Wednesday, 9 September 2009

Lunch in a London Church - Try It

It's the late 1970s. I am travelling daily from Southend-on-Sea, Essex, to Fenchurch Street rail station and then walking to Custom House in Lower Thames Street. I had just been promoted to HEO and was leading a team of EO's (Executive Officers) known then as the Export Enquiry Unit.

Custom House is located twixt London Bridge and Tower Bridge. One of the most interesting and historic parts of dear old London town. This particular Custom House has one of the largest unsupported ceilings in the land. A huge room. Called 'The Long Room' which is the name given to all such rooms where duties are paid. It is here that all the importers and their agents come to present their documents and pay import duties and other taxes before they have their goods released by HM Customs & Excise.

My team investigated the other side of the coin: exports. Most of our time was spent out of the office, visiting various exporters and their agents for reasons I cannot divulge; official secrets and all that. (Taps right side of nose with forefinger...hush-hush){:-}

If working in the office, compiling reports etc., I would usually spend my lunch hour in church!

A very special church: St. Olaves in Hart Street. This is only a short walk from Custom House. An oasis in the busy concrete city of London. It is also the burial place of the renowned diarist Samuel Pepys. You've heard of Pepys, haven't you peeps? (Just a hint on pronunciation for non-Brits! ;-)

Why did I choose this place for my lunchtime break? Not to pray, nor to sing hymns. No, just to relax and perhaps have a bowl of spaghetti bolognese or shepherds pie.

Oh yes, this lovely church had some ladies who served some delicious lunches from a corner of the church for a price you decided to pay, as long as it was over 50p! Lovely grub, as we Londoner's would say. I wonder if they still do this? It was some sort of voluntary service and in aid of some charity I seem to recall. Anyway, one could collect your hot lunch and then take a pew. It was never crowded; frequently there might only be a dozen or so people there during the lunch break time.

But that was not all. Oh no! There were other delights in store for anybody who happened to wander into this delightful place at around 1 o'clock in the afternoon.

Free entertainment! And excellent entertainment too.

A professional string quartet on more than one occasion. A top-class piano recital on other days. Or poetry readings.

Or, (my favourite), a talk by none other than the late, great Bernard Miles! He was knighted in 1969, thus becoming Sir Bernard Miles. He was later elevated to the peerage (a Life Baron) and was thus Lord Bernard Miles was one of the few ever to be so honoured, (Laurence Olivier (Lord Olivier) was another notable peer).

Bernard Miles was a superb character actor and made many films. He also devoted a vast amount of his life, and money, in creating The Mermaid Theatre in London. Like many actors he was a devotee of Shakespeare and The Mermaid was created to be like a theatre in the Bard's day, with the audience seated around the stage, on three sides.

Bernard Miles was also a great story-teller. And this was where he excelled in my opinion. Peter Ustinov was another great raconteur and there are others, but Bernard Miles will always have top billing in my heart. He would spend around half-an-hour delighting the small audience with his tales. Some of them were quite risqué, especially when told in church! Here's just one of them (as best as I can remember it.)

"This old farmer had bought a brand new pair of boots. He was very proud of them, as being rather poor he seldom could afford new boots.

However, he was disappointed that his dear old wife had never commented on them. He was quite peeved at this. How could he make her notice them?

Then he had an idea! One evening he came into the sitting room stark naked, except for his shiny new boots. His wife was unconcerned.

"Well" says the farmer, "what do you think then?"

"About what?" asks his tired wife.

"Well look! Look where it's pointing..." he hints.

"Hmm.. pity you didn't buy a new hat then, aint it."

Of course, Bernard Miles told it with his wonderful rustic old 'farmer' voice and dialect. His style was unique. A truly great actor and a wonderful man.

If you are ever in the vicinity of St.Olave's church, do please look inside. You will love it, I'm sure.


Monkey Man said...

Very entertaining story - yours and Sir Miles'. Bring us a picture of the church sometime. It would be entertaining to view.

The Bug said...

That's hilarious! And what a fun way to spend your lunch hour...

Jo said...

LOL...! Wonderful story. :-) And yes, I would love to see a picture of the church.

London is a wonderful city, isn't it? I visited Westminser Abbey, and of course Salisbury Cathedral in Salisbury.

England has the most beautiful churches in the world.

Jo said...

I meant Westminster. Typo, typo. :-)

DUTA said...

Your post has it all: important sites of London ( Custom House, London Bridge, Tower Bridge, St. Olaves Church), outstanding figures ( actor Bernard Miles), personal info (work, lunch), and a funny tale.

I've greatly enjoyed reading it.

PhilipH said...

Thanks to all for your comments.

MM: A view of the church, inside and out, courtesy of Google images.

Bug: He made us all laugh when he was alive. Dear old Bernard Miles, I miss him. Luckily we have many old films to watch again, and again, and again... with him in them all.

Jo: Please be more careful! I do not allow typographical errors as a general rule. However, as it's you I'll overlook it this time.;-}

Duta: That's a great compliment from somebody whose blogs are so informative and well structured, with good photography to boot!

Cliff W said...

As you say, a little risqué but very amusing!

I know that it often needs to be seasoned with a pinch of salt, but Wikipedia has some very interesting information on the church's history.

lovelyprism said...

Sounds lovely! What a fabulous place to sit and relax at lunch. Should I ever get to London I shall go directly to St. Olaves.

the walking man said...

Interesting side trip Philip thanks for taking us out to lunch with your memory.

Land of shimp said...

Philip, I'm a grown woman and it took me a second to get it. Honestly. I sat here thinking, "What in the worl...OH." and then I giggled happily.

Every time you post a story, I'm not only interested, I'm grateful. You've lived an interesting, and varied life. It's a privilege to get to share in the memories.

Oh, and what a memory! I'm trying to imagine the office drones I know spending their lunch hours like this. Surrounded by beautiful architecture, music or stories. To have a lunch time that represents actual respite? Philip, it's practically unheard of at this stage.

Gulping down questionable food, in over-loud surroundings is how the average office lunch runs.

The next time I find myself in one of those "must rush back" situations (which are blessedly rare these days), I'll think of your lunch time back in the 70s, and feel refreshed by proxy.

Thank you.

Argent said...

When I was at college, I used to spend the time between Tuesday evening lectures in coventry Cathedral (the new one). Sometimes the organist would be practising and just to sit there in that vast space, surrounded by the heavenly music (I LOVE organ music!) was a real treat. I wonder if they still have practice on Tuesdays.

PhilipH said...

Cliff,Charlene, Mark, Alane and Silver - many thanks for your kind comments.


Barbara's Spot on the Blog said...

Reading your post I'm reminded of the year I lived in England. I was more than happy to stay at school for the hot lunches made by the local ladies. It was the best food I'd ever had.

Snowbrush said...

I envy you your old churches, among other things. Here in Oregon, something that's 100-years old is considered pretty old. The oldest trace of humanity here is some 14,500 year old year old shit that was found in a cave.

PhilipH said...

Hi Snowy,

Yep, stepping inside some old and often musty church when I've been on one of my weekend jaunts with the missus and kids was one of my favourite things.

We've been inside some great cathedrals too, including Canterbury, Winchester, Liverpool, (Paddy's Wigwam as it's colourfully called), Hereford, Lincoln (with its famous 'Imp',Chester and others.

Even some of the old Abbeys, or what remains of them, can be quite something to think about.

If walls could talk, I wonder what dark and terrible tales they would tell. How many labourers died in the creation of these 'holy' buildings?

Cheers, and thanks for calling.

All Consuming said...

Ha! Marvellous, what a wonderful experience to have of a lunchtime! Everything about it appeals to me and I think its great that the food was as much one could afford and the stories could be so risque in such a place.