Martin lights up

It gets dark and chilly on Upper Street not long after four o'clock these days. But one man is out in all weathers, ensuring that the lights keep burning. That's right, burning. St Mary's is one of a handful of London churches that boast gas lamps.

Martin works for British Gas and helps to keep the capital's 1500 gas lamps in good order. I noticed him this afternoon, polishing the glass and changing the mantles, so took the chance to thank him for his work on behalf of Islington and to ask about what he does.

He explained that these days the lamps need little regular attention, the last lamplighters stopped work about twenty five years ago. "The igniters are electric now, battery powered and activated with a clock and a light sensor," he told me. Apparently the mantles themselves are made in Malta, there being little demand in the UK.

Martin's work takes him mostly to the palaces and royal parks, where the lamps are set to go out at night, "so that the birds get a good night's sleep". Martin was glad that we appreciate his craft. "There aren't many churches with gas lamps," he said, "you're in a select group, along with Westminster Abbey."

We think our gas lamps were installed over a hundred years ago, when the portico of St Mary's was built. The thousands of people who walk past them every week probably have little idea that it's gas that lightens their darkness.