St Martin-in-the-Fields: Oasis for the Soul

Sometimes, things go wrong in life. You lose people you love; someone close to you becomes ill – or you do; things don’t work out at work, and so on. Add a couple of small things, like your kitchen tap developing a persistent drip, or realizing that you still haven’t made that difficult phone call, and, suddenly, you are in a bad place.

This is when you need a personal oasis; a place that’s safe and quiet and not too far away; somewhere you can just be.

Moroccan rose bath oil and scented candle

If you’re a gardener, an hour or so in the potting-shed quietly pricking out seedlings can do wonders for the soul. An elderly friend goes fishing. He sits and watches the river, the kingfishers, and an occasional rise, and gives himself the space he needs. And some of us go down the deep bath, Moroccan rose bath oil and scented candle route.

St Martin-in-the-Fields on the north-east side of Trafalgar Square. The National Gallery is to the left.

I discovered a special oasis quite by chance a few years ago. It’s the Dick Sheppard chapel, built in 2008 in the crypt of St Martin-in-the-Fields. Sheppard (1880-1937), who was vicar there from 1914 -1926, brought new life to the church by establishing an accessible social centre for all in need, from war-weary soldiers in World War I, to the homeless today.

The chapel window along the north wall

The chapel is a place of peace; I don’t know how it does it, but, sit there quietly for a while, and serenity seeps into you. It is built under a pavement area next to the church. You take the lift down to basement level, and then walk down some stairs. In spite of the depth, the room is full of light, partly from the north wall which is entirely glass; the lower section has opaque class which protects your privacy. It reminds me of a Japanese screen. The top section has clear glass, through which you can see the lift outside, which allows you to orientate yourself.

The chapel window and the west wall. Note the unpretentious wooden benches.

The room is painted white with long grey stone pavers on the floor. The hanging lights have gently bell-shaped white opaque glass bulbs. The effect is extraordinarily soothing. There is also a paving-stone sized sky-light in the ceiling.

The tapestry on the east wall. Note the skylight, top right.

When I first saw the tapestry, I thought it was a painting and I didn’t much like it. However, when I examined it closely, I discovered that it was a tapestry made up of thousands of tiny stitches. I sat down and looked at it. And the more I studied it, the more I saw.

Another view of the tapestry and the west wall. Notice the three wooden statues in the corner.

I decided that it was like a mandala –a sort of aid to meditation. Later, when I went into St Martin’s church itself, I asked the chaplain about it. All she knew was that it was there on loan, and had been so for some time. In my view, the tapestry contributes to the room’s peaceful atmosphere and deserves a name, and its creator(s) deserve recognition.

Three Statues: an unknown man, Mary holding Jesus, and Joseph

I then looked at the statues properly. They are made of jacaranda wood by the sculptor, John Chikerema, and come from Zimbabwe. A brochure in the chapel says: They are some of the finest expressions of what indigenous African artists can bring to the West, and immediately compelling in their size and simplicity. Joseph and Mary are about two thirds life-sized, and the unknown man rather smaller. But they all have a stillness about them which contributes to their power.

The unknown man is reading a book and, although he has looked up, it is not us he sees; his mind is still on his book. Mary’s head is slightly inclined as she looks down at her sleeping baby. Joseph holds a hammer and saw, tools of his trade; he, too, is looking down. Both Mary and Joseph’s feet are firmly on the ground, and none of them have haloes.

Small slate plaque to Vera Brittain, writer, feminist and peacemaker

What I liked about the chapel, is that it doesn’t shriek ‘Religion!’ at you. The visitor isn’t being asked to repent, worship, or do anything other than just be. All it does is invite you to take what it has to offer – that is, space and peace.

St Martin’s Crypt café, a useful place to know about if you are visiting London.

After my visit, I had a cup of coffee in St Martin’s crypt café before going home, feeling a lot less frazzled.

Elizabeth Hawksley


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8 thoughts on “St Martin-in-the-Fields: Oasis for the Soul”

    1. Thank you, Elizabeth. I have, more or less, recovered the tone of my mind – as the Victorians would have said. And the amazing thing is that, having sat quietly in the chapel and studied the tapestry, the statues and the room itself for quite some time, I later discovered that I’ve internalized it. I can summon it up at will – which I really wasn’t expecting.

  1. What a lovely post – thank you so much for this. I almost feel as though I too was sitting there contemplating the tapestry, looking at the figures, and breathing air which had been steeped in decades of prayer and peace and calm.
    And I love it that Vera Brittain is remembered here.

    1. I’m so pleased you liked this, Prem. But, I’m not sure about the decades of prayer etc.; the chapel was only built in 2008! Still, I know what you mean. The original church was first mentioned in 1222 – so I guess that’s over 800 hundred years of prayer and contemplation next door to the present chapel.

      I agree about the plaque to Vera Brittain. I still cry every time I read ‘Testament of Youth’ when I get to the bit where she loses her brother, her fiancé and a close friend in the horrors of World War I.

    1. Thank you for your comment, Jan. I suspect a lot of people find the chapel almost accidentally – I, too, found it after having got lost somewhere in the crypt. I must add serendipity to its qualities, I think!

    1. Thank you for dropping by, Sophie. I think you’d like it. It’s amazing to find such a restorative space bang in the middle of London with all the busyness and bustle of Trafalgar Square outside!

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