The little cathedral just south of the Thames stands as a stark contrast on Monday morning against the neighborhood’s backdrop. The busy Borough Market, the defunct docks turned into offices, the tourists, traffic backups on London Bridge… The church sits patiently and peacefully. The city around it has changed so much, and over so little time. Fifty years ago, industry thrived here. Five hundred years ago, the neighborhood was rife with opportunists, free-traders, and criminals, all part of the Livery Companies working outside of London‘s direct control. In the years before that, Augustinian monks occupied the site, maintaining a largely self-sustained living space. After that, the tapestry begins to unravel, and the threads become harder to trace. The only thing the official historical record can confirm is that this place is old.
Over the last two weeks of April, I went on tour again. The folks at Sofar Sounds hooked me up with a few gigs in Reading, London, and Birmingham. Rather than hop over the Atlantic for three shows, and head back home immediately, I decided to come early, and go backpacking for a week before the gigs. After an eight-hour flight, two hours in line at customs, an hour-long train ride into the heart of London, I settled into an enormous armchair in the Great Common Room of Palmer’s Lodge at Swiss Cottage, planning the voyage.
The next morning’s destination was only a few stops away on the Tube. Southwark Cathedral stands at the Southern end of London Bridge, with Gothic-era flying buttresses clashing against the glass-and-steel backdrop of the Southwark Borough. It’s not a terribly large church, or all that mesmerizing from the exterior, but it’s clearly older than anything else around it. Every reason for its survival after all these centuries is just beyond the door.
The church was never “finished,” in the same way we think about buildings being finished today. These days, when construction is done, there’s a ribbon-cutting ceremony, a few important people might say a few words, and the doors stay open. In the case of Southwark Cathedral, however, the building itself continued to change over hundreds of years. In fact, it only acquired a cathedra (the chair in which the bishop sits) in 1905, finally giving the church the status of Cathedral.
Local legend holds that the site was originally a 7th-Century nunnery. Unfortunately for anyone who cares about history, there’s no evidence of this nunnery anywhere, or any mention of the church at all until the Domesday Book (not a Michael Bay movie) in 1086. Odo de Bayeux maintained control of the church during the reign of William I sometime after the Battle of Hastings in 1066, establishing Norman control of a largely Anglo/Saxon neighborhood. This proves to be an interesting wrinkle in the cathedral’s history– if the church were important enough to be granted to Odo, a war hero and the half-brother of William the Conqueror, the church must have been around for awhile before 1066.
It’s also worth mentioning here that Southwark was always a busy neighborhood, even before the Romans arrived. One look inside the Museum of London‘s collection of ancient artifacts, and it’s evident the Thames has carried people and their belongings into the land that would be London for centuries. The borough of Southwark, on the South bank of the Thames was always a busy region, full of trade for generations. The trouble is, within historically high-traffic areas, it’s rare anyone takes the time to write anything down. History moves on, and we forget.
In a neighborhood like Southwark, with skyscrapers scattered all over the skyline, it’s clear the city around the Cathedral has moved on with the times. But walking inside Southwark Cathedral is like stepping back into the public historical record itself. Monarchs, poets, scholars, saints, and members of the general public are all part of the walls and floors in this church. Commemorative carvings in the flagstones down the aisle bear the names and family crests of former parishioners. There’s an alabaster statue of William Shakespeare, and a window dedicated to Geoffrey Chaucer.
Southwark Cathedral behaves like a living, breathing time capsule of every era the stone walls have lived through. If you look closely, you can even see graffiti from 1747. There’s still marks from the Great Fire of 1666. There’s even a pillar in Harvard Chapel left up from what is believed to be 12th Century. With every stone, it becomes less clear exactly how old the church is. However, it becomes more and more apparent that regardless of how the city around it changes, it will still be there, and it will still carry the memory of Southwark.
Stepping out of the warm, stained-glass-and-candle-lit, incense-and-stone-smelling Cathedral, and into the bright-but-cold-sun of Southwark, I turned left, and into Borough Market. Cutting through the river air beyond the market, and through the hum of the city around the Cathedral, came the most beautiful smells: coffee, fresh bread, and roasting meat. One stall was slowly turning a whole hog on a spit over hot coals. The men in the stall were slicing pork off the bone, stuffing it between pieces of sourdough, and throwing garlic-and-lemon-laced sauce onto the whole mess, then repeating the process to gradually feed the mob growing at their cart. It reminded me of North Carolina barbecue, but centuries older. London breathes history.