Walking the City of London

Month: September 2017

Jurassic City

Over the years much of the City has been built with, and embellished by, many different types of stone. One of the wonderful features of some of these varieties is their tendency to contain evidence of creatures that lived literally eons ago.

Around 250 million years ago, England was submerged beneath a shallow tropical sea. Punctuated with islands and coral reefs, the scene would have looked something like the Caribbean today – which is not so surprising, given that the land mass was located at a much more southerly point on the globe. As the tiny creatures swimming in the sea died, their shells drifted down to the ocean floor. Over hundreds of thousands of years, this layer of shells built up to many feet deep. In time, about 175million years ago, the land was pushed above sea level, leaving a landscape of river deltas. South-west England was covered in a vast, calm lagoon, super-saturated with the mineral calcium carbonate. Tiny circular deposits of it formed around grains of sand, each of which is termed an oolith. After millions of years, these dots fused together into the limestone we see on our buildings today.

Look closely at the elegant limestone facade of the Guildhall Museum and Art Gallery and you will see a great collection of bivalves – oyster shells from the Jurassic period when dinosaurs really did walk the earth.

There are more bivalves in this contemporary seating at the west end of Cheapside:

As visitors walk up the steps of St Paul’s Cathedral they will rarely look down and see these spectacular fossils in the red limestone. These are orthoceras cephalopods, an ancestor to the squid that lived up to 5oo million years ago. Orthoceras could float by filling the chambers of their shells with air and moved by  squirting jets of sea water. When they died their shells accumulated on the ocean floor which then was covered by sediments and subsequently over the ages transformed into stone.

Steps leading up to the West door of St Paul’s

Image result for Cephalopod

When alive

The rings show its stages of growth

And finally, if you are walking past Pizza Express on the corner of Russia Row and Milk Street, pause for a moment to examine the round dura marble pillars that surround it and you will see a very elegant ammonite cross section.

Pillars containing fossils

Ammonites are probably the most widely known fossil and are another cephalopod. They have an attractive spiral form shell and lived in the sea between 240 and 65 million years ago – becoming extinct along with the dinosaurs.

Ammonite in a pillar outside Pizza Express

If you’d like to read more about limestone, there is a great article by Clive Aslet in the Daily Telegraph online archive from which I have drawn much of the above entitled ‘The Stone that built a country’, 20 March 2007.

City Animals 2

Animals are everywhere in the City and, after some really nice feedback on my previous City Animals blog, I have decided to put together another selection.

First up is this magnificent leaping fox. It appears on the exquisite Grade II listed Art Deco shopfront of the Fox company, who manufactured and repaired umbrellas. Mr Fox opened his first shop in the City in 1868 but this shop dates from 1935. You can still purchase a classy Fox umbrella if you go to their website, but the shop is now a wine bar.

Fox and Company Limited, ‘Recovers’ and ‘Repairs’, 118 London Wall, EC2

It’s easy to understand why lion heads have been chosen to adorn so many late Victorian and early 20th Century buildings. They are fierce, brave, noble, the king of the beasts and, of course, immediately recognisable as a symbol of Great Britain in the heyday of Empire.

Grrrrr …. just look at those teeth and claws. Entrance to Salisbury House, London Wall

Once surrounded by the throbbing printing presses of Fleet Street newspapers, Gough Square is today a quiet haven off the noisy main road. Now known as Dr Johnson’s House, 17 Gough Square was built by one Richard Gough, a City wool merchant, at the end of the seventeenth century. It is the only survivor from a larger development and Dr Johnson lived here from 1748 to 1759 whilst compiling his famous disctionary.

17 Gough Square

Nearby, Johnson’s most famous cat, Hodge, is remembered by this attractive bronze by John Bickley which was unveiled by the Lord Mayor, no less, in 1997. Hodge sits atop a copy of the dictionary and alongside a pair of empty oyster shells. Oysters were very affordable then and Johnson would buy them for Hodge himself. James Boswell, in his Life of Johnson, explained why:

I never shall forget the indulgence with which he treated Hodge, his cat: for whom he himself used to go out and buy oysters, lest the servants having that trouble should take a dislike to the poor creature

People occasionally put coins in the shell for luck and every now and then Hodge is given a smart bow tie of pink lawyers’ ribbon.

‘A very fine cat, a very fine cat indeed’, said Johnson

And from a famous cat to mysterious mice. Nibbling a piece of cheese, they add charm to a building in Philpot Lane off Eastcheap and have been described (rather nicely, I think) as London’s smallest sculpture. Even though they have been repainted they are still a bit hard to find – so I am not saying precisely where they are, and hopefully you will enjoy looking for them. One theory is that the builders in 1862 were pestered by mice who persistently ransacked their lunch packs, so they left this little informal tribute. Another is that they commemorate a man who died during the construction of the nearby Monument to the Great Fire. Mice had eaten his lunch, but he accused a fellow worker by mistake, and fell to his death in the fight that followed. As to the true story behind the little rodents, your guess is as good as mine.

The Philpot Lane mice

And now another cat.

Hanging signs were once a major feature of London’s streets and were encouraged by Charles I in order to help people find their way around at a time when many could not read. Needless to say, they became immensely popular with businesses, and proliferated to such an extent that they posed a threat to life and limb in times of storm and windy weather. When, in 1718, one brought about the collapse of an entire building frontage and killed four people it was obvious something had to be done. Nonetheless but it was not until 1762 that businesses were forced to remove them and fix them to shopfronts instead – just as we see today. The Cat and Fiddle sign in Lombard Street harks back to a tavern of that name but was only erected in 1902, along with other replicas, to celebrate the coronation of Edward VII.

At the sign of the ‘Cat-a-Fiddling’ Lombard Street

And finally, this stunning black horse is part of the 2017 ‘Sculpture in the City’ project. It is at the corner of Bishopsgate and Wormwood Street,

‘The Black Horse’ (2015) by Mark Wallinger

Temple Bar and the banjo-playing Lady

What happened to Temple Bar in the 126 years between when it was demolished in 1878 and its return to the City in 2004?

It once marked the boundary between the City of London and the City of Westminster and now stands proudly at the entrance to the Paternoster Square piazza, alongside St Paul’s Cathedral. It has been nicely spruced up having been relocated from an exile in the countryside, the second move in its history since it was originally erected in Fleet Street in 1672.

The City of London once had seven gates which restricted access and could be closed, or barred, for security or in times of emergency, but only Temple Bar survived into the nineteenth century. It escaped demolition for a number of reasons, including its design being attributed to Sir Christopher Wren and the fact that it was the point at which royal personages were welcomed into the City by the Lord Mayor. It also had the macabre reputation of being the place where the heads and other body parts of executed traitors were displayed before the public. The last two to meet this fate were Francis Townley and George Fletcher who were executed for their part in the 1745 rebellion which aimed to place Bonnie Prince Charlie on the throne.


A contemporary print showing the traitors’ fate – ‘A Crown or a Grave’ was the Rebellion’s motto

The heads of Fletcher and Townley were put on the Bar August 12, 1746. On August 15th Horace Walpole, writing to a friend, says he had just been roaming in the City, and

passed under the new heads on Temple Bar, where people make a trade of letting spy-glasses at a halfpenny a look

A storm in March 1772 finally blew the grisly things off into the street and ‘against the sky no more relics remained of a barbarous and unchristian revenge’.

The room above the street was once used for the more mundane purpose of storing the ledgers of the nearby Child’s bank.

The Child’s Bank ledgers in 1876, two years before the Bar’s demolition

By the 1860s the Bar had become a serious obstruction to traffic, the road needed widening and also room was required for the construction of the Royal Courts of Justice. Demolition was decided upon but fondness for the Bar resulted in it being taken down ‘brick by brick, beam by beam, numbered stone by stone’, and stored in a yard off Farringdon Road until a decision for its re-erection could be reached.

Demolition, above, started on January 2 1878 and was completed just eleven days later. It was replaced by the Temple Bar Memorial and on this monument today is a plaque commemorating the removal of the old Bar – a curtain is being dramatically drawn over it.

Farewell Temple Bar – the Angels of Fortune and Time pull across the curtain

Ten years later, enter Lady Valerie Meux, a beautiful ex-actress and singer who had married Sir Henry Meux of the wealthy brewing family. Sir Henry’s family never accepted her and, I must say, she was a tad eccentric, driving herself around London in a phaeton carriage drawn by a pair of zebras. She took a fancy to Temple Bar and in 1887, her husband having purchased it from the Corporation of London, all 400 tons of it were transported to their house in Theobalds, Hertfordshire.

The historian E V Lucas, who had walked through the arch as a child, was outraged and later wrote in his book A Wanderer in London

The transplantation of the Elgin Marbles from the Parthenon to the British Museum – from dominating the Acropolis and Athens to serving as a source of complexity to Londoners in an overheated gallery in Bloomsbury – is hardly more violent than the transplantation of Temple Bar from Fleet Street and the City’s feet to Hertfordshire and solitude

Lady Meux was delighted with her purchase. At Theobalds it was meticulously reconstructed as a new gateway to the estate and, in the upper chamber, she entertained guests such as Winston Churchill and the Prince of Wales. I love this picture of Lady Meux serenading her husband with her banjo whilst he leans against her chair wearing his tweeds and stout walking boots.

Here she is, more formally, in an 1881 painting by James McNeill Whistler entitled Harmony in Pink and Grey (Frick Collection).

Lady Meux died in 1910 and the Bar remained on the estate, sadly suffering from the effects of the weather and some vandalism.

Fast forward to 1976 and the Temple Bar Trust was established with the intention of returning it to London. This was finally achieved on 10 November 2004 when, in its new location, it was opened by the Lord Mayor.

Temple Bar in its new home

The upper room where Lady Meux entertained – the statues are of Charles I and Charles II

All credit to the Trust, the City of London Corporation and the Livery Companies who put together the funding needed to bring the Bar back to the City – I think it looks terrific.

Also, though, spare a thought for the beautiful, wilful and eccentric Valerie Meux. I think she deserves recognition too – who knows what might have happened to this great building were it not for her intervention.












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