Blogger Eleanor Marriott Visits Nordic London!

I was recently invited to attend a Sunday church service and I jumped at the chance! Not, I confess, because I’d had a spiritual reawakening. I was simply curious to visit this place of worship in one of my favourite areas of London. You see the church was Norwegian and the area was Rotherhithe, which from now on will be London’s ‘Little Scandinavia’ to me.

Several years ago I lived in this historic south London Thameside area and became very fond of the ancient pubs (including the Mayflower where the Pilgrim Fathers originally set sail from – sorry Plymouth but they actually started their journey from here), cobbled alleyways and general Dickensian feel. I traversed Brunel’s incredible engineering feat in the form of a tunnel under the Thames (which incidentally now hosts atmospheric underground concerts, as well as wonderful garden parties during the summer) and I regularly cycled or walked along by the river.

But I was blissfully ignorant of the area’s Scandinavian connection, other than a vague awareness of there being a Swedish Seaman’s Mission somewhere in the vicinity. Sadly the historic Mission closed before I was able to visit it, but it turns out that it wasn’t the only Nordic place of worship in the area, as the Norwegian Church and Seaman’s Mission (also known as St. Olave’s Church) is still conducting services, as is the Finnish church.

As Rotherhithe’s major port status has crumbled since Rotterdam stole its thunder, I would be forgiven for assuming that there isn’t much call for a Norweigan Seaman’s Mission anymore, so I thought I had better pay the place a visit sooner rather than later. Then I received an invitation by the wonderful organisation SharedCity (, which helps Londonders to visit the world without leaving town through their cultural tours, to join them at a service. It was the last impetus I needed to do something sacred with my Sunday for a change.

On the morning that I visited, the St Olave’s church service was being recorded for Norwegian radio, so it was a strict phones off policy (which meant no discreet photos of the service to share). But I can report that it was a beautiful hour-long affair, and that not being able to understand a word being said didn’t diminish my enjoyment of it. In fact familiar hymns such as Amazing Grace sounded angelic when sung by the choir in Norwegian, and when a celloist and opera singer ‘entertained’ us from the gallery during the blessing I was in celestial heaven.

As if that wasn’t enough, the after-service refreshments weren’t confined to mere tea and biscuits. Instead, you could indulge in a full-on Sunday lunch of Scandinavian meatballs with all the trimmings, including generous dollops of lingonberry sauce, followed by delicious cakes. This generous and delicious lunch was included as part of the SharedCity tour and was followed by a friendly talk exclusively for its participants, by the priest, who incidentally looked like he had stepped out of the Norwegian band Aha! (and anyone who remembers them will know that that is definitely a good thing!) He explained how the Mission came about and how it still thrives. They basically have an open door policy and are so so much more than just a place to worship. In fact the building was deliberately constructed back in 1927 to include a relaxation area to read or eat in. This was in order to attract the visiting seamen from Scandinavia there instead of the many bars and brothels.

After the beautiful service, a delicious lunch and an interesting talk I felt well set for the week ahead. But wait, there was more! A jazz band would now entertain us. Apparently non-sacramental afternoon entertainment is the norm. I was beginning to like St. Olave’s more and more with every passing minute. In fact I would have been happy just to visit the beautiful historic building for the architectural enjoyment alone but I came away having felt part of the Norwegian community for a few hours and I felt very blessed as a result. I wasn’t sure that their Finnish neighbours would be able to top that.

Actually the Finnish church was full of surprises too. Admittedly it was a more modern building, though still attractive in its own minimalist, tasteful, Scandinavian way. But the trick up its sleeve was that it had its very own sauna! Yes, that’s right! And anyone can come and use it; there is just one rule – clothes are not allowed. (Well actually there is another rule – you can only use it alone or with other members of the same sex  -but still, it’s not often that church-goers are asked to politely requested to strip).

Of course the sauna is not compulsory, but it is a very popular feature. This is because apparently every home in Finland has one, so to come and live in England and not have access to a sauna is a bit like being told that you lovely new home is missing a bathroom. I was told, during the interesting talk for SharedCity visitors, that it is very much the norm for the Fins to partake in a sauna at the end of the day as a kind of demarcation between work time and relaxation. A bit like the English tradition of going down the pub I guess, but a bit healthier.

Saunas aside, the Finnish church is also home to a very well-stocked Scandinavian food store and a pleasant cafe, with indoor and outdoor seating. I was impressed enough by this, so the unexpected concert by the Swedish children’s choir was an unnecessary addition. But it was lovely and I certainly left feeling very elated.

In fact all in all I spent a very pleasant few hours in an oft overlooked area of London. So, Ikea eat your heart out – this is my Sunday Scandinavian pastime from now on!

This post was originally posted by Eleanor Marriott on The Enchanted Eye blog.

Odd & Not So Odd Questions

Most people we know think they are hugely cosmopolitan, just because they are here in London, one of the most diverse cities in the world.  

But through SharedCity we've realised everyone - from our cofounders and guides, to the people who come on our tours, to our family and friends - has HUGE gaps where it comes to each other's cultures.

There are so many unspoken misunderstandings and misconceptions about the different cultures we share this wonderful city with.

Which is why we offer our tours.  Our guides are happy to clear up any confusion and answer any of your questions politely.  How can we learn without asking questions?

To get the ball rolling, here are some cross cultural questions that come up again and again on our tours.

(By the way, the answer to all these are 'NO'!)

Don't Islamic women get too hot in a headscarf? 

Will I get a good coffee if I order a 'latte' in an Italian restaurant?

Oh you're Muslim, so you must be from Pakistan, right? 

So you're Jewish you must speak Hebrew, right?

[To black lady with obvious wig] Where did you get your haircut?

Isn't eating in an Indian restaurant the same as eating in India?

There are other strange comments that people make: we've heard it asked whether Orthodox Jews have sex through a sheet and whether Muslim women sleep in their headscarves.  Black women get tired of so much hair-related commentary but point out that there are heaps of politics tied up to Afro hair, so if you ask a question about it expect either a huff or a long drawn out answer.

Some people steer away from asking questions as they feel rude or stupid or that you 'should' know the answer.  But honestly all the SharedCity guides would prefer you to ask anything.  Be direct.  Be rude.  We think it's far ruder not to!



Why is London so multicultural?

Ok, so that's a really big question and apologies for the brevity of the answer here.  The answer really lies in the dusty old subjects of politics and history, going back a long way.

London was actually founded by 'immigrant' Romans who invaded and set up a settlement on the banks of the river.  There wasn't much here before they arrived.  You can see what the Romans built at the Museum of London if you are interested.

And then the city gently expanded for several centuries, reaching around a million inhabitants in 

People have come to live in London for various reasons over the years, and most them are as relevant today as ever.  The one reason for immigration that seems to have dropped off the relevancy list is political or territorial expansion to take over London. The last people who tried this were the Romans and the Vikings. 

Other factors that are still just as relevant today are the need to look for better opportunities (the never ceasing search for safety, food, work, throughout history).  This kind of immigration has brought people here from all over the world for centuries. Some for mild economic betterment, some fleeing for their lives.  

The combination of Industrialisation and a growing British Empire meant that London people from all over the world were trading in London by the 1800s and the population grew rapidly.  

The Port of London was the first place where trading ships disembarked and many different communities have left their mark here.  There's still a strong Vietnamese community here, a Norwegian church and a Finnish Church.  London's very first Chinatown was in the Port of London before it migrated to the West End in the 1970s.

The narrow streets of the East End has attracted migrants since the sixteenth century.  The word 'refugee' was first coined to describe the French Huguenots leaving oppression in France to seek 'refuge' in London.  

Following the Huguenots came waves of Jews escaping pogroms in Spain and centuries later Russia.  Irish people and Italians escaping the hardships of poverty settled in the East End too and it was a squalid rough tough neighbourhood full of people trying to better themselves.

Some of the poor newcomers did well and by the end of the nineteenth century had escaped the slums of the East End and moved to brand new London suburbs where Victorian builders built swathes of brick terraced houses for the urban working class.

The world wars reduced population in London but from the 1950s there was an upward trajectory again as people from around the Commonwealth lands were invited to come to rebuild post war Britain.  Many people from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and the Caribbean took up the invitation in the 1960s and settled in tight communities across London, far from home.

Instability across much of the world has meant a steady trickle of people continue to choose to migrate to London as London has a reputation of being economically strong city in comparison. Over the last thirty years wars in Bosnia, Serbia, Africa and the Middle East continue to result in people choosing to settle in London. London has earned a reputation as a world financial centre and as such attracted international investors and financiers who have created industry around wealth and financial services.

Membership of the European Union and free trade movement has meant that the flow of people has never been more intense. Over the past twenty years, Polish has risen to become London's second language as Polish migrants, along with other fellow European nationals have settled here.

London has proved time and time again it is a magnificently tolerant city where people of different cultures and religions can rub along together.  Immigration is nothing new and we should always remember this.