Stoke Poges, Thomas Gray, and the Cornhill Devils

St Giles church copy
St Giles church, Stoke Poges

Hello, gentle readers, and forgive me for the brief absence from this blog. We were last looking London squares mentioned in University Challenge, and I hope for today you will indulge me in a few moments’ reminiscence. One of the places I have had on my ‘must visit’ list for as longs I can remember is Stoke Poges.

Gray plaque copyWhy, you ask? (Though for some of you it may be obvious.)

Well, one of the very first poems I remember being aware of (after ‘The Goblin Market’ by Christina Rossetti) was Thomas Gray’s ‘Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard’. The very first lines I knew of it were: “Full many a flower is born to blush unseen/And waste its sweetness on the desert air.”

Gray tomb copy
Thomas Gray’s final resting place

That churchyard belongs to the parish church of St Giles, where Gray is buried. In the adjacent field there is a large memorial to Gray. So I got to visit Stoke Poges; see the churchyard; see where Gray is buried; and see a memorial to Gray.

Ok, enough indulgence and reminiscence. But Gray does, of course, have London connections: he was born in Cornhill. As far as I know that’s the only real London connection. We’ve visited Cornhill before, in the pages of this blog, but here’s a recap of some of the facts about that ancient street.

Gray memorial copy
The Thomas Gray memorial

Walter Thornbury, author of the first two volumes of Old and New London, said of it that, “Cornhill, considering its commercial importance, is a street by no means full of old memories.” However, there is lots of interesting ‘stuff’ about the street. First of all, it is (despite the claims of Panyer Alley) the highest point in the City of London.

In fact, one of my favourite tidbits of information about Cornhill involves the church of St Peter’s Cornhill, which stands on that highest point. The church was, for a time, considered to be the oldest church in England and has the only chancel-screen known to have been designed by Christopher Wren.

EAS_4101Facing the church, at 54-55 Cornhill, is a building with three 19th-century gargoyles known as the Cornhill Devils. These are, supposedly, an architect’s revenge on an obstreperous rector.

When the buildings in that area were being designed, the rector of the time discovered that one of the buildings would encroach fractionally on church land. He insisted the plans be redrawn so, forced literally back to the drawing board, and facing no small expense as a result, the architect gave one of the gargoyles the face of the rector.

Apart from Gray, Cornhill has some literary connections: the publishers Smith and Elder had an office there in the 19th century; and two sisters had to appear there in person to prove that they were Anne and Charlotte Bronte rather than Acton and Currer Bell.

And Daniel Defoe had a hosiers shop there; in between his writing he was a trader and one of the goods in which he dealt was hosiery.

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