Summer in London

Summer in London is the season of tourists…crowds and crowds of them on boats along the Thames, or packing out the shops in Oxford Street, or taking photographs on Westminster Bridge staring at Big Ben, or selfies with the Beefeaters at the Tower of London.

And I’ve become a sort of tour guide for some groups. It’s partly thanks to EWTN: my series on London’s Catholic history got various priests contacting me when bringing groups on pilgrimage: “Might you be prepared to show us some of the places…?” So this week I walked a group of Spanish students along the Thames, starting at the statue of Boadecia at Westminster, and finishing at the Tower, taking in a great sweep of history (Romans, Saxons, Normans, Middle Ages, Tudors…) along the way, and next week there’s a big group from the USA keen to learn about the English saints…

Sometimes there is a bonus. A quick look inside St Paul’s Cathedral turned out to be a special moment as the organ and choir swept us up into glorious music, and we were also able to pray before a beautiful candlelit icon of Our Lady. A hot afternoon ended with thirst quenched with delicious beer served in old-fashioned pottery mugs at Tower Bridge. Sometimes a special group with its own particularly friendly spirit makes an evening memorable – as with Fr Doug and his group from St Thomas More parish in the USA, who invited me to supper along with Fr Christopher Pearson from the London Bridge parish of Precious Blood, which is in the care of the Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham. They wanted to know about the Ordinariate, about London’s Catholic past, about the current day-to-day life of the Church in Britain – and we all enjoyed a fish-and-chip supper with great conviviality.

Sometimes Americans are seeking a Britain that no longer exists – it’s as if they want to hear about a country that hasn’t got same-sex marriage, groups of growing Islamic ferocity, ugly skyscrapers forcing searing heat on to noisy streets, and the pressure of sinister political-correctness. But in modern Britain all those things are flourishing – we aren’t the country shown in black-and-white films of the 1950s. Britain shares with America all the ghastly problems that beset the West generally – glorious Royal pageantry and centuries of history do not provide a bulwark against the tide forcing rubbish at us via so many outlets of the media, so many well-funded pressure groups.

A recent big event in London was the “Gay Pride” march, drawing large crowds. Depressing. Drawing much smaller crowds, but hearteningly flourishing, are the various Corpus Christi processions that now mark the London summer. Cardinal Vincent Nichols, Archbishop of Westminster, led the big one that started at the famous Farm street Jesuit church, and went through the streets of the West End to St James Church in Spanish Place, with some 2,000 people walking in prayer and song along with the Blessed Sacrament – Knights of Malta, Knights of the Holy Sepulchre, small girls in white dresses throwing flowers, all the trimmings. And other processions included the annual one organised by St Patrick’s, Soho, with Father Alexander Sherbrook taking the Blessed Sacrament beneath its great canopy, accompanied by incense and candles and choir through the crowded streets and walkways of Soho with a large and mostly young crowd surging together and singing splendid hymns. This procession concluded, as it always does, with a magnificent open-air Benediction in the churchyard of St Giles-in-the-Fields…an unforgettable summer evening. Another procession was at The Borough, London Bridge, on a Sunday morning with the Ordinariate parish of the Most Precious Blood – a real local procession with Sunday School children scattering flowers, volunteer marshals steering us through the High Street, and trains rattling overhead as we made our way underneath the railway arch…

London in the summer can mean horrible heat, crowds, overpriced drinks, trains that feel like steamy ovens. It can also mean history, pageantry, friendliness, and signs of hope.