London On The Ground
Spectacular London views from the steeple of St Mary Islington
Saturday 4 March sees the launch of new regular tours of Islington landmark St Mary's Church on Upper Street, led by qualified guides from Clerkenwell and Islington Guides. I am lucky enough to be on the team that will be leading the tours.
The tours tell the story of Islington through the 1,000 year story of the church and end with a climb up the 120 steps of the church tower to the base of the steeple. The 360 degree panoramic views across London are unrivalled, stretching from Alexandra Palace in the north to Crystal Palace radio mast in the south and taking in the City, Canary Wharf, the London Eye and BT Tower.
St Mary's has played a central role in the history of Islington since Saxon times. During this time several different churches have stood on the site, leaving an eclectic range of architectural styles.
Today's splendid tower and steeple remain from the 18th century, while the neoclassical porch is early 20th century.
Those taking the tour can learn about the 12th century Norman church and its 15th century medieval successor. You will go into the crypt and look around the main body of the church, which is an interesting example of post World War II reconstruction from 1956.
Compare the view today with how it appeared in 1789
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 (see below).
Clearly visible in the far distance in the centre of Swertner's engraving 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
What you need to know about the tours
Places on the 90 minute tours must be booked in advance, currently priced at £15 per person.
Numbers are strictly limited to eight places on each tour, so early booking is advised. Due to the difficulty and risk involved in climbing the steeple, children must be aged 10 or over and be accompanied by an adult.
Afternoon and evening tours are scheduled throughout the spring of 2023. The evening tours will offer atmospheric sunset and night time views in the early weeks, depending on the date.
The first tour is on Saturday 4 March at 2pm and the second will be on Friday 10 March at 6pm. The full list of dates currently available to book via Eventbrite is as follows:
Sat 4 March, 2pm
Fri 10 March, 6pm
Sat 18 March, 2pm
Fri 24 March, 6pm
Sat 1 Apr, 2pm
Fri 7 Apr, 6pm
Sat 15 Apr, 2pm
Fri 21 Apr, 6pm
Sat 29 Apr, 2pm
Fri 5 May, 6pm
Fri 19 May, 6pm
Sat 27 May, 2pm
Further dates are likely to be added if demand is good. Before booking, please read the safety information on the booking website.
Walks available for booking
For a schedule of forthcoming London On The Ground guided walks, please click here. Please note that these walking tours are separate from the St Mary's tours.