Category Archives: London Stories

I worked in London for 8 years, and these are some of my explorations of the City.

21Mar/15

Portobello Road

This isn’t strictly speaking Holborn, either – rather like Camden Lock – but if you take a Central Line Tube to Notting Hill Gate it doesn’t take long to get there. However, it’s much more relaxing to go there on a sunny Saturday and spend a few hours grazing amongst the stalls. It is fun, busy, colourful and there might be bargains in there somewhere.

Portobello Road sign

Portobello Road sign

I wanted to go and see Portobello Road before the developers moved in, put up rents to drive out the existing tenants and demolished all the rather seedy, elderly wooden buildings that line the street, in favour of high-paying multinational company-owned boutiques.

Some think this would be much more in line with the quality of the borough, to have high class, expensive shopping facilities here, but what a loss to London it would be! In spite of how close it is to the Regency mansions that crowd its environs, Portobello Road will never be a Regent Street.

Portobello Rd street stall

Portobello Rd street stall

Quite apart from being a street market, Portobello Road does have real people living there. This house below, one of the multi-coloured cottages near the top of the street, was where George Orwell lived. He was the anti-authoritarian author of “Animal Farm” and “1984”. The market is remarkable for attracting mostly the English – there are very few tourists.

George Orwell memorial

George Orwell memorial

Portobello Road is described in the literature as the biggest antiques street market in the world. When you step out of the Tube station and stand at the top of the street, there are two rows of buildings down a narrow road absolutely filled with people. It’s quite a sight. Julia, surely the name of the beautiful vendor below, was selling scarves.

 The vendor

The vendor

21Mar/15

TheatreLand

The heart of theatre in London is in Shaftesbury Avenue and the streets immediately off it, including Drury Lane. The area these days is marketed as TheatreLand, and even some of the street signs down Drury Lane have this logo on them.

Drury Lane

Drury Lane

Interestingly, there are TheatreLand signs in Leicester Square – it’s partly justified; Mama Mia is there at the Prince of Wales, and Phantom of the Opera plays in Her Majesty’s in Haymarket, but Leicester Square is more famous for cinema than theatre.

In a place such as this, you also get genuine characters. This chap, below, was just leaving The Dancers Shop on Drury Lane and apart from the garb (including the chain mail skirt) and the hair, he was unusual for the chains and clips attached to every square inch of skin on his face, lips and eyebrows. He gave me a great smile and thoroughly enjoyed the attention he was getting from all sorts of people on the street. A little further down the road, there was a huge sign on the New London Theatre advertising the Blue Man Group.

The Dancing Shop

The Dancing Shop

These stage hands were having a break outside the Theatre Royal off Drury Lane. As I talked with them a huge white bus from France pulled up and about 70 well-dressed late-middle-aged people, having a great time on their London Day Out, climbed down and made for the front door of the theatre.

Stage hands

Stage hands

Shaftsbury Avenue was part of the effort to break up the St Giles slum and it gives access from Oxford Street to Piccadilly Circus. On the junction with Drury Lane there is the grandiose Shaftsbury Theatre. Surely everyone has heard of this. Originally, it played Victorian music hall, vaudeville and melodramas, but as tastes have changed so has the theatre. Inside, it is a small, even intimate theatre with excellent acoustics. It has always been home to musicals and at the moment it is playing Daddy Cool. This view, below, of the theatre is from High Holborn and to get there all you have to do is leave Holborn Circus heading up Holborn, follow the road and stick to the left hand footpath all the way.

Shaftsbury Theatre

Shaftsbury Theatre

Some of the famous theatres in the area include the Old Vic (A Moon for the Misbegotten) the Theatre Royal (The Producers) The London Palladium (Sound of Music) The Adelphi (Evita) The Lyceum (Lion King) the Dominion in Tottenham Court Rd (We will rock you) The Aldwych (Dirty Dancing) and, of course, the Shaftsbury Theatre.

21Mar/15

London Bridge

From Holborn Circus you can walk, in an hour, to and from each of five of London’s bridges across the Thames – Waterloo, Blackfriars, The Millenium Bridge, Southwark and London Bridge. Of them all, London Bridge is the oldest and the most famous.

London Bridge

London Bridge

If you walk across London Bridge from the City side, and then down the steps on the western side (your right) of the south end of the bridge, you will see the Mudlark pub in front of you. Turn around and you will see that the steps you descended are called Nancy’s Steps, because this is where poor Nancy was murdered by Bill Sykes in “Oliver Twist”. Now walk to your left under the bridge and you will see two set of twin rails buried in the road that tell you where the old London Bridge, and the 1831 John Rennie-built London Bridge, used to sit. If you turn round now and walk past the Mudlark there is a little park on your right which has the last stones left in London of Rennie’s bridge.

The last surviving stones of the 1831 London Bridge.

The last surviving stones of the 1831 London Bridge.

On one of those stones is a stainless steel sheet (below) with an etching of the changing profile of London Bridge through all of its last 1000 years.

Evolution of London Bridge.

Evolution of London Bridge.

You will be familiar with the sight of drawings of London Bridge showing heads stuck on long wooden poles. This was Drawbridge Gate, and Sir Thomas More (the Man for All Seasons) was one of the first to be treated in this way after his execution by Henry VIII.

The stretch of the Thames from London Bridge downstream to Tower Bridge is called the Pool of London. The Customs House, Old Billingsgate Market, the Tower, St Katherine’s Dock, all show that this is part of the historic and financial heart of London.

View across the Thames to the City of London.

View across the Thames to the City of London.

The Romans built the first London Bridge across a wide, shallow river with large swamps on the south bank. It was on their main road from Dover to Chester, through Canterbury and St Albans, often referred to as Watling Street and if you are driving along the A5, then you are following that Roman road. The Roman bridge, and the Saxon bridge after it, was wooden and vulnerable to floods and fire. A stone bridge was built in the 1100s and this 600-year old bridge was finally replaced by the bridge Rennie built in 1831. The bridge you see now, 1960s modern, low-slung and looking as though it was lowered from a helicopter in 5 pieces, replaces the 1831 bridge and it was that bridge which was transported, stone by numbered stone, to Arizona – minus the five stones you can see above.

Story of the Old (1831) London Bridge.

Story of the Old (1831) London Bridge.

21Mar/15

Ludgate

I like to go for a walk at lunchtime and recently I have taken to stalking Fleet Street. This rather beautiful statue of Queen Elizabeth I, below, that I found in a little alcove of the church of St Dunstan-in-the-West caught my attention. The carved stone underneath said the statue had been removed from Ludgate and placed here, in Fleet St, in the 1750s. This is the only statue of the queen carved in her lifetime and I have seen the Ermine Portrait of her, in Woburn Abbey, painted at the time of victory over the Spanish Armada, and it seems a good likeness to me.

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Queen Elizabeth I

Ludgate was one of the gates in the old London Wall demolished in the 1760s because it was in the way of City traffic. There is a blue plaque on the wall of St Martins on Ludgate Hill and the gate must have crossed the road there and given entrance to the street leading directly to St Pauls Cathedral. The sight must have been breathtaking; actually, it’s still pretty inspiring.

King Lud

King Lud

Ludgate is named after King Lud, as indeed is the city of London itself. It was named Caerlud (city of Lud in Gaelic) which was corrupted to Caerlindein over time and was Latin-ized to Londinium by the Romans. He was a legendary king in the 70’s BC and was buried on what is now Ludgate Hill. Inside St Dunstan’s is a notice directing you to the three statues of King Lud and his sons, which had been removed from Ludgate when it was demolished. I found them in the church porch immediately below Queen Elizabeth, nicely out of the weather, but still looking fairly hard worn by time.

While we are at St Dunstan’s, cross the road and have a look at its clock. This clock dates from the 1670s and is the first public clock in London to have a minute hand. The two giants that accompany it hit the bells and swivel their heads. Hang around – it’s worth seeing.

St Dunstan's clock

St Dunstan’s clock

You will find the sign indicating the site of the demolished gate, on the wall of St Martin-within-Ludgate on Ludgate Hill, opposite Thameslink City Station

Site of Ludgate demolished 1760

Site of Ludgate demolished 1760

21Mar/15

The Temple

Ever since a very good friend of mine from Waikato University said his family used to be members of the Knights Templar, I have had an interest, and looked out for mentions of them. Now that I am in Holborn, I have found out that this was a hotbed of Templar activity. You’ll have heard of Temple Underground station, downhill from there on the Embankment; the land it sits on, the gardens and the buildings to its north, are all on what was Templar property and are divided into Outer and Inner Temple, each with its own symbol.

The knighthood of the Templars was founded in Jerusalem in the 1100’s and because their headquarters were next to Solomon’s Temple, they named their land and buildings, in London and in Paris, “Temple.” In the 1300s the order was brutally suppressed and in London everything they owned was seized and sold. Since at least the 1600s there have been legal chambers in these buildings. This is now almost exclusively the domain of Legal London.

Temple Church

Temple Church

On most Wednesday lunchtimes there is an organ recital in the Temple Church, just off Fleet St, which attracts the best organists of London and the world.

The Templar knights are shown here doubled up on a horse because they were individually poor, whilst their order was collectively rich and powerful. This statue is on top of the Millennium Monument alongside the Temple Church.

Templar knights

Templar knights

These grounds of the Inner Temple, below, are a popular place for Fleet St workers to relax during their lunchtime. Many of the buildings are Victorian, but the most famous are Elizabethan. After you have had a quiet look through the Temple Church, see if you can talk your way into a tour of the Great Hall. Look for the Temple Fountain because it’s alongside the Hall.

Grounds of the Inner Temple

Grounds of the Inner Temple

This beautifully carved effigy, below, of an “Unknown knight” of the 13th Century is on the floor in the circular area of the Medieval and unique Temple Church, made famous recently by Dan Brown’s book “The DaVinci Code.”

Effigy of an “Unknown knight”

Effigy of an “Unknown knight”

Here are the symbols for the two great inns of court; Inner Temple,  and Middle Temple.

Inner Temple

Inner Temple

Middle Temple

Middle Temple

This is the Hall of Inner Temple. It’s not easy to get inside to have a look around, but occasionally you might be lucky to arrive there on a visitors day; give it go, I’ve heard the interior is a pretty special sight.

Hall of Inner Temple

Hall of Inner Temple

21Mar/15

St Giles In-the-fields

St Giles is called In-the-fields because, like St Martins-in-the-Fields on Trafalgar Square, it was outside the City walls. It must have been a borough in its own right, rather than just a parish, because the street it stands on is called St Giles High Street. One thing I do know; in the 18th and 19th centuries it was the centre of one of the worst slums of London – in a city of slums. The landlords of buildings were allowed to let their rooms by the square foot and by the hour, so they could have a whole collection of people renting space during the daytime and another lot sleeping on those same square feet at night.

If you look up High Holborn, you can see Centrepoint which sits on New Oxford Street, while High Holborn actually swings off to the left. All of that redevelopment was intended to break up the St Giles slum, which was still a festering sore in the early 20th Century.

St Giles-in-the-fields with Centrepoint beyond.

St Giles-in-the-fields with Centrepoint beyond.

John Coleridge Patteson went to New Zealand from here as the first Bishop of Melanesia in the 1860s. He was killed in the Solomon Islands after 10 years in the position and his blood-stained flax blanket hangs in the cathedral in Honiara.

Patteson Memorial

Patteson Memorial

A Tearle family lived in New Compton St in the late 19th Century so you can tell they were very poor; one of them was a taylor’s porter, which I think means he pushed clothes racks around. Nowadays there are few signs of the slum buildings, but the Victorian café, below, on the corner of New Compton Street, gives you a bit of the flavour of the area.

Corner of New Compton St.

Corner of New Compton St.

The drunks, the junkies and the homeless who wander the streets and sleep in the churchyard are the direct descendants of those it has always cared for; the poor and the vulnerable.

The vulnerable, St-Giles-in-the-fields.

The vulnerable, St-Giles-in-the-fields.

Behind the church is a beautiful little garden, called the Phoenix garden, which is loved and cared for entirely by volunteers, like the Copperfield Garden near Union St, where the locals sit and sun themselves in a surprisingly quiet spot and where each plant, bush and tree is chosen from a catalogue of native-only species.

Lunchtime, the Phoenix Garden

Lunchtime, the Phoenix Garden

When you look closely at the blocks of the church, you can see the Victorian grime and soot clinging to the surface, not yet washed away, and still a couple of millimetres thick.

Victorian grime

Victorian grime

This plaque below records a donation by Sir William Cony, who in 1672 gave £50 and asked for the interest from it to be paid “forever” to the poor of the parish, in the form of bread every Sunday, plus eight holy days.

Plaque recording donation by Sir William Cony

Plaque recording donation by Sir William Cony

The rather extravagant memorial to Andrew Marvel, poet and writer. He was good, and I did enjoy his work. You can see here the extent of local affection for him.

Memorial to Andrew Marvel

Memorial to Andrew Marvel

There is also a memorial to John and Charles Wesley, who are remembered as having preached in this church, and used this pulpit below to do so. John Wesley has a statue in the grounds of St Pauls Cathedral and another memorial outside Postmans Park in St Martins le Grand, off Newgate St.

Memorial to John and Charles Wesley

Memorial to John and Charles Wesley

21Mar/15

Temple Bar

I’ve been wondering for a while why there is a Fleet Street sign on the Old Bank of England building, but a there’s a Strand sign on the end of the Royal Courts of Justice, just 20m apart. Somewhere between the two, on a straight piece of road, Fleet St changes its name. I found the reason yesterday; did you notice the Victorian needle monument in the middle of the road, with Queen Victoria and Albert on the base and a griffin on the top? Underneath the griffin, if you walk around the monument, you can read “Temple Bar formerly stood here.”

It was one of the gates to London City – along with Ludgate, Moorgate, Newgate, Aldgate, Cripplegate, Aldersgate, and a couple of others I can’t remember now. The Victorians pulled it down because it was causing traffic jams, but they put a monument in its place because Temple Bar has royal significance. It was reassembled as a grand entrance for the beer baron Sir Henry Meux in Cheshunt, Herts. His wife was a banjo-playing woman often accused of being posh above her humble origins. I often wonder if she was the original Lady Muck. The City of London rediscovered the gate, brought it home, set it up and reopened it in 2004. This is the view you would have seen from the Strand as you were about to enter the City.

Walk down Newgate Street from Holborn Viaduct and near the end turn right into Rose alley, which empties into Paternoster Square. Walk past the London Stock Exchange, through the archway to St Pauls and then look behind you. That is Temple Bar. I think the room at the top was the gate house.

Walk down Newgate Street from Holborn Viaduct and near the end turn right into Rose alley, which empties into Paternoster Square. Walk past the London Stock Exchange, through the archway to St Pauls and then look behind you. That is Temple Bar. I think the room at the top was the gate house.

Word has it that it was designed by Sir Christopher Wren and it is the only surviving gate to the City. The City fathers used to stick the heads of executed prisoners from Newgate prison on spikes over its top, but the custom died out in the 1750s.

Here are the two statues on Temple Bar that you can see as you walk into Paternoster Square from St Pauls Cathedral of Charles I and Charles II. These are the restored originals by John Bushnell.

Charles I

Charles I

Charles II

Charles II

Below is the monument the Victorians left behind in Fleet St to mark where Temple Bar used to stand. You can see Queen Victoria looking out on this side of the monument, and beneath her is the ironwork below; an incredibly detailed relief showing the queen processing to the Opening of Parliament and all the excitement it caused.

Monument to Temple Bar in Fleet St.

Monument to Temple Bar in Fleet St.

On the side of the Fleet St monument that faces the Royal Courts of Justice is a statue of Prince Albert and beneath him is the bas relief below, showing Queen Victoria and Prince Albert on their way to St Pauls. The Royals would have processed from Buckingham Palace down the Strand, so they would have passed through Temple Bar then along Fleet St and up Ludgate Hill to ascend the front steps of St Pauls.

Queen Victoria and Prince Albert going to St Pauls

Queen Victoria and Prince Albert going to St Pauls

The bar may originally have been no more that a chain across the road and got its name from being immediately outside The Temple, and Temple Church. It was never sited on the line of the Roman wall, so it did not accurately mark the boundary, but you had to pass through it to enter the City

Queen Victoria on her way to open Parliament

Queen Victoria on her way to open Parliament

If you go to the Lord Mayor’s Show and stand somewhere near St Paul’s you will see an ancient ritual where the mayor presents his sword to the Queen, or her representative, and she formally hands it back. This practice used to happen at Temple Bar, in which the mayor, on the City side of the bar, would hand over his sword as a sign of loyalty.

While we are talking about the Old Bank of England building in Fleet St, as I did in the first paragraph above, did you know that Sweeney Todd “The demon barber of Fleet St” had his barber and surgeon shop on one side, murdered and butchered his victims in the vaults underneath; and gave the meat to be used in pies sold by his mistress, on the other side?

21Mar/15

Smithfield Garden

London is one of the most beautiful, and powerful cities on Earth with a mixed and fascinating 2000-year history. I work in one small corner of the City, on Holborn Circus, and within a 20min walk I can visit some charming, historical and interesting places. I am going to show you a few of them. I shall measure all distances from Holborn Circus.

In Smithfield Garden, close to the church of St Bartholmew the Great, is a particularly gruesome reminder of what we used to do to protect the State, in this case against Protestantism. In the reign of Queen Mary, Elizabeth’s elder sister, it was the practice to try, and then execute, citizens for their religious beliefs. The method of execution was to tie a group of them to stakes, surround them with bunches of dried sticks, and then set fire to the whole thing. These were referred to as “The fires of Smithfield” and they drew a cheery, noisy crowd. Go down to Smithfield Garden and see the monument to “The martyrs of Smithfield.”

Smithfield martyr's memorial

Smithfield martyr’s memorial

Protestant Alliance memorial

You can see a more extensive list of these unfortunate citizens in the church of St James, Clerkenwell. As you enter the church look for a large black board leaning against a wall on your right. The names in gold on the board are some of the 200 or so people whom Queen Mary executed by burning during the 1550s. The illustration, below, is on a board in the Smithfield meat market.

Exceuting the heretics, Smithfield

Exceuting the heretics, Smithfield

Just 10m away you’ll see the monument to Sir William Wallace who was also executed in Smithfield Garden, this time by being hanged, drawn and quartered. For some time his head was displayed on a pike on London Bridge. Don’t believe the ending of the movie “Braveheart”; this was a horrible torture lasting at least four hours, during which an expert executioner would keep the prisoner alive until the very last.

Sir William Wallace memorial

Sir William Wallace memorial

Henry VIII, below, gave a warrant to St Bartholomew the Less to allow it to be the only church in London to have a hospital as its exclusive parish – and still does. He is standing, using his favoured Holbein pose, in the gate to the church of St Bartholomew the Less, and you wouldn’t know there was a nice little church unless you first of all wondered why Henry is there, and go exploring the short lane behind the gate. In the church are memorials to nurses and surgeons.

Henry VIII outside St Bartholomew the Less

Henry VIII outside St Bartholomew the Less

Nearby is Cloth Fair. Sir John Bettjemen used to live here, and numbers 41 and 42 are said to be the oldest lived-in houses in London, being built close to 1600. In Medieval times, on St Bartholomew’s Day there was a cloth fair associated with healing and miracles in the church of St Bartholomew the Great. All kinds of cloth were traded, but eventually, the stalls of other traders and a large amount of entertainment on offer led to a 2-week party called St Bartholomew Fair. This became so rowdy and even violent, it was finally legislated against in the 1850s and closed down.

Cloth Fair

Smithfield is now just a quiet little backwater with St Bart’s Hospital, a beautiful old church and the silent, Victorian buildings of Smithfield Market. And, of course, a lovely little park and garden called Smithfield Garden with the essential Victorian statue exhorting you to lead the Good Life, and on sunny days, a small crowd of local workers enjoying their lunch.

Lunchtime in Smithfield Garden

Lunchtime in Smithfield Garden

Here is a quirky little place in Smithfield. On the door is written Last Passage, above the door is the street sign East Passage, and the address for the Old Red Cow is Back Passage. The sign on the window says it was one of the earliest Ancient Taverns in Smithfield. Bernard Miles and Peter Ustinov frequented the pub and the landlord’s hot toddy was a secret substance in a ginger wine base. I’ll bet you can’t find it!

Ye Old Red Crow

20Mar/15

Lincoln’s Inn

Lincoln’s Inn is another of the four great Inns of Court that have dominated London for nearly 1000 years. It covers a large area – if you walk into the gate below right in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, you can leave the Inn on Chancery Lane. I couldn’t fit the entire building into one photo. This picture below shows the library part of the main building and just to my right there is the great Hall, which is the dining room and members area. In the grounds is a beautiful, large Regency building containing lots of legal chambers and behind a central lawn, dominated by a fountain and “Keep off the Grass” signs, there is a long five-storey black brick construction called Old Buildings that dates from the 1600s.

To get there from Holborn, turn left up to High Holborn and walk to Pendrells Oak pub. Turn left into a grubby, smelly (guess why) little lane called Gt Turnstile and follow it into a large square with a park in the middle. The park is called Lincoln’s Inn Gardens, and every street around the park is called Lincoln’s Inn Fields…

The Library, Lincoln’s Inn

The Library, Lincoln’s Inn

There is a nice little kiosk in Lincoln’s Inn Gardens where you can eat lunch, or you can walk through this gate, below, into an altogether much more beautiful and luxurious semi-private garden in Lincoln’s Inn itself, where you can eat your lunch from a brown paper bag and imagine you are a wealthy lawyer.

Lincoln’s Inn main gate

Lincoln’s Inn main gate

Lincoln’s Inn has a very nice chapel with an odd feature. This is the first time I have seen a ground-level crypt. The flagstones in the picture below are actually headstones and you can wander about in the crypt and read the stories of mostly Victorian lawyers. During the Blitz a bomb fell in the courtyard and blew out all the windows. Inside the chapel there are memorials and coats-of-arms of the leaders of Lincoln’s Inn. These men were also powerful members of England’s elite.

The crypt, Lincoln’s Inn Chapel

The crypt, Lincoln’s Inn Chapel

I first read John Donne in high school and then studied him at university. I didn’t realise he was a London poet and the chaplain of Lincoln’s Inn, but I did know he was a clergyman, with the same language of passion for his girlfriend as for his religion. A most interesting chap. This tiny piece of stained glass window, below, which would fit into a saucer, is part of his record in the chapel. There is also an evocative portrait and a coat of arms.

John Donne memorial window in the Chapel of Lincolns Inn

John Donne memorial window in the Chapel of Lincolns Inn.

20Mar/15

Justice in London

There are two world-famous landmark buildings in London which represent justice in its two major forms – criminal and civil.

This magnificent building, below, the dome of which you can see from our south-facing windows, is the Central Criminal Court in Old Bailey. People usually call it The Old Bailey. Many, many high profile criminal cases have been tried here from all over Britain, not just London cases. It actually sits on the ground previously occupied by Newgate Prison, which was infamous for hangings and terrible conditions for prisoners. The motto over the main doorway says, “Defend the children of the poor & punish the wrongdoer.” It’s accompanied by a relief of Justice reading a (legal?) tome with two maidens, one with a sword, the other with a mirror. The purpose of the sword is obvious enough but the mirror is for reflection – ie thinking about what we are doing.

Central Criminal Court, Old Bailey

Central Criminal Court, Old Bailey

For major civil cases, such as a celebrity suing a newspaper, a divorce or for appeals, you go to the Royal Courts of Justice in the Strand and this beautiful Victorian Gothic building on the left (the last great Gothic building in London) is where you’ll end up. There are 1000 rooms and 3 ½ miles of corridors. Admission is free and you can wander in and out of the 88 courtrooms very much as you see fit. Since most hearings and trials are public, you can pop in on any one of them, providing there is actually room for you to enter. Look up the list in the central courtyard to see where the most interesting-looking trial is. A half-hour there can be either most entertaining or incredibly boring.

Royal Courts of Justice, Strand

Royal Courts of Justice, Strand

To get to the Old Bailey from Holborn, walk south down Newgate St. To get to the RCJ, go down New Fetter Lane to the end, turn right and walk about 200m. You’ll pass St Dunstan’s and the Old Bank of England on the way. It’s a fascinating walk.