Although not one of the City’s most secluded byways, it is ideally situated at the side of a tiny lane – an antique area that has changed little in layout since the 12th century.
The bulk of Abchurch Yard, a paved square lying to the south of St Mary Abchurch
, was once the graveyard to this outstanding church, and now, during the summer months, is prettily decked with tubs of colourful flowers. From the seats arranged along the church wall you can take time out to watch the scurrying lunchtime herds. Leading from the ‘square’, along the west side of Wren’s red bricked church, is the old churchyard path, now formed as a narrow lane but retaining, through its name, a link with centuries past.
The present church was built in 1681 after its predecessor was destroyed on the 3rd September 1666, a victim of the Great Fire. Although it is one of the smallest of Wren’s City churches, the almost square interior is made to appear spacious by the great dome, pierced by stained glass circular windows and richly painted by John Snow in 1708. The magnificent reredos by Grinling Gibbons is one of the largest in London, its central pinnacle almost touching the rim of the dome. Interestingly, the churchwardens’ pews still retain the dog kennels beneath the seats, a feature quite common until the 19th century, but now rarely encountered.
St Mary Abchurch
was severely damaged in World War II when much of the internal woodwork was shattered and the reredos blown into thousands of pieces. Restoration work carried out in 1953 has returned the place to its former glory. At the time of renovation the floor of the church was lowered to its original level and in the process the crypt of the previous church was uncovered, restored, and opened to public view.
Abchurch is one of those curious names of old London and may have derived from the church builder or whoever donated the money to fund its building. In years gone by the patron of a church was often commemorated by having his name tagged on to the dedication; in the case of St Mary Abchurch
the origin is far from clear. It could have come from the Latin, abbatia – the head of a monastic community, or abbas – a monk, even the French, abbé – a priest. John Stow says that he has seen it spelt as Apechurch and Upchurch; a reference to the first church on the site has it as ‘Habechirce’ which makes the matter even more confusing. Although it is unlikely that a religious community ever inhabited the church, it is possible that such a community financed its building.