We're standing in a dark tunnel a little way underground, beneath what was once a major Roman junction and near the source of a lost river, listening to a bearded vicar tell slightly tall (but nevertheless gripping) tales about ghostly apparitions, the Necromancer, and the fate of commoners in medieval times. R.E. was never this much fun at school.
As part of the Illumini festival, the Rev'd Paul Turp is taking small groups of visitors on guided tours of the crypt of St Leonard's Church, nowadays usually known as Shoreditch Church. Though the current Palladian design was erected in the 18th century, the church dates at least as far back as the 12th century, and claims to be the oldest continuously used site of Christian worship in England, on account of the newly-baptised Roman soldiers setting up camp here. It also has a wonderfully claustrophobic crypt, which is what we explored for the best part of two hours on a Friday morning. The loquacious vicar knows full well that historical musings, slightly tall tales and phantasmagorical utterings are just the kind of thing that people want to hear when nosing around a crypt, and he doesn't disappoint.
Being situated near to London's first purpose-built theatre, which was built by James Burbage in nearby New Inn Yard in 1576, the crypt is said to house the remains of many of the acting fraternity of that time, and is the final resting place of many of the Burbage family, including James' son Richard, the first person to play, among other roles, Macbeth, Hamlet, and Romeo. Also of particular interest is a vault that the vicar discovered some years ago, and, as he tells it, almost caused him a mischief: he was exploring a tunnel when the ground beneath his feet began to give way. He soon discovered the splintered remnants (and, presumably, the disgorged contents) of tens of coffins, illegally sequestered there, and beneath that, what archaeologists believe to be the 12th century floor of the original church. The church hopes to turn this into a visitor attraction at some point in the future.