Monday, 18 February 2013

London: City west

Apothecaries' Hall

It is a long-standing policy to try to tag a walk on to any visit anywhere, but today was the first time I have added a walk to a business lunch on London. I have been feeling a bit deprived of walking opportunities lately.

I selected a walk from London's hidden walks vol 1 which started near to where I was lunching - in fact at Blackfriars. You leave the tube station and immediately descend into a warren of small streets, many of whose names reflect long-gone uses. The whole area takes it name from the large Dominican (Black Friars) monastery that was here in the middle ages. The first sight was Apothecaries Hall, whose courtyard entrance you could easily pass by. It dates from 1673 and was built on the site of an earlier hall which destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666. The Great Fire is a ghostly presence throughout this walk.

A few more winding street brought me to Wardrobe Place, a charming quiet square built on the site of the King's Wardrobe, a house first used by Edward III to store royal robes. It too was a casualty of the Great Fire.

From here it was a short walk past Wren's Old Deanery to the magnificence of St Paul's.

Nearby, at the entrance to Paternoster Square, stands Temple Bar, a city gateway also built by Wren which once stood in Fleet St at the point where it met the Strand (in the city of Westminster).

It was decided to demolish it in 1878 to ease traffic congestion and the brewer Henry Meux bought the stones and re-erected the arch as a gateway at his house, Theobalds Park. It was much later bought by the Temple Bar Trust from the Meux Trust and re-erected in its current location as part of the redevelopment of the square. It suits its new home very well.

Not far away is the second Livery Company Hall of the walk - Stationers Hall, another post-Great Fire building. I had interesting glimpses of stained glass in the windows on the opposite side. Although the door was open I couldn't however manage even a small peek at it because a private fashion event was about to start.

Further along Warwick Lane you come to another Livery Company Hall - this time that of the Cutlers. I have walked past this wonderful building many times, but never investigated its history. The colour and the use of terracotta strongly suggest a building of about 1880 and in fact it dates from 1887. According to the Company's website, the architect was the Company's Surveyor, T. Tayler Smith. It replaced an earlier Hall which had been compulsorily purchased by a railway company - that Hall had replaced one destroyed, inevitably, in the Great Fire.

In Newgate St is the tower of Christ Church Newgate, a Wren church replacing one destroyed in the Great Fire. This in turn was gutted during the blitz and not rebuilt.

Past the desolate Old Bailey and the large church of St Sepulchre without Newgate, to turn into Giltspur St. On the left is the Watch House of 1791, rebuilt in 1962 after war damage. But who was watching what? It seems that the watchman was guarding the nearby cemetery to prevent robbers stealing new corpses for medical research.

The next thing of note is Cock Lane. London street names are always redolent of history, so perhaps there was once a poultry market here? No, in the middle ages it was the only street licensed for prostitutes. I suppose it could have been worse.

Further along Giltspur St is the celebrated, but rather kitsch, fat golden cherub in a niche on Pie Corner. He marks the western limit of the Great Fire. Some people believed that because the Fire started in Pudding Lane and finished in Pie Corner it was God's punishment for gluttony.

Passing the main buildings of St Bartholomew's Hospital on the right, you enter West Smithfield an unevenly shaped square adjacent to the meat market. The handsome 1702 gatehouse of the hospital is on the corner.

Ahead is an even more intriguing structure, with when I first saw it, a crowd of people being given a guided tour. It is the 13th century gate of the church of St Bartholomew the Great, with a house of 1595 built on top.

The exterior of the church presents an interesting hotch potch of styles, but once entering you understand that it is fundamentally a Norman abbey church, whose nave was destroyed in the Dissolution of the Monasteries, and whose large chancel effectively became the nave of a new smaller church.

Inside it is simply magnificent. For the umpteenth time I regret the damage done to English architecture by Henry VIII. Apparently it was also used in Four weddings and a funeral and I was told by the extremely helpful custodian that it was pleasingly bare today because a film crew from Disney was expected. Much as I love films, I can't bring myself to feel any interest in this.

An interesting feature is that two of the arches of the tower are romanesque, while the other two are gothic, marking it out as transitional between the two styles. High up on one of the corners you can just make out - if it is pointed out to you - a cat carved by the mason for good luck.

Now a brief detour along Cloth Fair where John Betjeman lived and which also boasts, at number 41,  a early 17th century merchant's house which survived the Great Fire. From here you return to West  Smithfield and walk down Little Britain, now a surprising name for a street. Thence to Gresham St, well known to me as I have worked for a client here for about the last 15 years. Much of what the guide highlights in this area is fragments of open space where there were once churches destroyed in the Great Fire, the blitz, or both. I was surprised however  to find the - undistinguished - remains of a Roman fort in Noble St.

I turned left into Wood St when another orphaned church tower stands in the middle of the street. This is yet another Wren church, St Alban, but unusually in a gothic style. It too did not fully survive the blitz. Rather wonderfully, it is now a private house.

The route now leads through the Barbican, past St Giles Cripplegate, founded around 1100, but mainly dating from the mid-16th century. The view from the walkway over the lake shows that this once brash 1960s development has mellowed into a pleasing urban environment.

Now north along Silk St and right into Dufferin St past the substantial Peabody Trust estate. This too has mellowed from its austere late Victorian origins.

At the end you go through Bunhill Fields cemetery to reach John Wesley's chapel and home in City Road. It dates from 1778 and was designed by George Dance the Younger. A statue of the great man stands to left of the forecourt.

The route now leads down City Road past Armoury House, the headquarters of the Honorable Artillery Company, the oldest surviving regiment in the British Army, and the second most senior in the Territorial Army. The building itself looks like a pastiche of a fortified castle and dates, rather surprisingly, from 1735.

This section of the walk has been rather a slog and the long norther detour has not really justified itself. Eventually, I was back in Gresham St in front of the Guildhall, home of the City of London Corporation. It is a wonderful building, built between 1411 and 1440.

By now it was cold and getting dark. I decided I had had enough and forwent the last smallish section of the walk. Maybe another time.

Conditions: bright but cold. 

Distance: about three miles.

Rating: four stars. Some real gems, but could have been a bit shorter. The Great Fire - and to a lesser extent the blitz - still loom large.

From: London's hidden walks vol 1 by Stephen Millar (Metro Publications).

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