In January darkness, twenty-six members gathered in the Crescent soon after 7.00 am. Sadly, two members were absent. Patricia Purkiss, the leader, was unwell and Alan stayed to look after her. Graham Finch led with his usual blend of efficiency, charm and care.
The coach left early but traffic conditions were frustrating, especially near Swindon because of an accident. Dan, our driver, did well to drop us off very near to our City destination by 11.15 am.
At the Priory of England and the Islands, the home of the Order of the Hospital of St John of Jerusalem, at St John’s Gate, Clerkenwell, the party were greeted by our Vicar, Fr. Paul Williams, who is Sub-Dean of the Order, his wife Catherine, Andrew and Jane Crowther and Hugh Sweet. The party was divided into two groups and our guides, Terry and Trevor, took us round the Priory Church, originally dedicated in 1185. The Church was partly destroyed in Tudor times by The Duke of Somerset. The rebuilt Church was bombed on the night of 10/11th May 1941 in the Blitz. It was rebuilt yet again and rededicated in the 1950s. It is now the Order’s private church. The simple beauty of its interior is striking, with banners representing each member country and also senior living members of the Order. The crypt with its Almoner’s Chapel is the only original part left. A cloister garden is dedicated to the memory of members of the Order who fell in two World Wars.
The other historic building the Order has is St John’s Gate itself, housing both the museum and headquarters of the Order that originated in 1099. The present Most Venerable Order dates from 1888, being now a chivalric and not, as formerly, a religious Order. Our guides took us round a maze of rooms, including the Council Chamber and the rather grand Chapter Hall, complete with portrait of the Queen, Sovereign Head of the Order.
Reaching St Bartholomew’s Hospital involved walking through Smithfield Meat Market. Robin Wilson joined the party briefly but sadly was called away. At the Henry VIII Gate, the party was welcomed by Andrew and Jane Crowther, who both qualified at the Hospital. They suggested a look inside the former hospital parish church, St Bartholomew the Less, whose tower is the only medieval structure left on site. The guide, Richard, began memorably: ‘One word sums up this whole area: blood’, connecting both Market and Hospital. Smithfield comes from ‘smooth field’, used for Roman soldiers’ drill. The Hospital, founded by Rahere the monk in 1123, is the oldest hospital still on its original site in the UK. Today, it is part of the Royal London Group and a specialist centre for cardiac and oncology treatment. The huge Atrium in the George V Building was visited and the London skyline viewed from the seventh floor. The Great Hall was gained via its impressive staircase, overlooked by two magnificent paintings by William Hogarth of The Good Samaritan and The Pool at Bethesda. In the latter, Hogarth painted other figures also apparently suffering from a variety of complaints.
Walking through back streets, the party reached St Paul’s Cathedral just after 3.15 pm. Here they were given audio sets that allowed the user to wander around the Cathedral, exploring numerous items of interest. They arrived just as Tewkesbury Abbey Schola Cantorum were beginning their practice. The Choir sounded magnificent, clearly unaffected by their awe inspiring surroundings.
Evensong was packed. Apart from the Friends’ party, there were parents, former pupils, staff, trustees and well-wishers from Dean Close School present. A hundred and twenty sat in the Quire stalls, with dozens more under the dome. All sixteen choristers were present, with nine men. Their rendering of Psalm 37, Edgar Day’s setting of the canticles in B flat, and Kenneth Leighton’s haunting Anthem ‘O Leave Your Sheep’ was superb under Simon Bell’s direction.
Afterwards, having briefly congratulated the singers, the party found their coach in Cannon Street. Dan began the journey home by driving along the Embankment, passing through Parliament Square, protesters expressing a variety of views over Brexit, due to be voted on the next day.
Thank you to so many who made the challenging but hugely rewarding day possible: to Patricia Purkiss for her meticulous planning and booklet; to Philippa Shaw for putting the booklet together; to Fr. Paul Williams and Andrew and Jane Crowther for their good offices at St John’s Gate and St Bartholomew’s Hospital; to Dan the driver and finally to Graham Finch for his caring leadership.
C. E. Whitney