If the frantic pace of London tires you out, find a moment's peace in one of the city's exquisite churches, writes Sophie Campbell.

Churches are one of London's secret joys: often so familiar that we walk past them without a second glance, but each with its own story, architecture and role. A church is a rare thing in 21st-century London, a non-commercial public space, somewhere you can sit and think for a moment. So if you're planning a shopping foray to Oxford St or Covent Garden, Canary Wharf, Spitalfields Market or King's Rd, take a break from the scrum to explore one of these four historic churches.

ST BARTHOLOMEW-THE-GREAT — SMITHFIELD

Underground Barbican or Farringdon. Closest shopping at Liverpool St and Spitalfields Market, the small shops of Clerkenwell or, four stops away (via King's Cross), Oxford Circus.

This jumble of architecture and history beside Smithfield market has movie-star status (Four Weddings and a Funeral, Shakespeare in Love ) and claims to be London's oldest parish church.

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It started as an Augustinian priory, founded in 1123 by Rahere, the jester or chief minstrel to Henry I, whose shrine-tomb is by the altar.

The Tudor gatehouse and raised graveyard were once part of a huge nave destroyed during the Dissolution. The flint-and-stone checked exterior is a Victorian restoration.

Inside fine Gothic arches give way to Norman columns around the sanctuary. Start at the Lady Chapel at the east end, the first part to be built (after the Reformation it was used as a print works and lace factory, for more than 300 years), and walk west; the style changes from massive, round-arched Norman to pointy, slender Early English.

Don't miss: The 1405 font; Inigo Jones and William Hogarth were baptised here, the latter in this font.

The oriel window overlooking the altar with Prior Bolton's rebus (visual pun) of a bolt piercing a barrel, or tunne — "Bolt-ton".

The "weeping tomb" of Edward Cooke — caused by a chemical in the stone condensing air into water — a miracle cured by modern heating.

ST STEPHEN WALBROOK

Underground Bank. Closest shopping at Royal Exchange or One New Change shopping centres, or via the DLR at Canary Wharf.

If ever there was a perfect expression of God and Mammon it is this tiny jewel of a church, sitting at the physical and metaphorical heart of the City of London. Bloomberg opposite has restored the Roman temple of Mithras to near its original position: the first church was probably built over it in Saxon times and the second medieval version was destroyed in the Great Fire of London.

Christopher Wren built today's church in 1762, the year he created his great model of St Paul's, and its dome is widely considered to be a visual dress rehearsal. The airy dome is supported by an octagon that is in turn supported by a square. The creamy interior, dark oak panelling and clear glass convey a lovely calm.

Don't miss: The Bakelite phone used by Chad Varah, who founded The Samaritans here.

The controversial Henry Moore altar made of Travertine marble.

Memorials to Stuart de Courcy Laffan, who helped De Coubertin found the modern Olympics, Dr Nathaniel Hodges — the only doctor to stay with his victims during the plague of 1665 — and John Dunstable, the father of polyphonic harmony in English music.

Events: Classical sung Eucharist every Thursday at 12.45pm.
Lunchtime concerts on Tuesdays (free).

St Bartholomew-the-Great is a jumble of architecture and history. Photo / Creative Commons License
St Bartholomew-the-Great is a jumble of architecture and history. Photo / Creative Commons License

ST PAUL'S — COVENT GARDEN

Underground Covent Garden or Leicester Square. Closest shopping at Covent Garden, Seven Dials or Soho.

For a building with five entrances — what else would you expect from an actors' church?

St Paul's has a charming air of secrecy. This is partly because when Inigo Jones built it in 1633 the plot was west of the Earl of Bedford's new piazza. Jones planned a fine east front to be seen from the square and a west-end altar — opposite to the conventional configuration — and the Bishop of London objected. Result? An east door that goes nowhere (under the portico made famous by My Fair Lady) and a gabled brick west front that often goes unseen.

When the church burnt down in 1795 it was rebuilt to the original plan and the interior updated. It is full of energy, with an in-house theatre company, dressing rooms in the organ loft and hundreds of theatrical memorial plaques. Don't miss: The 18th-century font with a silver inner bowl donated by Dame Judi Dench.

Ellen Terry's ashes in a silver casket behind a black grille near the altar.

Early Punch and Judy memorials.

Wooden pillars saved from Jones' church, which are hollow, and fake candlesticks. "It's all theatre, sweetie," jokes the vicar.

Events: Twenty-four carol services in the run-up to Christmas.

THE GUARDS' CHAPEL

Underground St James's Park; walk south to Victoria St or north across the park to St James's St and Piccadilly.

Walk past this still, white bunker of a building and, through the grille-like east end, you will glimpse a stone apse, the only part of the original chapel to survive a 1944 flying bomb that hit during a service, killing 121 worshippers. This building opened in 1963 and its clean lines make a perfect setting for the colours of the five regiments of Foot Guards and the tasselled standards of the two regiments of Household Cavalry.

The names of the bomb victims are on the west front. A memorial plaque covers the rubble of the 1838 chapel (the architect George Street added the apse in 1877), and another commemorates the 1982 Hyde Park bombing of men and horses by the IRA.

Don't miss: The oldest standards, belonging to the Scots Guards, dating from 1770.
George Street's late-Victorian apse.

The organ, with its separate trumpets, which came from Glyndebourne.

Events: 11am Sunday service with chapel choir and Household Division band.

St Bartholomew-the-Great is a jumble of architecture and history. Photo / Getty Images
St Bartholomew-the-Great is a jumble of architecture and history. Photo / Getty Images

CHECKLIST

Getting there

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