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St. Mary-le-Bow church – Cockney Bow Bells

St Mary-le-Bow
Where? St. Mary-le-Bow, Cheapside, The City · Web: Opening times? 7.30 AM to 6 PM (Mon-Fri) Visiting hours may change Price? Free Time required? A typical visit is 15-20 mins Parking: Nearby car parks Trains: The closest station is Mansion House Circle District Other nearby stations: Bank, Cannon Street and St. Paul’s Train fares

Craig’s review… A lot of London’s churches are like a layer cake. They have an original crypt from 900 years ago, then a burnt out sponge in the middle (courtesy of the Great Fire of London), and top it all off with some decorative icing by Christopher Wren. Then the greedy Luftwaffe come along and devour it in a single night. St. Mary-le-Bow is exactly like that. Wren’s outer walls and tower sit on top of an 11th-century crypt, and the rest was rebuilt after the Blitz.

Cockney Great Bell of Bow

The church’s biggest claim to fame is the Great Bell of Bow in the steeple. If you want to call yourself a proper Cockney then you’re supposed to have been born within the sound of this bell. Legend has it that Dick Whittington was turned back to London after hearing it ring on Highgate Hill – “Turn again Whittington, thrice-times Lord Mayor of London” – but that is total nonsense of course, because Highgate Hill is miles away. He would have needed superhuman hearing to have heard it from there.

The Norwegians certainly heard it from across the North Sea though, because the BBC used to broadcast its bong across occupied Europe. The Germans promptly dropped a lucky shot on the roof, totally trashing the inside, and when the war was won the Norwegians gifted the rebuilt church a dragon for its chapel.

The interior is nice enough, but it’s rather too new for me so I never give it more than five minutes. It’s basically just a blue-roofed box with gold-leaf decorations. They’ve filled the windows with some decent stained glass, but the pictures are rather dark and difficult to follow and you need to invest a bit of time in them to see what they’re saying.

The 11th-century Norman crypt

The 11th-century Norman crypt underneath is in two separate sections. The first section is just a skinny little corridor that has been turned into a cafe. All you can see down there are pine tables and tubular chairs and a couple of apron-ladies polishing their coffee machines.

The second section can be reached from a doorway in the courtyard (you actually have to go outside the church and walk to the corner, where you’ll find a set of stairs behind some railings). At the bottom of these stairs is a small stone chapel with a vaulted roof and tombstones on the floor. It’s worth a quick look if you’re already in the vicinity, but it’s not worth a detour.

Worth a visit? Value for money? freeGood for kids? Easy to get to?

I also recommend… If you enjoy this then try St. Bride’s (walk it in 12 mins or travel from Mansion House to St Pauls via tube); St. Dunstan-in-the-West (walk it in 16 mins or travel from Mansion House to Temple by tube) and St. Magnus-the-Martyr (you can walk it 10 mins). If you’re got an interest in Dick Whittington then he’s buried somewhere inside St. Michael Paternoster Royal church

London Squire bookThe owns and has spent the last decade reviewing the capital’s landmarks, attractions and hotels. His guidebook is available from Amazon

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Your comments and questions

brian Hello. I was wondering how far can the famous Bow Bells actually be heard? Given that you need to hear them to be able to call yourself a cockney. Do they even ring anymore?

Craig Hi Brian. According to wikipedia they can only be heard as far as Shoreditch nowadays, which isn't very far at all. But to be honest I'm surprised you can even hear them from that far away, what with all the traffic and city noise

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