We are on St Dunstan’s Hill, halfway between London Bridge and the Tower of London in the City of London.
The church of St.Dunstan-in-the-East built here has survived a lot during its 900-year history, including the Great Fire of London in 1666.
It was originally built during Saxon times, in about 1100. Although the Great Fire caused terrible damage to the church it was faithfully rebuilt, and topped with a steeple designed by Sir Christopher Wren, one of the most highly acclaimed English architects in history.
However in 1941 the church was devastated by the Blitz, in the Second World War. A direct hit destroyed everything apart from the north and south walls, and Wren’s steeple. The threat of German invasion of the United Kingdom had ended with the Battle of Britain a year earlier, but the sustained strategic bombing of the UK continued and by 1941, the Blitz was reaching its terrible crescendo.
As a result, starting on September 7th, 1940, London was bombed for nearly 60 consecutive nights. It was on the night of December 29th that saw the most ferocity, as the Luftwaffe blanketed London with bombs in what was called the Second Great Fire of London.
By the end of the Blitz, over 1,000,000 London homes were destroyed, including much of the old Saxon church. After the war, with much of London in rubble, the slow rebuilding process began, but the re-organisation of the Anglican Church in London it was decided not to rebuild St Dunstan’s. In 1967, the City of London Corporation decided to turn the bombed out shell of the church into a public garden, opened in 1971 which remains to this day. A lawn and trees were planted in the ruins, with a low fountain in the middle of the nave.
Hidden away on a secluded side street, and long since dwarfed by the modern structures of the city, it remains one of London’s secret gardens. One of the last Blitz-damaged buildings left in the United Kingdom, overgrown with trees, ivy, and wall climbing flowers growing amongst the ruined arches, it’s a poignant living memorial to the horrors of the Second World War, and a testament to the resilience of the City of a London which survived it. Still today occasionally open-air services are held in the church, such as on Palm Sunday prior to a procession to All Hallows by the Tower along St Dunstan’s Hill and Great Tower Street.
The ruin was designated a Grade I listed building on 4 January 1950. Interestingly, this hidden gem is busy on weekday lunchtimes, filled with office workers eating their lunches, but becomes eerily quiet at weekends.