The London Coronation Pilgrimage (aka Royal Route) – Tower of London, via St Paul’s Cathedral, to Westminster Abbey – 5 miles, 1 day

Delve into the heart of England’s history through the streets of the modern city. Take in relics of an old enchantment, when London was thought to be the New Troy, and Westminster Abbey was the holy of holies. Pick out holy wells and ancient stones, places of sanctuary and peace, the tombs of saints and the haunts of sinners, from the scrum of the modern city.

Linking the two traditional power centres of London, the City of Westminster and the City of London, via countless holy places, you follow the ancient processional way from the Tower of London, believed to replicate the lost palace of the Kings of Troy, through the popular and commercial City, to the political and priestly city of Westminster, in the shadow of the great Abbey church.

The text that follows is the first pilgrimage column to appear in the Idler Magazine (published on 1 Sep 2023):

After all the ceremony, what meaning does the Crown now hold for you? Perhaps you need to walk a pilgrimage to find out. In fact, why don’t you walk the ancient processional route which until the 17th century was traversed by monarchs on the occasion of their coronations? The Crown is dedicated to service towards that which is higher than itself, and processing through London was one way for the Monarch to connect with that reality, and especially through its sacred places. The layout of the City of London is inspired by royalty. For example it has streets named after King Lud and King Belin (Ludgate and Billingsgate), from the mysterious Trojan dynasty of Kings. The City of Westminster, meanwhile, is a place of priests and power, its once-holiest place being Thorney Island, a former eyot where the River Tyburn joined the Thames. Westminster Abbey now stands there.

This ancient route officially starts at the sacred White Mound (now the site of the Tower of London), a place where the still-talking head of Brân the Blessed, King of Britain, was buried. According to legend, the founder of Britain, King Brutus, and one of his progeny, Molmutius the Law Giver, were also buried there. This line of Trojan Kings was common knowledge until 1607, until William Camden (boring, boo!) discredited them. Many other heads of heads of state have rolled there too. (Some have even said the Monarch would perform a vigil through the night before their coronation, dying unto themselves in the White Tower’s St John the Evangelist Chapel, before being reborn the next day.)

From the Tower you walk parallel to the river to All Hallows by the Tower, with its Saxon Crypt, through the tropical garden of St Dunstan in the East, and then the adorned and chant-filled St Magnus the Martyr (the original entrance to Old London Bridge). Don’t forget to sing ‘London Bridge is falling Down’ there and ‘London’s Burning’ at the nearby Monument to the Great Fire of London (in which its architects Wren and Hooke included a central shaft to house a zenith telescope, and to be used in gravity and pendulum experiments). Also, honour the maligned Catholics who were erroneously blamed for the fire (and perhaps educate yourself by listening to my duo Bounder & Cad’s ‘Reformation Rap’).

Pop in to Christopher Wren’s St Mary Abchurch and gaze at the painted dome before meeting London’s heart, the London Stone, the moving of which, it is said, would place the city in jeopardy. Round the corner, to London Mithraeum, a Roman temple to the God of Mithras, deep under the city streets. The sacred experience there connects one with our bloodthirsty sacrificial pre-Christian past, yet the floorplan looks remarkably like any Christian church. And nearby don’t miss another Wren church, St Stephen’s Walbrook, whose dome was used as a prototype for St Paul’s Cathedral. The Samaritans began life here, and the telephone used for their first call is on display there. There’s also an impressive altar by Henry Moore.

Next, it’s lunch or coffee at the forward-looking St Mary Aldermary, with its popular cafe frequented by City types marvelling at their luck in being able to work and eat in such a fine building. Complete the first section of the Coronation pilgrimage by ending at St Paul’s Cathedral, formerly East Minster, and even more formerly, a pre-Christian temple of Diana, and a druidic sacred place before that. (If you don’t want to pay to get in for a full visit, either go to choral evensong there or ask to pray in the side chapel of St Dunstan’s Chapel – both are free).

From St Paul’s, walk down Ludgate Hill (the old west gate of the City of London) and cross over the course of the now underground River Fleet (along Farringdon Street) to arrive at the journalist’s church of St Bride’s, where there is a shrine to fallen journalists on the frontline of reporting the truth. Behind the church, a plane tree now hides St Bride’s Well, once the primary source of clean water for that part of the City. The building of the former women’s prison of Bridewell, which stands nearby, got its name from the well, which then sparked the tradition of ‘Bridewell prisons’ meaning women’s prisons.

Walk on along Fleet St to St Dunstan’s in the West, which bears possibly the only remaining statue of Elizabeth I made during her lifetime, as well as statues of King Lud and his sons, and, either side of the clock, of Gog and Magog (whom King Brutus defeated in order to found Britain). Onwards to the Temple Church, built by the Knights Templar in the 12th century. It was modelled after the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, making it the perfect spot for rendition of Blake and Parry’s ‘Jerusalem (was builded here)’, especially in the rich acoustics of the oldest part of the structure, the Round Church.

Next to Temple Church, back on Fleet St, is the Temple Bar Marker, the boundary between the City of London and City of Westminster, which monarchs would have had to gain permission to pass through on their coronation procession. From there, head to Strand Lane and visit the holy healing Roman Bath (by asking permission from National Trust first).

Then along the Embankment to Cleopatra’s Needle, a reminder of the obelisks that may have been the inspiration for church towers. Follow Whitehall, pausing at the Cenotaph, to enter Westminster Abbey in time for a full visit – or for a free, shorter visit of choral evensong, and hear the place resound with the wonderful singing we heard at the Coronation.

NB The majority of City of London Churches are closed at the weekend, City of Westminster Churches are open.

Buy the book Pilgrim's Guide to Secret London

See St. Paul's Cathedral Virtual Pilgrimage

See The Association of English Cathedrals

This route was devised by Jason Goodwin, in collaboration with BPT’s Guy Hayward.

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