This little church on an island in The Strand has much to offer the visitor. It’s an architectural gem in its own right but, as the Central Church of the RAF, it houses the national Books of Remembrance and is a focus of worship for all RAF servicemen. A haven of peace in the busyness of central London, it is the perfect place for the Slow Traveller to take some time out.
Outside the church stand two statues of the RAF’s wartime leaders – Hugh Dowding and Arthur “Bomber” Harris. The one of Harris was controversial due to his order for the bombing of Dresden, Hamburg and other German cities, which led to staggeringly high losses of life in appalling circumstances. No statue was originally erected for him and when, eventually, Faith Winter was commissioned to design it and it was unveiled by the Queen Mother in 1992, there were huge protests - the statue and plinth were sprayed with red paint and the word “Shame”. It remains a focus for debate, with one side seeing Harris’s orders as a war crime, and others arguing that it was a legitimate response to the Total War initiated by the Nazis and that the war would have lasted longer and with greater loss of life without his actions.
The church probably acquired its unusual name in the 9th century when Danish settlers with English wives were allowed to live in the area, taking over a small church dedicated to St Clement, Bishop of Rome at the end of the 1st century. The church became known as “St-Clement-of the-Danes”, soon abbreviated to St Clement Danes.
Famous parishioners include John Donne in the 16th century and Dr. Samuel Johnson in the 18th century. William Webb Ellis, credited with inventing Rugby Football in 1823 was Rector here from 1843 – 1855.
The church building survived with various alterations including by Sir Christopher Wren in the 17th century and the steeple in elegant diminishing stages added by his pupil, James Gibbs, in the early 18th century. However, in 1941 the church received a direct hit from an incendiary bomb during the Blitz. Within minutes the church was ablaze as the bell tower and Gothic steeple acted as a funnel for the flames and the building was totally devastated. Only the outer walls and bell tower remained. It’s a particularly sad story as the Rector, William Pennington-Bickford, died some days later from a broken heart, and his wife, Louie, took her own life a short while later, jumping from an attic window. The church remained boarded up and abandoned for a further 15 years.
After the war the RAF were looking for a central London church so it was agreed that, if the RAF could raise the funds and rebuild the church to Wren’s original designs, the church could be dedicated and used in perpetuity as a place of worship and a national Memorial of Remembrance. A huge fundraising campaign followed, the church was rebuilt, and Queen Elizabeth attended the reconsecration in 1958.
The interior is light and spacious following Wren’s original design, with a barrel-vaulted roof and tall semi-circular arched windows, featuring galleries along both sides supported by Corinthian columns. Inlaid into the floor of the church in are over 1000 unit badges made of Welsh slate that have made up the RAF over the years. Standards of past RAF squadrons adorn the walls and there are memorials to individuals and to groups. A memorial to the Polish Air Force is in the North aisle. There are ten Memorial Cabinets with the names of RAF personnel who have died in service as well as a Memorial Book containing 16,000 names of US airmen who died while based in the UK. Happily, the pulpit ornately carved by Grinling Gibbons in the late 17th century was stored for safe keeping in St Paul’s during the Blitz and so was able to be repositioned here intact in 1958.
There is a great sense of how air force communities came together in comradeship and remembrance after the Second World War. Much of the church furniture has been gifted – the lectern by the Royal Australian Air Force, the altar from the Dutch embassy, the font in the crypt by the Royal Norwegian Air Force, the Paschal Candle by the Royal Belgian Air Force. The magnificent organ was donated by the Unites States Air Force.
The little crypt is light and airy and is used for services as well as housing some of the artefacts and relics from its extensive history. It was used as a burial place for nearly 300 years until 1853. In 1956 all of the bones were cremated and the ashes interred under the South Stairs, with the coffin plates from the 18th and 19th centuries put up on the walls.
Standing inside or near to St Clement Danes on the hour is certain to bring a smile as the “bells of St Clement’s” ring out Oranges and Lemons. The origins of the rhyme are obscure but, no matter, to hear the bells is a charming moment. According to a tradition established in 1920, every March the children of St Clement Danes Primary School attend a short service and afterwards each one is presented with an orange and a lemon.
The Strand is a particularly boisterous and busy part of central London – a brief excursion into the RAF church is a very peaceful and rewarding experience.
Visiting St Clement Danes
Address: Central Church of the Royal Air Force, Strand, London WC2R 1DH
Nearest tube: Covent Garden