St. Olave’s was the favorite church of Charles Dickens, who called it Ghastly Grim. Samuel Pepys is buried there. Mother Goose and Mary Ramsey, too.
Four years ago on Seething Lane in London I stood by the stone lychgate, the dramatic entryway to St. Olave’s churchyard, three large stone skulls above the archway by way of greeting, spikes of iron crowning stone. “Death is my gain” reads the quote in Latin below the skulls.
St. Olave’s is on Hart Street just past the Walrus and the Carpenter, past modern buildings of glass and stone. Past the Custom House and All Hallows by the Tower, the oldest church in the City of London. near the Fenchurch Street railway station.
Famed diarist Samuel Pepys is buried in the churchyard. Mother Goose too. And Mary Ramsey, the woman believed to have brought the plague to London. It’s one of only a few medieval City churches that escaped the Great Fire of London. Saint Olave’s survived the Great Fire of London with the help of Sir William Penn, father of William Penn who founded Pennsylvania. Penn ordered men in the naval yards to blow up the houses surrounding the church to create a fire break.
St. Olave’s was spared the Great Fire but gutted during the Blitz.
St. Olave’s was the favorite church of Charles Dickens. Dickens loved it because he loved this lychgate, loved how it attracted as it repulsed, his reaction visceral. His affectionate name for the church was St. Ghastly Grim. One might run from St. Bloodsucking Flesheater but not from St. Ghastly Grim.
St. Ghastly Grim. With a name like that, it’s impossible to fear it.
Still, as Dickens once wrote, the passing trains shrieked at it. I used to think that the shrieks fled the rails and passed through the lychgate, that they belonged at St. Olave’s, that they holed up there and hid. Poor misunderstood shrieks, lonely inhabitants of dear St. Ghastly Grim.