What is your view of the city? Is it a place you work in, and suffer all the stress of commuting? Or perhaps it’s a place you live in? In my novel Zoe emails her sister with these words: Hi, you in crowded, stressed old London from me in the peaceful, perfect Cotswolds… But those words reflect only one biased view of the city; and this isn’t my own view of London, living, as I now do, 98 miles away from it.
I was born and brought up in south London (Orpington in the borough of Bromley) and so London was a big part of my life as a child and a teenager. When I returned from university I moved to live in Bayswater, London W2, with my sister, & continued to live there for seven years. After that I moved away. But last year I decided to visit for an extended periods and visit many London attractions I hadn’t been to for a long time. And those two weeks fed my reflections upon why the image of a great city is so powerful for religious and spiritual writers.
Dr Johnson said, When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life. And certainly, London, with its rich history, cultural depth and vibrant life, is a source of inspiration to me.
In the Bible, we find the writer to the Hebrews saying this:For he looked for a city which hath foundations, whose builder and maker is God (Hebrews 11: 10)
The heavenly city is a city with everlasting foundations. And a great city feeds us body, mind and spirit. From the BODY – the Tower of London – through the MIND – The Violent Universe show and the discoveries of Einstein at the Royal Observatory, Greenwich, to the SPIRIT – the Whispering Gallery and Holman Hunt’s painting The Light of the World at St Paul’s Cathedral, I was inspired, informed, amused, shocked, amazed, touched, and filled with wonder.
Living as I do in Warwickshire, I’m fortunate to have all the treasures of this great city so accessible, via the rail network (not that it’s that difficult to get to London from any major railway station in the UK!) And in many ways, the life of London is encapsulated by the story of the Thames. As Edmund Spenser said in his poem ‘Prothalamion’, Sweet Thames! run softly, till I end my song.
While looking round the exhibition in the Thames Barrier Information Centre at Woolwich, I felt moved by the human imagination, ingenuity and skill which has worked together to tame the power of the river for the protection of a city and its people. One of my own forbears was a Thames Waterman (as evidenced from a 19th century marriage certificate.) See My Family Background page in my website. My early life was strongly associated with the Thames; the toolmerchant’s business A.D. Skillman & Sons which my grandfather started in 1901 opposite the Woolwich Ferry traded for over 100 years until my brother, who inherited it, finally had to close down in 2002. I remember being sent off to cross the Thames on the ferry to North Woolwich and back again on my own when I was about ten years old, and how much of an adventure it was for me.
But what of that other river – the river of life flowing through the holy city, Jerusalem – a powerful symbol in the Bible? We are told by the writer of Revelation that this river rises up from the throne of God and the Lamb and surges crystal-clear down the middle of the city street. On either side of the river grow the trees of life. This holy city is of pure gold transparent as glass, with a wall of diamond, and foundations faced with precious stones; and the 12 gates are 12 pearls. The city has no temple since God and the Lamb are themselves the temple; it does not need the sun or the moon for light as it is lit by the radiant glory of God.
Why is this biblical image of heaven as a great city so powerful? I suggest it is because, here on earth, all the ingenuity, folly, genius, wickedness, nobility, inspiration, despair, joy and creativity of which we human beings are capable is encapsulated in a great city. In heaven all will be made perfect. And here on earth, just as the city teems with life, so it will be in that holy city. And that is why the image of holy city is so appropriate for heaven.
2 thoughts on “Places of Inspiration Part 2: The Heavenly City: A View of London”
I take students from overseas on tours of London so often I have no time to myself for exploring. However, at the weekend I did find a real treasure while waiting outside the Tower (the group had gone in but not paid for me to go in too) in the form of All Hallows church. This dates to 670AD, and is the oldest church in London, though what you see from the outside is 14 and 15th century, the tower built by Wren and the roof destroyed by the Luftwaffe. It has a Saxon crypt you can go into, complete with columbarium, and a Saxon arch inside revealed when the bombing destroyed an interior wall; the arch is built using Roman rooftiles. It’s where Pepys watched the great Fire of London consume much of the city and was saved only by the presence of mind of Penn, who blew up a street of houses between the church and the oncoming fire, making a fire break. The whole building has a lovely feel and the museum in the crypt and the Saxon chapel are very peaceful.
under much of modern England are these traces of an older time.
Thank you very much for your comment and I will certainly visit All Hallows Church on my next visit to London. Another place which intrigues me is the Roman ampitheatre beneath Guildhall. Yes, we need to remember that a few metres beneath us are the remains of the world inhabited by Celts and Romans… and below that, lingering evidence of even earlier times. Archaeology must be a fascinating career, but you also need infinite patience!