London On The Ground
See London from the steeple of St Mary's Islington
Updated: Sep 23, 2022
Compare the view today with how it appeared in 1789.
St Mary's Church on Upper Street in Islington is offering a rare opportunity to tour the church and to climb its steeple, affording unrivalled 360 degree panoramic views across London. The tours are part of St Mary's Festival 2022, which sees the church hosting a range of free events this month.
St Mary's has played a central role in the history of Islington for 1,000 years. During this time several different churches have stood on the site, leaving an eclectic range of architectural styles.
Those taking the tour can learn about the 12th century Norman church and its 15th century medieval successor. Today's splendid tower and steeple remain from the 18th century, while the neoclassical porch is early 20th century. The main body of the church is an interesting example of post World War II reconstruction, dating from 1956.
In 1789 a Dutch Moravian minister named Jan (or Johannes) Swertner climbed the tower of St Mary's to the gallery just below the steeple. Although he said he was as 'one not professionally an artist', he created a magnificent engraving of the view from the church tower looking south.
Clearly visible in the far distance is the dome of St Paul's Cathedral in the City of London, while the foreground shows the then rural village of Islington, separated from London by fields. Upper Street is in the foreground on the right of the picture, while Essex Road (then called Lower Street) can be seen on the left. The two roads meet centre right of the picture at Islington Green, as they still do.
Today, the dome of St Paul's can still be seen, but it is almost obscured by skyscrapers. It also appears smaller than in Swertner's portrayal (he used artistic licence to exaggerate its size). The many spires of other City churches, visible in the 1789 etching, are now totally hidden from view.
Part of Upper Street is clearly evident today on the right, with the Bull Inn standing at the corner of Upper Street and Theberton Street in the same place where the Old Pied Bull (thought to have once been the home of Sir Walter Raleigh) was visible in 1789. (See also: Would Elizabeth I recognise Islington today? )
1789 image above © The Trustees of the British Museum
Tours of the church will be led by qualified guides from Clerkenwell and Islington Guides (and I am lucky enough to be on the team that will be leading the tours). Places on the tours are free, but must be booked in advance as numbers are strictly limited to eight places on each tour.
Currently, only five tours are on offer, at different times on each day from Monday 26 September to Friday 30 September. Before booking, please read the safety information on the website.
To book one of the very limited number of free places on this very unusual tour, please go to St Mary's website here.
Walks available for booking
For a schedule of forthcoming London On The Ground guided walks, including a brand-new Upper Street walk on Sun 25 September and Sunday 22 October, please click here. Please note that these walking tours are separate from the St Mary's tours.