate before entering the City. Sometimes the Mayor would be there to offer up his sword and his keys.
I was going the other way—towards The Strand I mean—but I still had a bit of time on my hands. And there, on the other side of the road, was a church. St Dunstan-in-the-West; so in I went. The cacophony of the street stilled; I found myself in a pale grey octagonal nave, with burgundy pillars and a vaulted ceiling painted aqua blue. Golden wooden beams gleamed in the empyrean. Muted light shone down through stained glass windows. Although I am not in the least bit religious, I could hear the whisper of heavenly choirs singing, far away. St Dunstan was Bishop of London in Anglo-Saxon times, in the last decades of the first millennium, the century before William’s conquering Normans swept over in 1066. He is the patron saint of gold and silver smiths, because he is said to have made his own plate for the churches where he officiated.
This was not the church St Dunstan built, however; that was demolished in 1829, when Fleet Street was widened. The new church, the one I was in, was made in the early 1830s over the graveyard that stood behind the old church; by two John Shaws, father and son. The curious octagonal construction is said to have been in imitation of the shape of a lantern; and some bits of the old building were incorporated in the new. I ran my hand along a wooden communion rail, carved by Grinling Gibbons when the poet John Donne was vicar here in the 1620s. Next to the main altar was a wall of Byzantine icons obscuring what looked like a chapel; with their opulent gold leaf, their purple skies and staring eyes of saints, they looked strangely anomalous in the otherwise sparse Anglican interior.
I had heard footsteps behind me while I was drifting through time in that sacerdotal space; perhaps the rattle of keys. Sure enough, when I dragged myself away from contemplation of these wondrous things and turned to go, the door was locked. I was a prisoner of St Dunstan! Momentary panic was soon alleyed; a young robed woman, looking vaguely monk-like, came out of an ante room to release me. She must have known already I was there. We close at 4 o’clock she explained, unapologetically. I lingered a moment. Why, I asked, is the chapel next the altar closed off like that? What is that wall of icons? It’s called an iconostasis, she explained. Basically a screen. It comes from a monastery in Bucharest. People from the Romanian Orthodox Church worship here as well. This is one of only three churches in England where they can.