Can You Solve The Mystery In This Bermondsey Churchyard?

By M@ Last edited 10 months ago

Last Updated 08 August 2023

Can You Solve The Mystery In This Bermondsey Churchyard?
Various flagstones with different styles of writing in different orientations
A pavement of puzzlement.

St John's churchyard, just around the corner from London Bridge station, is one big puzzle. Like any former churchyard, it still has the odd gravestone here and there. But it also contains curious engravings at every entrance point — tablets that look a little like memorials, but clearly aren't. Like this one.

A flagstone with letters and words all a jumble. A blue shoe can be seen at bottom

As I explored the churchyard further, I soon encountered other mysterious engravings, and in differing stones and typefaces.

A stone tablet with gothic script, very wet from rain

These isolated tablets are peculiar in their own right, but then I found the motherlode. What might justifiably be described as London's most puzzling patio can be found to the south of the church. Numerous carved stones are positioned at different angles, and interlaced with silver lettering. What can it betokeneth? Does Dan Brown know about this?

Lots of pavement stones at different angles, interspersed with turf

Clearly, someone's playing games. And we're hooked. A central information panel reveals that the different sections form a "public artwork by artist Gary Breeze... The work constitutes several historical passages, in a variety of fonts, inlaid in concrete throughout the park. When pieced together, it provides an interesting puzzle of the park’s history, encouraging visitors to explore the whole park."

It certainly does.

Three stone tablets with messages about local history
I managed to piece together a few fragments

A brief scout around revealed garbled revelations about wartime destruction, noisome industries, roaring fires and other historical tidbits. But, caught in a downpour, I didn't have chance to fully photograph and unpick the conundrum. Perhaps you'd like to give it a go? Or, take the kids along armed with a notepad and pen, and see if you can piece together this magnificent lithic jigsaw.

The church itself, St John's Horsleydown, is of further interest. It was badly damaged in the Blitz and later pulled down (as some of the stone fragments appear to allude). But its base remains in place. A 1970s brown-brick building, the City Mission, rises improbably from this centuries-old plinth. You can see that the architect has been "informed" (as architects say) by the Hawksmoor original, but it's still quite a contrast.

All this oddness is fitting given that the original church was partly designed by Nicholas Hawksmoor. The great architect is often associated with the arcane and esoteric. Many writers (perhaps too many writers) — among them Iain Sinclair, Peter Ackroyd and Alan Moore — have found hidden patterns in the layout and location of his churches. Hawksmoor would undoubtedly approve of the multilayered jigsaw now strewn around the churchyard.

St John's churchyard is a 5-minute walk east from London Bridge station, just off Tooley Street.